The Health Ministry had appointed a committee to look into COVID-19 related deaths occurring at homes, rather than in hospitals in October. The ministry was prompted to take step subsequent to repeated reports of deaths of COVID-19 patients at their homes, especially in Colombo.
This is a scenario that has been evident during the second wave of the pandemic in Sri Lanka. Not a single incident of that sort was reported during the first wave. However, two months have passed since the appointment of the committee without any outcome of the probe on the matter being heard.
In the meantime, health officials have been pleading the patients and possible patients suffering from non-communicable diseases to go to hospitals for treatment without languishing at their residences for the fear of COVID-19, as safety of patients and those who are taking them to hospitals has been ensured. Thus a link between the deaths at home and fear of a section of patients to approach hospitals could be construed.
The novel coronavirus has created a fear psychosis among the people, despite its mortality rate being far below than other epidemics. In Sri Lanka, the death rate is 0.0048%, whereas the global average is 0.021%. Nevertheless, the rapidity that the pandemic invades into communities has instilled fear in the minds of people, as the number of deaths rises sharply with the acceleration of the stride of the disease in the society. The fear of contracting the virus could be attributed to the hesitation by the people to venture out to get treatment from hospitals.
The behaviour of some of the health officials too seems to have catalytic effect on the fear disproportionate to the threat of COVID-19 among the masses. It is obvious that it is they who take the media along with them when they go out for contact-tracing or take infected people to hospitals and contact persons to quarantine centres. While advising the masses on one-metre physical distance between each other, they give advice to the patients and contact persons from 10 to 15 metres away from the affected people’s houses, as if the virus could be airborne, while the TV cameras are focused on them.
The embarrassment suffered by the patients or the contact persons and their families are visibly written on their faces. Sometimes the officials treat them as if policemen questioning suspects. On top of all these, they stick a notice on the wall or the gate of the patient or the contact person which is justifiable and inevitable. The whole scenario is stigmatizing the victim, in spite of the same health officials advising the masses not to stigmatize those who had fallen victim to the pandemic.
The media completes this stigmatizing process sometimes creatively and in a malicious manner. Knowing well that the fully blurred visuals do not make sense in their news bulletins, they telecast partly blurred houses and victims who could be identified even by those living outside the area, if the victims are known to them before. Though in rare cases, the personal issues between certain correspondents and people of certain localities worsen the situation. This media behaviour compelled former Army Commander Mahesh Senanayake to prevent the army from taking or informing the media when they go out for an operation, subsequent to the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks.
Moreover, safari jeep drivers on Sunday accused the army for taking them for quarantine without prior notice, after they took a group of Ukrainian tourists in to the Yala National Park. They alleged that they were not even allowed to take one or two extra clothes for the use during the quarantine period. The parents of the 20-day old infant, who is said to have died of COVID-19, alleged that the hospital authorities had refused to show the baby’s body to them. Isn’t the precaution in these instances disproportionate to the possible threat? Safety is one, panic is another.
Thus the fear among people is twofold. One is the pandemic is deadly and on the other hand stigmatization is inevitable, if one contracted the virus or contacted an infected person. Besides, the fear of possible unfair treatment by the authorities is also haunting. The feeling of deprivation of being with one’s loved ones at the final moment of the former or latter is unimaginably and extremely shocking.
Another ghastly embarrassment is awaiting the Muslim community in the form of cremation of their loved ones who had passed away.
All in all, there is a danger of some people being misguided by the situation not to approach hospitals for treatment in case of falling ill and to hide the symptoms, which are similar to those of COVID-19.