Years later, Covid-19 survivors in Gulu still face public stigma

(Last Updated On: 25 July 2023)

Gulu I On Monday, July 24 at 11:00 am, Denis Newton Bongomin emerges from his grass-thatched house in Pudyek cell, Pawel central ward, Laroo-Pece Division in Gulu City to TND News Lil Okot Romeo.

Clad in a white vest and black trouser, the 39-year-old carpenter flashes a smile as he welcomes Lil into his compound before giving him a seat on the veranda.

Bongomin was a successful businessman running his carpentry shop in Layibi Ward, about six kilometres away from his home when he tested positive for Coronavirus (Covid-19).

It all began with fever and later loss of breath, according to Bongomin but when he decided to take a Covid-19 test from Gulu University laboratory two years ago, his fears were confirmed when the test results returned positive.

“I thought there was no Coronavirus and that it was a joke,” he tells me. “My first symptom was fever which I treated with local herbs. After a week, signs of fever emerged and other symptoms like malaria. Unfortunately, the herbs did not heal me,” he adds.

Bongomin says it was until he started losing his breath that he took time and rushed to the nearby clinic where he was referred to Gulu University laboratory for a test that turned positive for Covid-19,

The medics, he says recommended he undergo self-care isolation from his home for two months. This was a test for Bongomin who had to risk his own children’s lives by sharing the same room.

He, however, says the news of his positive test spread within the community like wildfire “People started stigmatizing me and his family members.”

Although Bongomin healed from the virus two months later, he still faced a public stigma from some community members who wouldn’t want to associate freely with him, believing he would infect them.

“Even children at the time would openly talk about my Covid-19 experience without fear,” he recounts.

Two years after his full recovery, Bongomin has found himself still in the same situation of public stigma.

“At the moment, if I disagree with a colleague or neighbour, they try to find a way of mentioning something about my Covid-19 admission in the past. My children are facing the same dilemma,” Bongomin tells our correspondent in an interview.

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The Covid-19 survivor now appeals to the government to offer psychological support to persons who survived Covid-19 and sensitize the community on the need to embrace those who have since healed.

Bongomin isn’t the only Covid-19 survivor facing stigma, years after healing from the deadly viral disease.

Florence Awilo is a Covid-19 survivor in Gulu City. Photo by Okot Lil Romeo/TND News.

Florence Awilo, 56, a resident of Kati Kati cell, Alokolum cell in Bardege-Layibi in Gulu City, shares a similar plight.

In 2021, Awilo tested positive for Covid-19 from St Mary’s Hospital Lacor and was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for ten hours before being released to attend home care treatment. She had complications of pressure, and diabetes which deteriorated her health.

However, while at home, Awilo tells TND News that her husband, including a tenant, left her at home in fear that she would infect them with Covid-19. Her daughter was the one who took care of her for the six weeks that she underwent treatment.

Her health further deteriorated after taking a Covid-19 jab, she says, adding that she was forced to close down her restaurant business which helped to supplement their household income.

Currently, Awilo is facing community stigmatisation. Many still don’t want to closely associate with her given the fact that she is weak.

Freddy Odong, a psychiatrist explains that the impact of social stigma is detrimental to the health of patients who have recovered from a particular illness.

He said such stigma leads to physical deterioration, distress, and depression which later affects the productivity of the victims and consequently affects their mental health.

“Someone who is being stigmatized usually has a lot of fear to associate with others because they feel like they will be a burden to others or that the problems they have can easily also affect others. To avoid that, they usually keep themselves away to associate with others,” Odong responded when asked.

Odong clarifies that to address public stigma, there is a need to sensitize community members to have a deeper knowledge about Covid-9 and the resultant effects on those who have recovered.

“Once they are aware, instead of stigmatizing the victims, they will willingly mobilize to support them.”

Covid-19 statistics for Gulu district and Gulu City as of July 24, 2023

Since 2020, available data shows that 115,925 people tested positive. 567,850 tested negative out of 683,775 tests done.

Rebeca Abalo, the Project Officer of Terra Renaissance, a Nongovernmental organization working towards zero tolerance to the stigmatization of Covid-19 survivors, wants many stakeholders should be brought on board to address public stigma.

Juliet Aunu Okeny is the assistant data clerk in charge of HIV/TB. She’s a health worker employed by Nowya district.

According to her, community perception – standing at 74 per cent never had any worry about the Covid-19 outbreak and only, 27 per cent said it was likely to be infected with Covid-19.

16 per cent, she says believed that it would be life-threatening or severe. However, only 11 per cent of the respondents reported for the test in the district.

Mental health pre-Covid

According to a research paper that was published by a BMC psychiatrist in 2006, out of 1,200 adults in Gulu and Amuru districts, more than half of them, 54 per cent and 71 per cent were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Another research survey says more than a third of individuals, 67 per cent had signs of depression, feeling irritable, persistently sad, unnecessarily tired, anxious, and guilty; worthiness and lack of sleep.

Statistic from the mental health unit Gulu shows that the unit receives at least 500 patients monthly and 100 weekly with the majority suffering from drug abuse, Daily Monitor reported a while back.

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