Covid-19 linked stigma hinders pandemic fight

Nakuru businesswoman Wangui Waweru who has been facing stigmatisation after she went into self-isolation speaks to the media at her apartment in Lanet in Nakuru County on May 4, 2020. PHOTO | SAMUEL BAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • What shocked Caroline Wanjeri is the fact that her own family in Naivasha refused to let her or her luggage into the main house.
  • CS Kagwe said the stigma faced in the context of coronavirus was similar to the one initially faced by people with HIV and Aids.

When Caroline Wanjeri arrived from the United Kingdom early March, the Port Health Services at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA), told her that she would have to undergo a two-week mandatory quarantine at a facility to be chosen by the Ministry of Health.

She had no option but to oblige, as this was what all the other travellers had undergone on arrival. With other travellers, they were transported in a National Youth Service (NYS) vehicle to Pride Inn Hotel in Nairobi, where she stayed for six days before requesting to be transferred to a cheaper hotel.

“After the quarantine period was over, I called my closest friend in Nairobi to come to the hotel and pick me up, since I had lots of luggage but she blatantly refused,” Ms Wanjeri says.

She adds: “She told me that she has young children and getting in contact with me, would be very risky for her. I tried explaining to her that I had been cleared by the ministry as Covid-19 free, but she refused and told me she did not want to take chances. I understood her fears.”

What shocked her, however, is the fact that her own family in Naivasha refused to let her or her luggage into the main house.

“By the time I arrived, my family had cleared the servant’s quarter that my mum uses as a maize store. They had taken my bed there and told me I had to stay there for two more weeks. It is somewhat cold, lonely and just boring, but I preferred staying there than being locked in the UK,” she says.

She says although they gave the rules with a tinge of amusement, they were very serious.

“It was a bad experience. I remember borrowing a phone charger from my brother. Four days later, and he never came for it. The househelp could bring me food, but did not collect the utensils so they piled up for 10 days. I could just wash them and keep them. No one wanted to touch what I had touched, and it made me feel really bad, but I understood their fears,” Ms Wanjeri says.
Wanjeri says she felt alienated by everyone, including her friends, who did not pick her calls.

“I think they thought I would as usual, ask them for a meeting over lunch or coffee,” she said, adding that her condition stressed her.

The 38-year-old says the manner in which she was treated by her family and friends amounts to stigma, which she says, affects most people who have been quarantined after arrival from a foreign county.


Ms Wangui Waweru; another woman who lives in Lanet, Nakuru, had her snail business destroyed by her neighbours after a Nakuru County ambulance picked her from her home, days after she had arrived from a business meeting in Nairobi.

“I personally called the vehicle to take me to hospital after completing my 14 day self-isolation, because I wanted to go test for the virus,” she said adding that judging from her experience, stigma could plunge people into depression.

But her neighbours could not take any of that. They sprinkled salt into the snail cages killing the entire brood. They claimed that her business with the Chinese people could bring the virus home.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines social stigma as the negative association between a person or group of people who share certain characteristics.

In an outbreak, WHO says, this may mean people are labelled, stereotyped, discriminated against, treated separately, and/or experience loss of status because of a perceived link to a disease.
The level of stigma associated with Covid-19, it says, is based on three main factors: it is a new disease with many unknowns, we are often afraid of the unknown, and it is easy to associate that fear with ‘others’.

“It is understandable that there is confusion, anxiety and fear among the public. Unfortunately, these factors are also fuelling harmful stereotypes,” WHO says.

Since the first coronavirus case was reported in the country, the Ministry of Health has been struggling to fight stigma meted out on people of Chinese origin, recent travellers, healthcare workers and emergency responders, people with the disease and their family and those that have been released from quarantine.

Last week, Health Cabinet Secretary (CS) Mutahi Kagwe admitted that the level of stigma against some individuals was high and warned that it was derailing the fight against the virus.

“Stigma is still a major challenge. No one is immune to the virus and no one should be stigmatised because of it,” he said, citing the case of a woman who was removed from a choir, even after fully recovering from the virus.

CS Kagwe said the stigma faced in the context of coronavirus was similar to the one initially faced by people with HIV and Aids.

Stigma, according to psychiatrist Mary Karanja derails the fight against the virus by fuelling social isolation of people, which might in turn, contribute to the spread of the virus than controlling it.

“It can drive people to hide their illness to avoid discrimination. People will stop seeking medical attention for themselves or a family member and this helps the virus in spreading even more,” Dr Karanja says.

To fight stigma, she says, campaigners against the disease, the media and relevant authorities should mind the language they use, while referring to the disease, such as using words like ‘Wuhan Virus, the Chinese virus etc’

Sociologist Halim Shauri says social isolation can be a recipe for low esteem, depression, mental illness and even suicides.

“Social interactions helps people, but when you are told to self-quarantine, you may focus so much on your challenges and this can even be more dangerous,” he added.

Additional report by Samuel Baya