The high cost of Covid-19 stigma on women

While stigma does not discriminate, many women have had to bear the brunt of the exclusion as their relationships are threatened or even destroyed.

Photo credit: File | Shutterstock

What you need to know:

  • The disease has left the world's top scientists, political leaders, and the general population stunned.
  • Confrontations became daily fare in their home as she slowly slipped into depression.

When Naomi Njoki came out of a government forced quarantine at the Kenya Medical Training College, she thought her troubles were over.

The 21-year old's optimism was buoyed by the fact that all the tests conducted at the facility had returned negative and that her quarantine was merely a matter of procedure as she had landed at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) from Italy.

As she would soon find out, her optimism was misplaced. She was now faced with a problem almost as big as having the disease itself- stigmatisation. People were avoiding her like the proverbial plague, making her sink into hopelessness.

Even her best friends stayed away and that rankled Naomi to no end. "I felt like an animal when I came out of the quarantine and the whole world seemed to reject me. I was left wondering how the situation would have been had I been positive," she says.

Ms Wangui Waweru who has been facing stigmatisation after she went into self-isolation after testing Covid-19 positive in May 2020.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

That Covid-19 is a deadly pandemic is in no doubt. The disease has left the world's top scientists, political leaders, and the general population stunned.

Consequently, the government has been literally in our faces with the gospel of maintaining basic hygiene standards to beat the disease as they announce the daily corona roaster.

Pressure on relationships

But what is yet to get enough exposure is the stigma of those who either test positive; or the ones whose family members are affected; or those coming out of quarantine facilities or self-isolation.

While stigma does not discriminate, many women have had to bear the brunt of the exclusion as their relationships are threatened or even destroyed. Neighbours turning against neighbours, family members against family members, and husbands against wives is the new normal as people try to navigate the uncharted waters of Covid-19.

For Nereah Wanjiku, 37, the coronavirus story begins after she suffered a major personal loss and traveled out of the country to try and recover.

She came back just when the government had announced the forced quarantine for returnees. After spending almost 20 days at a quarantine facility, she headed home optimistic that the worst had passed.

She was wrong. Her marriage that had not been the postcard of a perfect union, deteriorated further as her husband accused her of trying to kill him by bringing the virus home. This even though she had tested negative.

Confrontations became daily fare in their home as she slowly slipped into depression. Matters came to a boil one evening when the husband attempted to physically assault her after a quarrel. One of her sons, having had enough of the father's quarrels stood between the two parents and dared the father to lift a finger against the mother.

In anger the man told the son, "I have always suspected you are not my son and today you have proved it." Nereah says the look of pain in her son's face is one she will never forget. After that, the young man insisted on a DNA test and both father and son were tested. The results showed the husband as 99.7 percent of the biological father.

Fear, ignorance and underlying relationship issues are fuelling the shunning of those affected by Covid-19.

Photo credit: Nation Media Group

"I can see that their relationship is irredeemably broken and my son spends most of the time sitting alone and quiet. I don't know what is going through his mind and my attempts to have him see a counselor have been rejected," Nereah says.

The shadow pandemic

In what is now referred to as the shadow pandemic, Gender-based violence has risen, as Covid-19 restricts people to their homes and cut out means of livelihoods.

Psychologist Gladys Mwiti says fissures in a marriage are fertile ground for perpetuating stigma. "When people who have issues in their marriage find an opportunity to stigmatise the other partner they go ahead and do it," she says.

She points out that ignorance was a big factor in the stigma around the disease.

Bernice Wairimu has also experienced stigma from people she thought had her back.

When she came back home from Europe and was taken straight to a quarantine where she spent 40 days, her neighbours shunned her. "I couldn't believe that my neighbours, people I had treated like family, who in the past often came to get gifts from abroad would now reject me," the 58-year-old says.

"Apart from my adult daughter who would pass by with my grandchildren, I was a lonely woman who cried her heart out each night. I did not understand why my neighbours and friends would turn their backs on me when I needed them the most. I felt unwanted and I had no one to share my problems with," she says.

"I only wish people would be more considerate even when one is positive. We should learn to love and embrace them because the stigmatisation they go through does not bode well for their recovery and general wellbeing," an emotional Bernice, says.

There was the sad case of Wangui Waweru from Nakuru who went through hell at the hands of family and neighbours after a Covid-19 scare. Wangui, a snail farmer later said her troubles began when she met with two clients in March. A short while later, two of the clients tested positive for the virus and were taken for quarantine at the Mbagathi Hospital in Nairobi.

"I had a meeting with my clients and after five days I realised that the two were isolated at Mbagathi. I became unwell developed a sore throat, I was vomiting, and was advised to self-isolate… I was in my house for weeks but I was still unwell, I called the hospital and they came for me with an ambulance," Wangui was quoted telling Citizen TV.

She stayed at the Nakuru Level 5 hospital and tests are done showed that she was free of the disease, but this did little to pacify her tormentors. To them, the fact that she went to the hospital was enough proof that she was infected. They began shunning her and even plotted to burn down her snail farm.

Fear and ignorance

The stigma goes beyond social status if the treatment of the University of Nairobi don, Dr. Ken Ouko, widow, Grace, at his burial was anything to go by. The don succumbed to Covid-19 and overenthusiastic health workers from Homa Bay County ensured that she addressed the mourners while perched on the hearse inside the car, an act that drew widespread condemnation on the need to end stigma.

Consulting psychiatrist Dr. Alphonse Nabiswa of Aga Khan University Hospital says a lot of education is still needed around the disease. "Most of the time people stigmatise out of the fear that they might contract the same disease. It also has a lot to do with ignorance. We need to tell people that those infected need our empathy and not ostracisation," he says.

Parallel with HIV

Veteran journalists Argwings Odera and Mugo Theuri who covered HIV/Aids from its outbreak draw a parallel on discrimination on the two diseases. "We are selling fear. The messages say Corona is a death sentence just like we did with HIV. This fuels stigma," Odera says.

Odera is the scribe who broke the story of Joe Muriuki the brave man who was the first Kenyan to go public with his HIV positive status.

Immediately the story ran, Odera says, life turned upside down for the Muriukis. "I found the family isolated in their Umoja city council house. My news feature only helped to ratchet up their stigmatisation by people close to the family. Not long after my story, Jane, Mr. Muriuki's wife was forced out of her teaching job because parents did not want her near their children. Mr. Muriuki was also being pushed out of his city council job," Odera says.

Just like in the 1980s HIV/Aids pandemic, those infected with Coronavirus have to contend with stigma that can run right from the family, the society, and even the government.

Popular musician and radio presenter Gidi Gidi who recently tested positive for Covid-19 says that the support he received from his employer, friends, and family proved very crucial in his handling of the situation. He has since tested negative.

"What I have learnt with corona is that it's manageable. Let's stop the fear and stigma around it. Stigma is probably causing more harm to innocent lives. Stop those dramas during burials of COVID victims, it is just creating more fear for nothing. Let's demystify it, one can get through it within two weeks.... but let's protect the elderly and people with underlying conditions," the 'Unbwogable' hitmaker, says.

Naomi Njoki who was shunned after coming out of quarantine.

Photo credit: Pool | Nation Media Group

My friends deserted me after isolation

“I felt like an animal when I came out of quarantine and the whole world seemed to reject me. I had not even tested positive for Covid-19 and I was left wondering how the situation would have been had I been positive.

It still pains me to date that even a girl I considered my closest friend, someone I grew up with, told me on the phone that she could not come to see me because she feared I might infect her.

It was devastating.  Having been in Italy as the Covid-19 infections and deaths reached their zenith, I was too aware of the horrors of the disease and this continued playing on mind even as I was in the government imposed quarantine I had been forced into when I arrived back home.

As the situation deteriorated in Italy, I told my boyfriend and his family that I wanted to come back to Kenya, a request they agreed to. It was a tough decision considering that I had gotten a part time job even as I enrolled for my degree studies.

On leaving the isolation facility, I came face to face with stigma. Although my mom was welcoming, she nonetheless made life uncomfortable with her Covid-19 related jokes. I am sure she was well meaning but the jokes hurt still the same.

Trying to fit back into society was very hard. I remember having panic attacks which began in quarantine. I would feel myself running out of breath and would be convinced that I was infected.

You could not even cough in front of people lest you be judged to be Covid-19 positive. It was even worse if for some reason you felt nauseous and wanted to vomit.

I have forgiven all the people who shunned me because I want to concentrate on my future. My job offer in Italy is still open and I can’t risk staying in Kenya much longer because the employer might be forced to get someone readily available over there.

I believe soon we will get a vaccine or even a cure for this disease and people will not have to live in the current fear.”