Rumours, blame put us all at risk during COVID-19.
- EFN Staff | April 22, 2020
Every week, we will hear about COVID-19 from the Medical Health Officers for First Nations in Saskatchewan. This week features a column from Dr. Ibrahim Khan from First Nations and Inuit Health Branch.
Right now, my biggest concern is not a person with COVID-19 in your community. Instead, my biggest concern is a person with COVID-19 who does not come forward for testing. I am worried that stigma (rumours, suspicion, and blame) will make community testing ineffective. Stigma puts us all at risk.
Let’s meet Sam. Sam and their community are fictional but their story is not. Real people and real communities have experienced this after outbreaks of COVID-19, SARS, HIV, and tuberculosis.
Twenty-four-year-old Sam experiences fever and a cough. They consider calling the clinic for a COVID-19 test, but Sam worries someone might see them out coughing. Last week Sam’s cousin had a cold and then saw Facebook posts that they had COVID-19 on social media.
Sam decides to skip the test. Sam thinks, “I followed the rules. There are check-stops to keep the virus out. I’m probably more likely to get sick from the test anyways.”
Five days later, Sam’s parents and several others in the community test positive for COVID-19.
Sam’s mom has medical conditions and now needs hospital care. Some people think Sam’s mom “brought the virus in” because she is the sickest. She travels to an urban hospital alone. She is afraid and upset as she reads her text messages: “don’t come home,” “this is your fault,” “you should get charged for this”.
Public health workers are very worried. The virus is spreading. Some sick people won’t get a test because they’re afraid of how they will be treated if it’s positive.
Let’s pause this story. I truly hope this never happens in your community. But this could happen. It has happened to others.
I understand how frightening this pandemic is. I understand wanting to keep the virus out and to protect yourself and your family. Please do not let fear and suspicion prevail over confidentiality and compassion.
The difficult truth: there is no way to keep COVID-19 out of every community forever. Not anywhere in the world. No person is to blame for this: blame the virus.
The good news? We can reduce the risk a lot through physical distancing, check stops, policing and self-isolation. These are working very well for us but are not 100% effective all the time.
Keeping COVID-19 out is like trying to go the entire summer without a fly in your house. No matter how many screens you put up, this would be almost impossible. Eventually, someone is going to need a fly swatter (or a rolled-up issue of Eagle Feather News).
Testing is our “coronavirus fly swatter.”
That’s why people can’t think they’ll be blamed, bullied or shamed if they contract COVID-19. If people feel ashamed of their illness, they’ll hide it. They’ll hesitate on testing. With COVID-19, testing delays mean more cases. They can mean more deaths. Promoting compassion and protecting confidentiality saves lives. Maybe you or someone you love.
How? Let’s check in with Sam again.
Sam’s community members and leaders keep a compassionate and positive tone. They are proud of their efforts to prepare for COVID-19. Sam’s mom is not afraid of testing so she nags Sam to get tested.
The clinic staff is discreet and the test is easy. Sam’s family goes into self-isolation. Aunties drop off the soup. They all watch Tiger King on Netflix. They argue over all the cleaning.
A nurse checks in with Sam’s mom every day and Sam’s mom mercifully avoids a hospital stay.
Public health staff search for Sam’s contacts. Sam’s friend Jody, who works road security, tests positive for COVID-19 but has no symptoms. Public health determines Jody is the likely source of the outbreak. Jody had no idea they caught the virus from a gas pump. Sam caught COVID-19 off Jody’s phone when they passed it to see “a deadly picture of a moose.”
Jody and two other staff went into isolation until they were well. There were no more cases in this community for a long time.
Compassion, care, and resilience makes everyone safer. Stay positive. Call out rumours. If you have symptoms or think you’ve been exposed to COVID-19, call a health professional or Healthline (811).