Stigma doing Covid-19 war no favours

South Africans need to realise the danger and toxicity of stigma around the Covid-19 pandemic, the writer says.
South Africans need to realise the danger and toxicity of stigma around the Covid-19 pandemic, the writer says.
Image: Gallo Images / Nardus Engelbrecht

In the early hours of June 6, a 17-year-old boy woke up in his home in Benoni, on the East Rand, after hearing his mother go to the kitchen. Minutes later, he went back to sleep.

Shortly after, he and his father were woken up when they smelled something burning.

His mother, a 48-year-old teacher, had set herself alight in her bedroom, where she had spent eleven days in isolation after testing positive for Covid-19.

Her frantic husband kicked open the door and used a blanket to try to put out the flames engulfing her while their eight-year-old daughter emptied a bucket of water on her mother in a bid to put out the fire.

The woman subsequently died after some time in hospital.

Today we report on her family's painful journey and their decision to hold a symbolic traditional wedding ceremony for the couple who had planned to marry yesterday.

At the centre of the tragic story is societal stigma around Covid-19.

At the time of the incident, her husband told how days leading up to that fateful morning, she had received messages that she said made her feel like she was dying of the infection.

So-called friends and colleagues had allegedly gossiped about her, even on social media, making disparaging remarks that sought to alienate her from their social circles.

There can be no doubt that there is often a combination of factors that trigger and compound the level of distress the woman must have been in.

However, the impact of public ridicule and humiliation would have worn her out emotionally and shattered her will to fight on.

Many South Africans are battling mental illness in various forms, triggered by different situations.

This is why we as a nation need to realise the danger and toxicity of stigma around the Covid-19 pandemic.

We must deliberately guard against perpetuating a culture that seeks to socially isolate and dehumanise others on the basis of their condition.

We must recognise that the most dangerous driver and a reliable ally of Covid-19 or any other disease for that matter is social ignorance.

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