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When stigma causes more harm than Covid-19


On March 12, Wangui Waweru arrived back home in Lanet, Nakuru, from a workshop in Nairobi. Wangui, who ran a snail farming venture, had been invited to share her experience and best practices with interested farmers.

She says she felt symptoms she feared were similar to those of the new Coronavirus and sought help from Nakuru health officials.

Wangui Waweru feeds her snails.
Wangui Waweru feeds her snails.

The officers referred her to the Rift Valley Provincial General Hospital, where she was examined and advised to self-quarantine for 14 days as a precaution.

However, it wasn’t an easy quarantine session for the mother of three. Rumours of her having contracted the virus spread in her neighbourhood like bushfire, and even after she had later sought further testing and the results turned negative, nobody wanted to associate with her anymore; not even some of her close friends.

Wangui, 35, who now makes assorted items using beads, is just recovering from depression.

Her snail farming venture was destroyed by people who believed she was suffering from Covid-19.

The problem was that she had been picked up by an ambulance for testing. To people in the neighbourhood, that was a confirmation that she had Covid-19.

They approached a local administrator demanding to know her status. She had to hand in a photocopy of her medical report, but that did not re-assure them that she did not have the disease.

Her immediate neighbours would still keep away from her whenever she stepped out to fetch water. Not even shopkeepers would serve her.

The situation forced her to spend most of her time inside the house, feeling terrorised by the whispers.

Then the worst came when people stormed the farm, claiming that the molluscs too, were carrying and spreading Covid-19.

Some claimed it was her frequent travel to meet her clients that contributed to her ailing. She had a ready market among the Asian community.

“Who would associate my snail farm with Covid-19? I am yet to recover from the cruel act of killing the snails. I cannot believe my hard work is all gone,” she says of the business she had started in 2018.

Slowly though, Wangui is recovering from depression and living through the stigma, thanks to the counselling support that health officials arranged for her after her story ran through mainstream media.

Wangui Waweru at her Nakuru home.

Wangui now manages a social media platform through which she encourages other victims of Covid-19 to manage their situations.

“Through counselling and media coverage, I realised that there were dozens of other people being stigmatised and facing rejection,” she says.

“Having been saved from suicidal thoughts, I saw a need of valuing my life and helping those facing similar challenges.”

Wangui is not the only victim of misunderstandings arising from testing positive for Covid-19, first reported in the country on March 13. Many people are hurting in silence. Some are facing outright rejection, others enduring stigma. In some instances, having been quarantined for monitoring is enough to trigger rejection.

Known happiness

*Joyce from Kawangware on the outskirts of Nairobi has not known happiness for the past one month after recovering from Covid-19.

The 26-year-old was also managed at Mbagathi Hospital and later discharged. However, she feels rejected by her family. No member has been in touch with her from the time she was admitted at the hospital.

“Who do you turn to if your own mother and siblings don’t pick your calls? She wonders. “This world can truly be cruel.”

Feeling lonely, Joyce talks to friends to avert stress, and has gone as far as contacting another recovered patient in Nakuru just so that they can walk through the stigma journey together.

Read more about stigma.

Read about Covid-19 treatment breakthrough.



A similar scenario is playing out in *Eva’s life as well. She is being hosted by a friend in Nakuru after her family shunned her.

A resident of KITI Estate, Eva had travelled to Dubai before coronavirus was reported in the country. On her way back, she was informed that her boyfriend had been picked up by health officers and he had tested positive for Covid-19.

She innocently shared the news with her sister. Immediately, the sister informed health officials, who thereafter took her into quarantine.

Her family would later accuse her of having travelled back knowing very well she had the disease.

“Stigma attributed to coronavirus is real,” she says, regretting that her family members have avoided her just because her boyfriend had tested positive.

She says that on several occasions, she has contemplated of committing suicide.

How to deal with devastating stigma.

Close their shops

Musa Ibrahim, a long-distance truck driver, is also disappointed by the treatment he receives from the society. The 37-year old claims that he cannot buy essential commodities from shops while on the road.

“People believe truck drivers have the virus and some just close their shops when you stop your vehicle to buy, for example, water,” he complains.

He says that public sensitisation on coronavirus is necessary to stop the stigma.

WHO on stigma.

He says in Kiswahili: “Inaniuma sana kuona unyanyapaa tunaopitia sisi madereva wa trela (It pains me a lot to witness the stigma we face as truck drivers),”

 Adequate information

As Kenya continues to record more confirmed cases of the disease, the reality of stigma deserves much attention.

Psychiatrist, Prof Lukoye Atwoli, links the stigma to widespread lack of factual and adequate information about the disease at the grassroots, an issue that might be causing more harm to Kenya’s mental health than the disease itself.

Prof Atwoli says it is unfortunate that as a country, the disease is being handled like it is a death sentence.

“Stigma comes about because some people believe that once you get it, you will die. This is not true,” says Prof Lukoye and adds: “We need to stop some of these myths as we fight this disease.”



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