Preach physical not social distancing to avoid Covid-19 stigma
August is the sixth month since Kenya announced the first Covid-19 case.
So far, we have more than 23,000 cases of infections and more than 380 dead.
The disease has spread to almost all counties in the country and the government has asked governors to arrange for at least 300 beds ready to treat Covid-19 patients.
Out of those infected, at least 9,000 have been treated and discharged or receiving home-based care. While at the onset the spread of the disease was considered imported through airline flights, the transmission is now communal and happening among Kenyans.
To mitigate the spread and flatten the curve of infections, the government earlier announced measures to guide Kenyans on best practices and what they should do to avoid contracting the virus. Key amongst these were staying at home, wearing masks, washing hands and observing social distancing.
Considering that the disease had killed and greatly disrupted people’s day-to-day lives, many heeded the call and strictly adhered to the rules and regulations. This included the call to observe social distancing.
However, social distancing is now proving to be more detrimental than beneficial.
When Kenyans were asked to social distance, unfortunately it came with much stigma and stereotyping. They shunned those who caught the disease and declared them outcasts.
Families and friends feared being associated with those affected and this drove many to keep away from being tested. In counties such as Mombasa, there was a dispute between leaders and communities over testing for the virus as no one was ready to be confirmed to have the disease and be isolated from others. Social distancing, particularly from those affected with the disease, was so emphasised that it led to massive stigmatisation.
It has now come to pass that what should have actually been emphasised is physical distancing. Not social distancing.
Physical distancing is keeping away from each other and the sick in terms of proximity and closeness. It ensures we have kept ourselves away from the risk of contracting the disease without necessarily having to lose touch and connecting with other individuals.
However, social distancing is keeping away from each other emotionally, psychologically and spiritually and this means not being connected with each other and knowing about the well-being of the other.
As a result of social distancing, we have now seen individuals becoming islands and locking themselves away from public life. This has led to mental ill health and some have gone on to commit suicide and/or kill or hurt others.
As a result of social distancing, we have left young ones unchecked, leading to astronomical numbers of teenage pregnancies as recently reported by the Ministry of Health. Further, social distancing has meant no protection for the weak among us, leading to gross human rights violations, including a rise in domestic violence.
All these effects of social distancing have led Kenyans to stigmatise Covid-19 and make us fear those who contract the disease and the pandemic itself. Considering that we are Africans and have been brought up socialising and remaining connected to each other, this new normal is costing us psychologically and forcing us into living conditions that we are not accustomed to.
It is not our way of life to not socially care about each other and disconnect from one another. We, therefore, must begin to realise that continued social distancing has far-reaching consequences that go beyond physical health of Kenyans.
It is time the Ministry of Health considered changing the message from social to physical distancing. We are advised to social distance and keep away from the old and sick. In a real sense, these Covid-19 vulnerable groups actually need us socially.
What they need is physical distancing. Whether through phone calls or any other means, we must not socially disconnect. If we do so, then the loneliness and solitude will also kill.
In dealing with the pandemic, we must therefore immediately change tack and encourage everyone to be there for each other socially and emotionally, while observing physical distancing among us.
By Hussein Khalid