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Stigma spreads alongside COVID-19 in Egypt

Fear of the novel coronavirus pandemic has led to discrimination and even bullying in Egypt.

CAIRO — Most COVID-19 patients experiencing mild to moderate respiratory symptoms recover without the need for any particular treatment, though older people and those with chronic illness are at greater risk. Yet victims of the disease have been stigmatized. Rejection by their communities could hinder the provision of medical care and prevent the disclosure of potential COVID-19 infections, both factors that could increases infection rates. 

Sabreen Mohamed, 46, is a nurse who recovered from COVID-19. She told Al-Monitor, “People have not been merciful. All of my relatives and acquaintances turned away from me. They look at the coronavirus patient as being the epidemic, though it is not a sin to get sick. My son has even lost friends because of it.”

“Although I recovered from the virus, people have changed their attitudes toward us,” she added.

In an April 13 press conference, World Health Organization representative in Egypt John Jabbour said, “Stigma and discrimination against patients and health care workers is a burden on the health care system in addition to the [main] challenges it faces.”

The Health Ministry said April 13 that Egypt’s number of confirmed cases had hit 2,190, including 164 deaths, and that 488 people recovered. The ministry reported April 11 that 30% of the deceased died outside of hospitals, and called on citizens not to delay in reporting COVID-19 infections.

Graduate student Duaa Hosni has experienced coronavirus-like symptoms for 10 days. She told Al-Monitor, “I did not go to the hospital for fear of being bullied like one of my acquaintances when diagnosed with the coronavirus. Patients with COVID-19 are being discriminated against as if they have HIV. I've put myself in self-isolation as much as possible, and only had warm drinks and medications to reduce the fever.”

Hosni added, “The media has only focused on self-isolation and distancing oneself from patients, as if those infected are social outcasts or criminals. It does not stress the importance of personal hygiene or psychological support for patients. Such a reaction is only normal because the illiteracy rate is high here.”

Even doctors are suffering from social stigma. Dr. Dina Magdy, whose job involves the triage of suspected coronavirus cases at a hospital specialized in treating patients with fevers in Ismailia governorate, posted a video to Facebook April 6 recounting that some of her neighbors harassed and insulted her, and even demanded that she leave the house because she works in a hospital with isolation units for fear that she will give them the virus.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Ehab el-Taher, secretary-general of the Egyptian Medical Syndicate, said what Magdy and other doctors have been through is shameful. He said the state has been turning a blind eye to the challenges facing doctors for years. “The social stigma associated with the coronavirus patients and doctors treating this illness is due to misinformation that has circulated in the media and a lack of public awareness. The citizens need to realize that the disease is not a disgrace,” he added.

Not even the deceased are spared. Burying the victims of the virus has become a very difficult task, though the WHO has explained that dead bodies pose very little risk.

On April 11, villagers in Dakahlia governorate tried to stop the burial of a doctor who died from the virus in his hometown, prompted the security forces to fire tear gas. Prosecutor Hamada al-Sawy ordered the arrest of 23 people who were involved in the brawl.

The same occurred in Beheira governorate on April 7, when the security forces dispersed a crowd of villagers who tried to prevent the burial of another COVID-19 victim.

A video that circulated on social media depicting a pickup truck carrying a victim of the virus raised anger among many citizens in the province of Port Said April 2. An ambulance and funeral homes had refused to transport the body for fear of infection. The Port Said governor dismissed the head of the funeral service association.

In light of these events, Egypt’s Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb said in a video posted to Facebook April 12, “All acts of bullying and mockery of the victims of the coronavirus are dangerous and totally unacceptable.”

Grand Mufti of Egypt Shawki Allam said in an April 11 statement, “Refusing to bury the coronavirus victims … has nothing to do with either our religion or ethics and values.”

The Health Ministry issued safety procedures in mid-March to deal with deceased persons infected with COVID-19, and recommended that bodies should be covered in a blanket when transported to the hospital’s morgue from a trolly that can be disinfected and then wrapped in a fluid-resistant bag. It added that the staff performing the procedures should wear full protective gear.

Meanwhile, the ministry is also providing psychological support for citizens through a hotline and Sawt al-Ummah newspaper is running a campaign against the bullying of COVID-19 patients.