The title of a popular reggae song by Rita Marley, ‘Who feels it knows it’, better describes the experience of a 34-year-old woman who has decided to be an ambassador against stigmatisation after recovering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
The woman, Matilda Agamu, who lives in Bolgatanga in the Upper East Region with her family, has been stigmatised by her neighbours and the community since she returned home from the treatment centre, but instead of caving in, she says the experience has rather emboldened her to speak out against stigmatisation and help educate people who usually indulge in that act out of ignorance.
In an interview with the Daily Graphic, Ms Agamu, the first person to have tested positive for the infection in the Upper East Region, said most people stigmatised infected persons because “of the lack of accurate information and knowledge about the situation, which has given rise to such acts”.
Recounting her ordeal in the interview, she said the stigmatisation started the very first day word went around that she had tested positive and been sent to the isolation centre.
“The moment I was sent to the treatment centre, I began receiving calls from neighbours that I should not come back to the community to infect them.
“My niece whom I had instructed to go to the market to man my shop for me was also harassed by my neighbours at the market, who said my shop being opened would drive customers away and so after some few days my niece had to close the shop.
“Back in the village, my parents were also being harassed, but what broke my heart was when my eight-year-old daughter was pelted with stones by her friends because their parents had told them I had contracted the COVID-19. Some of those parents sat and watched as the pelting went on and never reprimanded the culprits,” she recalled.
She said even though she had recovered, people still did not believe that she no longer had the virus and members of the community and market women still stigmatised her and the family, making it difficult for her to move about.
“That was when it hit me and I resolved to react, not negatively but help educate people because they are so ignorant about the disease,” she said.
Ms Agamu intimated that the lack of accurate knowledge and information on the disease among rural communities had been the underlying cause of stigmatisation of COVID-19 patients, especially those who had recovered.
She said the unfortunate situation had created fear and panic among residents of the region and called on stakeholders to help intensify public education to address some of the misconceptions about the pandemic.
A few days ago, she featured in a discussion programme on Word FM, a community radio station based in the Bolgatanga East District, with some officials from the National Commission for Civic Education (NCCE) to complement efforts to sensitise the public to the need to desist from stigmatising COVID-19 patients.
She used that opportunity to further admonish persons who were facing a similar fate to muster courage and trust in God.
“I am not bothered; it is lack of understanding or they are ignorant about the pandemic because education did not reach them properly,” Ms Agamu observed.
According to her, while “some are saying the sickness is not there, others too are saying it is in the system. Even some do not believe that I have tested negative for the COVID-19, but because some community members see some dignitaries coming to my house, some of them are now realising that it is not the way they perceived it”.
Touching on the infection, Ms Agamu indicated that she visited the Upper East Regional Hospital in Bolgatanga with her husband, complaining of sore throat, dry cough, difficulty in swallowing and vomit, which the health workers suspected to be coronavirus and for which reason her samples were taken for testing, which turned out positive.
“The day I was told I’d tested positive for the virus, I was not worried, but the way and manner my results went out and the public were talking about it surprised me. I asked: ‘how did they know?’ because it was supposed to be kept a secret,” she lamented.
Stigmatisation is criminal
The Upper East Regional Director of the NCCE, Mr Pontius Pilate Baba Apaabey, for his part, said stigmatisation was equivalent to murder and gross violation of basic human rights and, therefore, the public must desist from it.
He indicated that continuous stigmatisation of persons who had tested positive for the virus or recovered from it would not only hinder the fight against the spread of the virus but also make victims feel rejected, which could kill them softly.
He, therefore, called on the citizenry to desist from the practice and join the efforts to combat the spread of the virus.