By Nina Muslim
KUALA LUMPUR (Bernama) -- It is promising to be a lonely Aidiladha for Hisyamuddin Musni and his mother this year, in more ways than one.
When they came home from the hospital after recovering from COVID-19 last month, being shunned by their neighbours was not uppermost in their minds.
After all, Hisyamuddin, better known as Syam to his friends and family, was a healthcare worker, that is, a physiotherapist at a charitable old folks home which had an outbreak in May and June. Surely people would not ostracise him and his family for working during the pandemic and getting sick as well, he thought.
It wasn’t obvious at first. It started with mutterings about them among villagers, according to his mother.
Then, Hisyamuddin noticed people staring and staying away from him. Some would make snide remarks if he saw them at supermarkets. He said they would not even talk to him when passing by him on the narrow roads in the village.
And now, almost a month after being discharged, things have gotten so bad, he is wondering if the village would even include his family when they distribute the meat from the sacrifice during the Aidiladha celebration.
“Usually, we’d get some meat from the sacrifice. But this year, we don’t know if we’ll get any, whether they will ignore us this year,” he told Bernama.
Ariffin Mamat, director-general of the Malaysian Cooperative Institute, could relate to Hisyamuddin’s experience. Although he was not shunned by his neighbours in Kuala Lumpur when he tested positive in March, it was a different story for his mother-in-law. She had been in Kuala Lumpur visiting when his test results came in.
“When she returned to Melaka, even though she was negative and ill from old age, her neighbours didn’t visit her because they were afraid of catching COVID-19,” Ariffin said.
Norhizam Jani, headman of the village where Hisyamuddin lives, said shunning was a typical reaction from villagers as he had seen it happen to his own cousin who was married to a relative of a COVID-19 patient.
“It’s typical of villagers. Although there is no direct connection, even patients’ in-laws are affected,” he said.
Dr Milton Lum, former president of the Malaysian Medical Association, said stigmatisation and ostracisation stemming from infectious diseases was a common outcome and that it did not always restrict itself to small or rural communities.
“In healthcare, there is always a tendency to stigmatise the patient, whether it’s by the patient’s family or friends and, in some instances, by healthcare professionals,” he said. “It’s not uncommon simply because there is a lack of knowledge about this condition.”
The fact that Hisyamuddin was a healthcare worker does not mean he would be exempt from the stigma attached to the sometimes-deadly disease, according to Prof Dr Azniza Ishak, psychologist and counsellor at Universiti Utara Malaysia. This is happening even despite all the messaging that the government and various groups have put out thanking healthcare workers for their sacrifices.
Azniza said people would become angrier if the Movement Control Order (MCO) returns because during the MCO earlier many Malaysians reported feeling stressed and anxious.
“If anything is against their routine, and they have to repeat something they’re trying to avoid, they will get angry and look for someone to blame,” she said. She also said the human mind would find an easy target to fix the blame on, even though the reason was not rational.
Dr Lum agreed.
“Different people have different perceptions of health and disease. This is due to their different religious, cultural and educational backgrounds. Some people view certain infectious diseases as punishment for some wrongdoing that you have done,” he said.
To combat the fear and misunderstanding that fuel the stigma, many have called for more messaging focusing on mental health support for patients and education for communities, as well as support groups for patients, survivors and their families.
Among them is a private support group for current and former COVID-19 patients and their families on Facebook called Safe Space COVID-19 Malaysia. Formed on March 31, the group hopes “to dispute the stigma towards COVID-19 patients”.
Members are required to have a Facebook account to access its services and materials. MERCY Malaysia also has several programmes offering psychological and emotional support on Facebook and via a helpline at 03-2935 9935, although these services are not only for those directly affected by the disease.
As for those who have no online access, there are books, such as the one Ariffin is self-publishing. He told Bernama it was a collection of his writings when he went public with his positive COVID-19 status.
“I went public to break the stigma,” he said, adding that he included relevant information and advice on how to prevent and deal with COVID-19.
As for Norhizam, all he can do for now is advise Hisyamuddin and his family to be patient, saying villagers would soon adapt as they learn more about the disease. He also said Hisyamuddin should not worry about receiving his share of the sacrificial meat.
“All will get a piece. We are not that extreme that we will ignore COVID-19 families,” he said.
Edited by Rema Nambiar
Malaysian National News Agency
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