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Experts call for better mechanism as ‘DO NOT VISIT’ posters trigger COVID stigma in Kashmir

Srinagar:  A 49-year-old man hailing from the old city tested positive last month. He was hospitalized and discharged after testing negative. When he returned home, he faced a vindictive treatment at the hands of his own family.

“Nobody wanted to interact much with him after he came back home. His family blamed him for the indifference from their neighbours because of his coronavirus tag. It hurt him so much that he attempted suicide. He had gulped down multiple sleeping pills after which, he was rushed to the hospital,” said a senior psychiatrist at Government Psychiatric Hospital, Rainawari, who is presently treating him for depression.


Similarly, last week, a 35-year-old man from the civil lines contracted the virus from his wife.  “I developed fever, cough, and body ache after my wife tested positive but I refused to go for testing. I knew I would also test positive so I isolated myself in the room,” he said.

Fearing social stigma, the man did not seek help nor discussed symptoms with anyone. “Neither do I trust the health response system nor the community – who will label a coronavirus mark on me and put me down,” he said.

These are not isolated cases in Kashmir. To prevent the spread of coronavirus, the administration has started putting up ‘don’t visit’ posters outside the residences of COVID positive cases.  However, the posters have sparked unwarranted behaviour towards health workers, infected persons and their families, or anyone with even a sliver of connection to the disease.

Dr. Aftab Rather, lecturer of sociology at Government Degree College, Shopian pointed out that installing signboards is adding to the stigmatization.

“Any strategy needs to be long term, broad-based and transparent, with key public figures who can help the administration communicate this daily. Unless the government can help people understand the disease itself, telling them not to be anxious about it is futile. Further, it needs to drive home the point that stigmatizing people and communities will not help,” he said.

Dr. Aftab stressed the need to move from the language of fear and paranoia to that of empathy. “We can stop using terms such as `infected’ and `carrier’ and switch to `affected’ or `acquired’.  This reminds people that patients and those at risk are people just like us,” he said.

Associate Professor, Department of Social Work, University of Kashmir Dr. Waqar Amin said the posters will only stigmatize the families. “It brings double stigma– one being a positive and other a positive family. It puts a lot of pressure on families who require social support and care. We are stigmatizing them as if they are untouchables,” he said.

Dr. Amin noted that the authorities could have used local community leaders to provide some effective mechanisms which are socially relevant and acceptable and do not affect the mental health of families and patients.

“Solution lies in our understanding and information. We need to frame our policy in such a way that it works on two sides. On one side, it should work on awareness generation campaigns among masses to make them realize the effect of COVID on health. On the other side, we need to project success stories of recovered patients and prominent personalities affected by COVID so that people understand,” he said.

Dr. Mudasir Firdosi, a Kashmiri Psychiatrist based in London, said it seems many people are hiding their symptoms due to stigma and fear of consequences to their loved ones as the state policy still is in shambles.

“At the same time, if the home quarantine is used, there is no mechanism to stop neighbours and guests from visiting the place as is evident. Hence there is justification to use signs as it may deter people to visit those who may be positive,” he said.

Dr. Mudasir noted that unfortunately, people seem to be still visiting each other in a false belief the next person cannot be positive which is dangerous and often the cause of community transmission.

Similarly, Dr. Yasir H Rather, Associate Professor.psychiatry department, IMHANS said quarantine is a trauma-inducing experience.

“It induces anxiety, boredom, uncertainty, and social stigma. However, keeping asymptomatic patients under home quarantine is better than community or hospital-based quarantine,” Dr. Yasir said.

He said that if the authorities are imposing strict restrictions on the movement of people under quarantine, it’s because people are not cooperating.

“They tweak the rules according to their convenience. The need of the hour is people understanding how important following the quarantine rules are. Whether symptomatic or asymptomatic, self-isolation is a mandate. Not just for us but also to save others around. It’s a collective responsibility,” he said.

Waseem Kakroo, Mental Health Therapist, IMHANS said installing signboards is an effective way to keep people away from such homes.

“However, it surely at the same time can have some unwanted consequences. One of them being that it may invite stigma about such people. But since it is a community problem it may not be stigmatized at that level. At the same time we should try to build empathy in the minds of people about the patient suffering from COVID 19 infections,” he said.