The coronavirus disease (Covid-19), previously viewed as an ailment affecting ‘other’ people ‘out there’ is now in Kenya.
Since the first case was confirmed last week, the country has been in a frenzy, with many panicking and fearing the worst.
A major driving force for the fear is the rumour mill or misinformation about the disease that is spreading on social media, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) has termed as an ‘infodemic.’
According to the health body, 80 percent of infections caused by Covid-19 are generally mild and asymptomatic (presenting no symptoms).
The death rate from the disease among those that get severe infection is between three and four percent.
Despite the high survival rates for the disease, social media outlets have been awash with information portraying Covid-19 as a death sentence.
“People are saying that it’s the end of the world and it seems like we will all die,” says Mercy, a university student in Nairobi.
Health experts caution that fear driven by such negative perceptions about the ailment, brought about by misinformation, could be detrimental in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We need to be careful about fear as it causes people to behave in ways that may undermine the effectiveness of public health interventions put in place to deal with disease outbreaks,” said Salome Bukachi, a medical anthropologist and lecturer at the University of Nairobi during a recent public awareness forum on the Coronavirus disease.
As a natural response, human beings tend to get into panic mode whenever they are faced with something new that they perceive as a threat such as the current Coronavirus disease.
Psychologists note that as a coping mechanism, those affected may begin playing the blame game.
It becomes much easier for such people to point fingers at others for problems they are facing, than have to deal with a situation they perceive to be helpless about.
This is a diversionary technique that distracts the mind from dealing with stressful situations.
“The problem with panic and fear, is that it drives social stigma which makes it hard to control disease outbreaks,” says Prof Bukachi.
Last month, social media platforms were filled with various remarks targeting Chinese nationals that had jetted into the country from China where the Covid-19 cases were first recorded.
In some instances, it was reported that citizens threatened to evict some of these people from their neighbourhoods.
Last week, when the first Covid-19 case was confirmed in Kenya, there was already ‘talk’ in the street of people avoiding individuals residing in the location where the patient came from. Yet, disease outbreaks know no boundary, race or gender.
Prof Bukachi notes that this kind of harsh treatment can make sick people exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms to shy away from seeking medical attention for fear of being stigmatised.
Instead of self-isolating themselves when sick, they may choose to remain silent and continue interacting with others so as to avoid being viewed as ‘the enemy,’ losing friends or becoming social outcasts.
“Even health workers could become afraid of taking care of infected patients for fear of being stigmatised due to their close contact with the sick,” she states.
The stigma can, therefore, create an environment conducive for the rapid spread of the disease, which will adversely affect the entire Kenyan population.
In the end, everyone will suffer, those stigmatising others as well as those being stigmatised.
Apart from stigma, when people experience a heightened sense of fear, they may use the denial approach to counter their panic.
This has been witnessed before, among patients diagnosed with conditions like HIV or cancer.
Some usually choose to wish away the problem by convincing themselves that doctors are lying or by believing that they have received miraculous healing following spiritual interventions.
Eventually, the patients show up in hospital when the disease has advanced and keeping it under check becomes more expensive or, indeed, it gets out of hand.
In the case of Covid-19 specifically, some people are still questioning the authenticity of the confirmed case in country, as well as those in other nations.
The disease is causing adverse economic, health, social and political impacts in affected nations. No person, organisation or country is benefiting from it.
Health experts are concerned that if this denial persists, it will bar people from taking responsibility and playing their part in curtailing the spread of Covid-19.
Those in denial will continue living life normally while being oblivious to the risks they pose themselves to and others when they ignore prevention strategies like frequent hand washing with soap, sneezing on tissues and disposing of them, as well as isolating oneself and notifying health officials when exhibiting symptoms of the disease.
“To prevent the spread of Covid-19, a lot of the responsibility lies with each one of us. We all need to play our part so we can protect ourselves and others from contracting the disease,” states Marybeth Maritim, an infectious diseases physician.
Health experts say panic and fear exacerbate mental health challenges such as stress, anxiety and depression.
When people are under immense mental strain or stress, their immunity goes down, hence weakening the body’s ability to fight diseases.
A low immunity can increase the severity of Covid-19 and even cause death.
Dr Maritim notes that to reduce fear and panic, the government and other key stakeholders should enhance the flow of consistent, accurate and timely about the disease to the public. “We also need to work with trusted leaders to negotiate for community support in response strategies. Gate-keepers are key to the acceptance of prevention message by members of the community,” states, Prof Bukachi.
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