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Celebrate survival, overcome COVID-19 stigma

Christopher
Tufton

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

FOR some Jamaicans, the triumph of recovery from COVID-19 is in jeopardy of being overshadowed by anxiety associated with community reintegration, given the stigma associated with the virus.

What is more, COVID-19 stigma has impacted not only those who have recovered, but also those who are suspected of having the virus, whether because they are known to have travelled or because they exhibit cold or flu-like symptoms.

Now is not the time to stigmatise each other. For one thing, stigma can undermine our public health efforts to contain the spread of the virus and ensure the best possible health outcomes for those affected.

Not only is stigma likely to increase the anxiety over the virus about which information is still emerging, it may also prevent people from reporting any symptoms they may have, thus driving the pandemic underground, while fuelling its spread.

This is the last thing we need as Jamaica begins the slow, careful march to a new normal dictated by the requirements of a COVID-19-managed world — one wherein the actions of everyone counts and for which our population must be prepared.

Now, months into the pandemic, several other societies have also started the ever-so-gentle pushback against the virus that altered life as we knew it, with more people allowed to venture outdoors and businesses reopening their doors.

Here in Jamaica, a part of that pushback must be against stigma, while the Ministry of Health and Wellness and the whole of Government pursue an even more robust public health agenda, as reflected in our health system-strengthening efforts.

These efforts include enhanced active field surveillance; community education and health information; the monitoring of individuals in quarantine and isolation; and infrastructure improvements — from structural upgrades to increased equipment stocks and human resources.

Governments the world over face the monumental task of safeguarding public health while also guarding against economic decline. In addition to deliberately putting an end to stigma, our populations, therefore, have also to live their personal responsibility in health — a mantra we have oft repeated, even in a time before COVID-19.

Personal responsibility in health has never been more important. No Government on its own can mount an effective response to this virus to which we are all susceptible.

Globally, up to the time of my penning this article, close to five million people had contracted the virus and well over 300,000 had died, according to World Health Organization data.

Also helping to make the case for an end to COVID-19 stigma as well as for personal responsibility in the effort to curtail its spread are:

• that it is possible to have COVID-19 and not display symptoms;

• that the only sure way to slow person-to-person transmission is to exercise vigilance in the practice of infection prevention and control measures, including physical distancing, frequent hand-washing, as well as the wearing of masks; and

• that there is no definitive timeline for when the pandemic will end.

Indeed, there is no 'secret sauce', no quick fix for this unprecedented public health challenge, which, as it happens, is also a challenge for the world economy and social life as we have, up to now, known it.

What we do have is the capacity to work together to navigate this public health challenge with its myriad social and economic complexities, complementing our public health interventions with an end to stigma and a clear and consistent demonstration of personal responsibility in health for the good of the whole of society.

 

Christopher Tufton is minister of health and wellness.