Coronavirus: Can Ostracism Help Control The Virus?

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by Masood Hussain

SRINAGAR: As the first victim of the Coronavirus was laid to rest in Sopore Thursday afternoon, a key issue has cropped up – the increasing trend of stigmatising the victims of the disease. Everybody knows that a Sopore born Srinagar resident was the first victim of the killer virus but nobody knows his name. Officially he is being referred to as “Case No 5”.

Funeral prayers of Sopore resident who died due to Coronavirus on Thursday, March 26, 2020. KL Image by Junaid Bhat

The trend was earlier exhibited by some unruly mobs in certain areas of Srinagar when they came out on roads to protest against the creation of quarantine facilities in their areas. Stones were pelted on certain facilities thus exhibiting the mob mentality at its worst. At certain places, the police had to use force to send them home.

This was despite the fact that the facilities were aimed at housing Kashmiris who flew home from different places across the world. None of them – and they are nearly 3000, has tested positive or had any symptoms, so far. They are separated because some of them came from pandemic impacted places and will go home after 14 days if they continue to remain asymptomatic.

An Anonymous Death

Now this situation has reached the next level – a literal ostracisation.

As the 65-year-old was laid to rest with a limited number of people offering his funeral prayers, it seemed death in anonymity. Nobody is identifying him officially and there are rumours that his name cannot be mentioned. There is no official order and no clerical fatwa, a decree. This is a different thing that social media knows everything.

This is going to make the situation dreadful. A person who has lived a life, has a family, and belongs to an economic and a social class dies of a disease and, all of a sudden, he has no name. Nearly 25,000 people were killed by the disease so far and no society attempted hiding their identities. The health authorities can have the privilege of protecting the identity until the case is under treatment, but once the person is discharged or does not survive, identities must be revealed. Identities can stay in secret if the patient wishes so or the families request so.

Interesting Preacher

The first victim, a resident of Shah Anwar Colony in Hyderpora, was in itself an interesting case. Part of a religious group, the businessman had returned home after three months, attending dozens of religious gatherings across India during which he has met thousands of people from Andaman island to Sopore. On the way home and later in Kashmir, he had met many people between March 12 and 16. A news report said that four persons who met him in one such meeting in Samba were the same group that was admitted in the hospital on Wednesday.

Authorities have traced some of his contacts in recent days. These include two doctors, who treated him at the sub-district hospital in Sopore on March 16. They have been admitted to Government Medical College Baramulla for the mandatory test and have tested negative.

Deconstructing SARS-CoV-2

Health officials in Sopore have quarantined almost 30 persons after establishing the fact that they all had met him. He had gone to Sopore on March 16 and returned after an overnight stay. Those quarantined include various members of certain families also. All these reports have created an impression as if the person had deliberately done that. He was busy in his routine til he got unwell.

As various reports appeared in the media, the family started feeling the heat as they were increasingly accused of hiding the travel history and deliberately trying to keep him at home. It forced one of the family members to write a post on the Facebook detailing his meetings with doctors who all advised him isolation at home. He mentions dates on which he revealed the details of the patient’s travel history to every doctor they consulted in SKIMS and JVC and felt helpless and took him to SMHS where he was admitted.

“It is quite unfortunate that we r being victimized for hiding the travel history which is an absolutely baseless allegation,” Zafar Ahmad Anim, himself a doctor, who has earlier worked with SKIMS, wrote. Zafar is a nephew of the patient who could not survive the viral infection. The family’s only problem was that doctors had a priority in taking patients with foreign travel, unlike this man who had travelled within India.

A Disease

Coronavirus is just a disease, as contagious as Swine Flu or flu. The only difference is that it is virulent in a section of its victims and extreme precaution is required from the very first point when symptoms are detected. World over, a standard operating procedure is in vogue about how to manage it and how to lay the unfortunate victims at rest. Scientists are struggling to discover an antidote and it will take its own time.

In the case of so-called “case No 5”, the authorities did follow it and permitted a limited number of people to offer him funeral prayers. This is done to prevent a possible infection from the body. That is also why usually the body is buried along with the casket that carries it. These are important precautions that can never be compromised. In fact, in Iran, those attending the funerals stay more than a meter from each other with the body loaded in an ambulance.

But anonymity in death is nowhere. Names should be named because it will help their contacts to understand that they need a check-up and possibly stay in quarantine. Names need to be named because it will help the dead person’s friends, relatives and contacts to, at least, make a phone call to the family and mourn the death and sympathies with them. After all the infected did not get it by their own choice. Getting infected by the virus does not make the patients inferior to those who were speared by the virus.

Who knows how the virus will unleash itself in any society. Donald Trump, the American President was so confidant at one point of time that he was ridiculing the disease. Now the New York is emerging as the new hotspot and he is unable to manage the ventilators. Will every person consumed by the disease survive in anonymity for the family – in shadows, in dreams or by an alias, Sui Ha Yemis Carona Gayou?

Those Who Live

As is well known across the world, the virus does not kill all. The statistics available right now suggest that of 552 thousand cases of Coronavirus infection,153746 are closed including128704  who have been discharged and 25042 who died. Then there are 398,852 active cases of whom 377,795 (95%) are in mild condition. Some of them may not go to the hospital at all. The remaining five per cent are right now in a critical stage.

Surviving Epidemics

In Jammu and Kashmir, as well, people infected by the disease are surviving. The first case that was detected in Kashmir is doing well as her tests have turned negative for the virus. Of the 11 who moved to the hospital till yesterday, three were cured completely. Of the three cases admitted to a Jammu hospital, two recovered completely.

If the stigma stays with the victims of the disease, what shall happen to the survivors? Will they live their rest of life in a Corona-apartheid?

Psychological Costs

And, most importantly, what will be the psychological costs for the survivors of these families in the long run. They are already under stress because the mere presence of infection in the family makes them all suspects and then they fall in a sort of social boycott. For the right reasons, and at times in a wrong way, they are being singled out by the society and the state apparatus. Now when they will have to mourn the death in complete anonymity of the person they lost, it can add to the mental crisis.

The stigma that gradually becomes the net dividend of an infection, or a possible infection, or even in cases of quarantine – that has nothing to do with the infection, could be one reason why quite a few people voluntarily seek medical help. This is despite the fact that society has contributed immensely to help authorities identify the people who had flown from offshore destinations and managed reached home quietly.

Let the society consider this issue that has the potential of haunting all the survivors in the new order that Coronavirus is dictating. By the way, how do we know if the mild fever and a normal dry cough or sore eyes are not the virus infection?

No death for any reason requires a celebration but deaths are supposed to be managed decently and with dignity. After all, mankind is not judged alone by the way it treats its living. How we manage our dead is a far more important barometer of our civility.

(Author is Editor Kashmir Life)

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