Teacher sets herself on fire over stigma of Covid-19

The 48-year-old woman had been in isolation after testing positive for Covid-19.
The 48-year-old woman had been in isolation after testing positive for Covid-19.
Image: 123RF

A school principal whose wife attempted to commit suicide because of Covid-19 depression plans to embark on community education campaigns aimed at de-stigmatising people infected by the virus.

Speaking to Sowetan from his Benoni home in Ekurhuleni on Tuesday, the 51-year-old whose name is being withheld to protect their children, battled to save his 48-year-old wife from the flames engulfing her isolation room at their house.

"It was day 11 [June 6] of her being in quarantine at home. After all the support and medication we had given her, we did not realise she was losing it."

He said his wife woke up that morning at around 4am and went to the kitchen while everybody in the house was still asleep. He and their 17-year-old son woke up to check if she was fine before they went back to bed.

"After a while we realised there was something burning. I ran to her isolation room. It was locked. I broke the door open and found her in flames.

"I immediately took a blanket and tried to put out the fire until my brave eight-year-old child ran to fetch a bucket of water which she emptied on her mom in an attempt to rescue her."

While waiting for paramedics, the principal said he tried to calm his wife down.

"She was painfully sobbing. She got up and took a heater and held it tight. I ran again and removed it from her. She was hallucinating, my heart broke and I felt so helpless.

"I held her and watched her till the paramedic arrived and rushed her to hospital."

He said his wife tested positive for the virus two weeks ago after coming back from a meeting at a school in Daveyton where she is a teacher.

"It was on May 26 when she came back sick from work and we thought it was flu. She went to the doctors before she tested positive the next day."

The principal said the wife did not display any further symptoms of the virus while in isolation.

"She would go for walks in the morning with her mask on around the yard while we cleaned and disinfected her room and sanitised everything in it. She appeared very well although she was panicking about her status.

"I assured her but I was not aware that she was being depressed from receiving messages on social media from friends and colleagues."

He said she complained about being sent messages that made her feel like she was dying. She also complained about gossip that came from colleagues and friends.

"I am a school principal. I felt the pain seeing the lack of education in our people on the pandemic. It made me realise that there was a great need to address the stigma in our society and for people to understand that words have power to destroy a person," he said.

He also said he took his wife's phone and blocked all her social media applications.

"I have a strong character and I can stay positive when faced with difficulties but after looking at her cry, I had to ask myself, 'how would I react if I tested positive for the virus?'"

He said his wife did not take the news well.

On Monday, doctors confirmed his wife was now negative. "Now we focus on her journey to recovery on her burn wounds," he said.

A family friend said the principal also went into quarantine and has - together with his children - twice tested negative.

Patients need unequivocal support'

Psychologist Dr Penelope Mlangeni says stigma is a challenge to any circumstance."

Diagnosis is not received the same way by patients and sometimes lack of support and visits can make one feel lonely and lead to depression," she said.

Mlangeni said positive messages could have an impact on giving hope to someone in isolation.

"People need to understand that having Covid-19 does not mean you're dying or is the end of your life. There's life after isolation and family members need to make patients look forward to completing the programme.

"Someone might be rejoicing that you're infected, but you need to overcome that by proving them wrong.

"Social bullying can happen, but when you have the support of your loved ones you stay positive in thinking."

"The last thing a person needs when they are dealing with shock is questions and negative comments that they cannot answer to."

Mlangeni said families need to dig deeper and find out what was causing frustration in patients.

"The best thing to do is to get counselling immediately. Pastoral counselling is also good as long as the individual can also get an ear to listen if services of a psychologist are unavailable at that time."

Would you like to comment on this article?
Register (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.