For some Indonesians, Covid-19 stigma worse than disease

Patients suffering mild Covid-19 symptoms doing morning exercises at a hospital in Surabaya, Indonesia, on Aug 17, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Covid-19 has not only strained the health of many survivors but also their relationships with friends and neighbours.

A 24-year-old survivor of the illness in Surabaya, East Java, who asked to be identified as Ayu said some of her colleagues greeted her coldly when she returned to work from a month of self-isolation and a hospital stay in late July.

Ayu, who works at a bank, said some of her colleagues appeared to be avoiding her, and she noticed that some were no longer asking her to eat lunch with them. She felt like an outcast.

One of her senior male colleagues indirectly accused her of infecting several other employees, including himself.

"I now realise who my true friends are - (not) people who are there only during good times (but) those who stick with you during both good and bad times," she told The Jakarta Post.

Ayu's experience is not unique.

A recent survey by the LaporCovid-19 community, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Indonesia (UI) faculty of psychology, found that stigma surrounding Covid-19 patients and survivors had persisted six months into the outbreak.

The survey was conducted from Aug 7 to 16 and polled 181 respondents aged 18 and above who had tested positive for, had recovered from or were suspected to have Cvoid-19.

Half of the respondents were medical workers.

The study found that 55.25 per cent of respondents had become the target of gossip, 33.15 per cent had been shunned and 24.86 per cent had been treated as virus spreaders or carriers.

The survey showed that 9.39 per cent of respondents had been bullied on social media, 4.42 per cent had been rejected from public facilities, 4.42 per cent had not received assistance, 3.31 per cent had been expelled from their homes and 0.55 per cent had been laid off.

After recovering, 4 per cent of respondents said they were treated by the public worse than they had been treated during the illness and 14 per cent said they were treated just as poorly.

Ayu tested positive in mid-June, after she lost her uncle to Covid-19.

She eventually lost her aunt as well, who died in an intensive care unit.

Not long after her test came back positive, Ayu's neighborhood unit (RT) head shared documents revealing not only her family's Covid-19 statuses but also their full names and ID card numbers on a neighbourhood WhatsApp group.

Her cousin, who had also tested positive and was staying with her grandmother in a nearby neighbourhood, was accused of breaching self-isolation one evening to go on a date with her boyfriend.

"The man and woman that the neighbours saw that night were actually my mother and her brother," she said. "They had to go to the hospital to sign papers to get my aunt on a ventilator as soon as possible."

Some experts have said that the stigma of Covid-19 in Indonesia is as bad as that of HIV/Aids.

The opprobrium has exacerbated the country's persistent struggles with containment, testing and tracing of the virus as many people are reluctant to ascertain their true statuses.

A significant share of the country's cases are believed to remain undetected.

"Six months into the pandemic, (the stigma) persists. I imagined that after the first three months, it would subside, but it hasn't," said urologist Akmal Taher, a member of the national Covid-19 task force's expert team.

Ms Siska Verawati of the Centre for Indonesia's Strategic Development Initiatives, which has sought to empower community health centres (Puskesmas) in Jakarta and Bandung, West Java, during the outbreak, said that in certain areas, the stigma stemmed from RT management and heads themselves.

Amplified by misinformation and an incomplete understanding of Covid-19, Ms Siska said, the stigma had disrupted tracing and testing efforts because people were often dishonest about their symptoms.

She said the government's constantly changing Covid-19 policies had created further confusion.

"Puskesmas workers are indeed front-line health workers. But to break the chains of transmission, communities should come together and be on the front lines to fend off stigma. There should be good narratives that Covid-19 is our common enemy and that it's real," Ms Siska said.

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