FRED KHUMALO: Return of the HIV/Aids stigma
We’re seeing a reprise of the stigma once associated with HIV/Aids – now it affects those in the townships with Covid-19
Last week I expressed fears over the eventuality of someone testing positive in one of our overcrowded neighbourhoods.
My major concern was that in the cheek-by-jowl conditions in which the majority of South Africans live, enforcing social distancing is a major challenge. As a result, the virus could spread quickly.
The rigorous testing that has taken place in some shacklands has indeed shown how fast the virus is now spreading.
Testing is confirming that the virus is more widespread than was initially feared. In overcrowded conditions it might find an ideal breeding ground.
The confirmation of Covid-19 cases in poorer neighbourhoods has had an unexpected outcome. The stigma that once attached to HIV/Aids patients has reared its ugly head — this time the victims are people who have tested positive for the coronavirus.
In Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest township, a woman who tested positive was threatened with violence as rumours proliferated that she’d been paid to spread the virus.
The theory is that Covid-19 is a disease of rich white people, which should have remained in the predominantly white areas.
When whites realised that impoverished black communities remained largely unscathed by the virus, they paid some blacks to go and spread infection in the townships and shacklands. Crazy, right?
It reminds one of those days when Aids was dismissed as an ailment that afflicted only gay people, a theory that led to gay people being attacked or ostracised. Conspiracy theories get deadlier when they sprout in the middle of a crisis. My fear is that the stigma that attaches to Covid-19 will drive people who feel sick underground, making them unwilling to be tested.
They might choose to remain ignorant of their status because the truth would bring them misery.
Having said that, I must commend health minister Zweli Mkhize and his team for the sterling work that they have done thus far. Mkhize has been more decisive than the likes of Donald Trump, who dithers even as thousands of Americans succumb to the scourge.
After staying indoors for a week, I ventured out on Sunday to replenish some of our essentials.
It took me a while to muster the courage to actually leave the house. The empty streets and abandoned malls that I witnessed last week came to me in unbidden cinematic flashes. I didn’t want to go out into Stephen King land.
At the last minute, with just two hours before shops closed, I finally got into the car to go to Makro in Woodmead. The queue to get in was intimidating, so I drove to the nearby Woodmead Mall.
The queue at Pick n Pay was even longer. I shrugged and stood in line. Apart from Pick n Pay, Dis-Chem and Woolies, the mall was completely shut. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it still shocked me. There was a noticeable police presence.
After 30 minutes of standing in line, I finally made it to the front where a security guard gave me a squirt of hand sanitiser. Inside, the store was almost empty, which told me it is taking social distancing seriously. Impressive.
I rushed to fill my trolley with things we’d run out of: 10 loaves of bread, four trays of eggs, milk. Last week, many of the shops I went to did not have eggs. Canned food has also become scarce. Thankfully, fresh fruit and veggies are still in abundance. So I piled my trolley with fresh supplies.
I couldn’t find a cake for my son who turned 16 on Sunday. So I bought baking ingredients. "Birthday cakes don’t fall under essential services, my boy," I told him when I got home. He was not impressed, but he understood.
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