In Egypt, the social stigma of Covid-19 is spreading faster than the virus

Many of the recovered – among the poor and privileged, the educated and the illiterate – won’t admit they’ve had coronavirus for fear of being shunned

Ahmed Aboudouh
Wednesday 15 April 2020 12:57 BST
Coronavirus: Most affected countries around the world

Families of British coronavirus victims can’t afford to say goodbye to their loved ones because many of them are strictly forbidden from attending funerals. But although lockdown measures are less strict in Egypt, the families of many Egyptian coronavirus patients who passed away have not been able to bury their bodies without police intervention because of the stigma surrounding the virus.

Last week, a doctor died after contracting Covid-19 from one of her patients. When her family took her body to be buried in her village, in Egypt’s Delta region, they were confronted by hundreds of angry people who tried to stop them. The mob’s defence was that her body could be a source of transmission of coronavirus to their village. The police had to use tear gas to disperse the protest and let the doctor’s body finally rest in peace.

Another doctor complained on Facebook that her neighbours wanted her out of their Cairo bloc of flats once realised she worked at a respiratory hospital. She also had to call the police to convince them she is not a source of coronavirus.

In Egypt, this growing stigma means catching coronavirus could leave a long-lasting impact on the social and economic lives of those who contract it – even if they don’t suffer many of the physical symptoms.

People in Europe were no less ashamed of being subject of judgment and stigmatisation, often with a racial overtone, under previous pandemics. During the most devastating wave of the Black Death in Europe, in 1347, around 1,000 Jewish families along the Rhineland had been expunged after being accused of contaminating the wells and food supplies. The poor were to join the Jews later. Guards and health officials in Milan were instructed to pay repeated visits to the houses of the Jews and the poor to make sure they are being kept clean. Doctors and health workers were among those who had been accused of perpetuating the disease for personal gains.

Of course, this kind of overt discrimination disappeared from Europe long before it faced the coronavirus pandemic, but stigma is now flourishing in a different way: Asians in the West are taking the brunt of racism prompted by the pandemic due to the original coronavirus source being China. By insisting on calling it the “Chinese virus”, Donald Trump is doing his bit to spread stigma and racism at greater speed than his own administration’s ability to contain Covid-19 across the US.

But much of the Covid-19 stigma in Egypt, and the whole Middle East, is positively medieval. Many of the recovered – among the poor and privileged, the educated and the illiterate – are shying away from admitting they’ve had the virus. They are convinced such a dangerous revelation could result in them and their families being shunned.

The Egyptian villagers who denied a doctor a burial in their local graveyard – and those who did the same in a number of Tunisian cities – stand accused of being victims to ignorance about the nature of the virus and the widespread panic around it – a flaw which is perhaps understandable. “This is absolutely normal in times of pandemics,” explained Khaled Fahmy, professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge. “In dealing with novel viruses, we all simply become ignorant, because we don’t know enough about it, and we all become scared because it is a killer.”

But widespread ignorance during a pandemic is a governance and communications problem too. The government in Egypt has offered no clear or sustaining message to the public. The media stunts they perform are widely seen by experts as being bumptious – robotic briefings that lack any sign of sympathy or indeed any vital information about the virus and the national efforts being made to contain it.

As the Egyptian media is fully controlled by Abdelfattah al-Sisi’s government, most journalists don’t have the slightest chance to hold leaders accountable or question the hollow strategy being presented. Over the last 30 years, the Egyptian media mastered the art of public health campaigns, warning citizens about the risks and transmission of hepatitis C, poliomyelitis and bilharzia – but then the Egyptian media was never previously operating under such strict suppression and censorship.

Suspicion over government competence, and hidden agendas, is nothing new in Egypt. During the country’s cholera epidemic of 1841, the fear of being taken to isolation prompted some citizens to hide their infected relatives in their homes – sometimes until death.

Stigma is a symptom of the government’s failure to convey its message and, more importantly, it is a reminder as to how urgently we need socio-psychologists now. They must work as hard as virologists in the fight to find a “vaccine” for social stigma.

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