When Lalbahadur Shah of Birganj died last week, none of his relatives showed up for his funeral even though he tested negative for Covid-19. With no family, friends and neighbours attending, the Muslim community members took it upon themselves to perform his final rites as per the Hindu faith.
Shah had hypertension and diabetes, although he had tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, he had recovered from the infection. He succumbed to other health complications.
Across Nepal, people infected with the virus, even those who have recovered, have been shunned by neighbours and society. Migrant returnees and their families have been singled out and humiliated. Doctors and health workers have been harassed by landlords.
This is nothing new in Nepal. Tuberculosis and leprosy patients have been traditionally shunned. And the stigma associated with Covid-19 is very reminiscent of how people with HIV/AIDS used to be treated in Nepal in the past, and may have lessons for dealing with SARS-CoV-2, since the virus (like HIV) is here to stay.
“Physical distancing doesn’t mean discrimination and we should make people understand this,” says public health expert Aruna Uprety. “There is widespread panic about Covid-19 and this is turning people against those infected with it, exactly like it was with HIV/AIDS. This in turn is adding to the mental stress of the patients, undermining their recovery.”
Says Anjana Rajbhandary, a counsellor and columnist: “Social stigma is attached to lack of knowledge and when people know less, they feel the need to blame someone else because they are afraid of the unknown. Fear and anxiety about death and disease can lead to gossip, which results in stereotyping and discrimination.”
Constant focus in the mass media on new infections and fatalities over those who have recovered has reinforced the misconception that Covid-19 is highly lethal, adding to the fear about it.
On Tuesday, Nepal reported a total of 1,016 new cases, its highest daily rise with 205 in Kathmandu Valley alone, forcing the local governments in Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur to reimpose lockdown for a week starting Wednesday midnight. So far, 17,580 people have recovered while 114 have passed away.
The number of new infections was down to 671 on Wednesday, 151 of them in Kathmandu Valley.
The similarities between HIV/AIDS and Covid-19 goes beyond stigma. Just like HIV/AIDS spread like wildfire in western Nepal among families with husbands working in India, most of the Covid-19 cases were imported from India and spread among the poorest sections of Nepal’s most underserved region. And just like with HIV, Covid-19 is felling people with compromised immune systems.