Virus of Stigma

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Blaming the Covid-19 patients for their disease is weakening the efforts to control it, reports Saima Bhat

Making the parting comments, students in Kashmir share their experience and urge people to stay home. KL Image By Bilal Bahadur

After walking out of a hotel along Boulevard on March 31, fear was the only persistent feeling for Ali. A young man in his mid-twenties, Ali was among the first batch of 78 people quarantined in two hotels. As the group did not develop any flu-like symptoms for 14 days, they were sent to their respective places.

Back home, every time his family talks about his days in quarantine, Ali shudders with fear. He mostly evades the topic and remains quiet. Though his family comforts him every time, Ali is unable to reconcile to the new reality.

He feels the world has changed for him. He has restricted himself to a room.

Ali’s anxiety stems from the idea that he was among the suspects. Now he feels people are keeping a safe distance. “I could see a marked difference,” Ali told Kashmir Life over the phone.

Bad Campaigns

On late, evening on March 18, as the officials confirmed the Kashmir’s first case from Srinagar, it put Kashmir on alert. The government went to work to prevent the further spread of the virus.

The following morning entire media focus was on Khanyar. Soon the attention shifted to Shah Anwar Colony in Hyderpora. A religious preacher from the locality who had just returned from attending a Tablighi conference in Delhi became Covid-19 positive. He later passed away. However, before being diagnosed with the disease, the preacher had allegedly attended prayers in his locality and Sopore, his hometown.  Shah Anwar Colony was later sanitized and sealed off.  Even a video, probably shot by the Srinagar Municipality Corporation (SMC) at his home while sanitising it, went viral on Twitter.

Funeral prayers of Kashmir’s second Coronavirus Victim on Sunday March 29,2020. KL Image : Special Arrangement

The preacher, a noted businessman was a part of a religious group. Dubbed a ‘super spreader’, he was unfortunately blamed for bringing infection to Kashmir.  “Insensitivity has a no limit in Kashmir,” said Taha, a university student. “It was unfortunate that the man was grilled and even his religious practice was questioned.”

The situation became so bad for the family that it made one of his nephews Dr Zafar Ahmad Anim to write on Facebook: “It is quite unfortunate that we are being victimized for hiding the travel history which is an absolutely baseless allegation”.

The family, as per the protocol, are under quarantine but once the period is over the neighbours believe it will take time to have a normal relation with them again.

When the Hyderpora man was being lowered in the grave and his funeral picture was out, the people were seeking forgiveness virtually on social media as they see his death as a deterrent. “May Allah save us from such a death where only a few persons can attend the funeral? This is the sign of qayamat,” wrote Rais Ahmad on his Facebook.

However, Dr Hanief sees it as ignorance. “If Prophet (SAW) has said that whosoever dies in a plague is a martyr, then how can we question the death of the pious man,” he said.

Pertinently in whole India, the campaign is going on against the practices of Taleeghi Jamaat, even though they have come with plausible clarifications. Less than one fifth of the overall infected people in India, are linked to the Nizamuddin Conference.

Historic Roots

Stigma has a long history in Kashmir. From individual families to society at large, there are different accounts of discrimination. If the details go around diseases, it dates back to the early nineteenth century when a separate leper colony was established in Srinagar’s Bahrar.

Located on the banks of Nigeen Lake at Bhagwanpora, a separate settlement spread on 312 kanals of land emerged as the consequences of stigma.

Residents of the Leper Colony Behrar protesting over facilities. A file image: KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)

As the inhabitants of this colony were abandoned by their loved ones, the colony was established during the latter half of the nineteenth century under Kashmir Medical Mission by Britishers. The decision taken was to isolate and treat patients of the contagious disease. The colony had its own praying space, graveyard, and a separate medical facility.

Initially, the data reveals that only 30 patients were registered but with each passing day it became the residence for more than a hundred residents.

However, the admissions stopped post-2000, when the disease was declared completely treatable. Officially the number of people registered for living there is 100 but the actual figure rises to approximately 250 persons as it includes the families of lepers as well as those of deceased lepers. So far the colony has been home to at least three generations of leprosy patients living together for decades.

“I still remember my childhood days in the early 90’s when most of the public walls were brushed with one-liners reading code chuney sey nai phehalta hai (leprosy does not spread with a touch). I did not know then what this means but I used to ask my parents who used to tell me it is a dangerous disease which kills,” Shahid, a Srinagar resident said.

Even when officially there are no new cases, Kashmir continues to see the colony as untouchable. The leftover food of the weddings is dumped in the colony. “Nobody is even ready today to accept that Bahrar is any other colony of Kashmir,” adds Shahid.

Psychiatric Crisis

When it comes to psychiatric issues, people in Kashmir are humiliated to disclose anything about their illness because of the negative connotation attached to the words “mental disorder”.  People call Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences as Pagal Khana, a mental asylum. The sad part of the story, a psychiatrist says is even “doctors associated with mental care are known as Pagal doctor in Kashmir.”

Even colour is a different concept in Kashmir says Sadaf, a teacher. “In our society fair is beautiful, while wheatish is not acceptable,” she said. “When we go for a marriage, we always try to give preference to a fair looking girl or boy, besides criteria of having hair, height.”

Given the social setup, the widow in Kashmir is also a bad omen. “In marriages, you would see that if a mother-in-law is a widow, she assigns the job of receiving her daughter-in-law to somebody else,” says Dr Shaista, a professional gynaecologist. “Somehow it has got into our mind that if widow would receive a bride, her husband will also die soon,” she added.

Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences Kashmir (IMHANS)

While agreeing to Shaista’s thoughts, her colleague Shahzeb adds, “In our three decades of conflict, the situation that gave us hundreds of widows, did you ever see anybody accepting them, marrying them. Social stigma is deep-rooted in Kashmir.

Dr Shaista fears that the same fate will befall the patients declared positive for Coronavirus. “The patients, suspects and their families are already under stress because the mere presence of infection in the family makes them all suspects and then they start facing some sort of social boycott. And when they cannot mourn the death of their loved ones it adds to their mental crisis.”

Decades ago, when Kunan-Poshpora in Kashmir was subjected to gruesome mass rape, the social stigma still haunts the entire population of the village, the women in particular. Many rape-victims were forced to stay with their parents, as people showed reluctance to marry them. The children faced abuse from nearby villages. “It is a blot on their honour. The night changed their life forever,” says a journalist wishing anonymity. “The fact is that their own society stigmatised them forever”.

A para military man stands guard outside an area to prevent movement as this area in Srinagar was declared a Coronavirus red zone by authorities on April 7, 2020. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Devastating Lives

The spread of the virus will have devastating consequences, writes Dr Arshid, a psychiatrist: “In modern times, HIV generated similar shame and stigma. In Kashmir context, the presence of the leper colony is an archaic reminder of such stigma. With emerging epidemics like Coronavirus in the era of globalization, shame and stigma will lead to wider spread and devastating consequences. Individuals with or at risk for stigmatized diseases may avoid seeking health care to avoid being stigmatized.”

Another doctor in Srinagar’s medical college believes the labels force people to hide their identities or run from the medical facilities. “Our society is not supportive. When we see a patient as a criminal, how come he would cooperate?”

The call for social-distancing in Kashmir is being seen as a license for glorifying the despicable practice of untouchability, Saleem, a resident of Rainawari told Kashmir Life and adds “stigma aggravates the condition of people suffering.”

A patient admitted to JLNM hospital in Rainawari laments that “people in the hospital, be it doctor or paramedic see them as untouchables and even make them feel as being socially outcast.”

Coronavirus: Can Ostracism Help Control The Virus?

A woman patient at NIT quarantine centre while speaking to media over the phone accused the authorities of treating them as untouchables. “They make announcements on loudspeaker for tea or meals and we have to go down from the second floor to collect the food,” she cried, adding, “They ask us to clean our dustbins and carry them along to the ground.”

As these reports came out, senior chest specialist Dr Naveed Nazir tweeted pictures from CD hospital where doctors were seen attending to the patients and even the food served was displayed.

‘Social Distancing’

After saving their earnings for almost five years, Abdul Hameed and his wife went for Umrah in February 2020. Contended that their prayers were answered, the couple left for holy pilgrimage with all their relatives present for a grand farewell. However, as it happened, their journey was cut short due to the pandemic and they had to return on March 15. Back home, the couple had a shock of their life when even their immediate family and neighbours showed indifference.

“We were tested at Delhi airport after which we were allowed to proceed. But when we reached home we saw an indifferent attitude of our family and close neighbours. They did not even shake hands with us, despite knowing we have tested negative,” said Hameed’s wife Mehtaba Bano.

Even after completing her home quarantine of days, the couple still is not welcomed in their area. “I have now completed 14 days in quarantine as well but when I move out of the house and meet any of my neighbours, they flee as if I have done a crime,” she said. “Nobody even comes closer to me. This is adding to my mental state. It gives me a feeling as if I have become untouchable.”

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