Thanjavur/Madurai: In early April, a 30-year-old journalist who had turned himself in at a hospital in Thanjavur to test for the coronavirus infection found himself in the news. “I had travelled from Delhi on 24 March along with some members who had attended the Delhi religious conference, and when I saw what was unfolding that week, I decided to voluntarily get myself checked up at a hospital," he said over the phone from a quarantine facility.
Two days before the test results came out—he eventually tested positive—he and his family were in the midst of a more serious crisis than the disease itself: social stigma. “Even before I tested positive, rumours flew thick and fast that I had the disease and people started shunning my family."
He got several calls, some from local politicians, threatening him with dire consequences for “daring to come to the town from a dangerous place like Delhi". “It has been a week since I tested positive, but what continues to rattle me is not the virus but the fact that I keep getting (these) calls."
He is not alone. As novel coronavirus infections surged in Tamil Nadu (the third-highest caseload in India), those who test positive and their families have had to deal with the ensuing stigma.
So much so, that Mustafa, 32, a daily wage labourer, killed himself a week ago after people in the Madurai neighbourhood insisted that he cannot continue to live there since he was a “corona patient". “He had come back from Kerala just before the lockdown and was staying at his sister’s place," says a friend. “When he kept coughing, the neighbours informed the police who took him to a hospital for testing."
The police action was video recorded and circulated on social media. Though Mustafa tested negative for covid-19 and returned home, the neighbours’ hostility grew deeper. He was forced to go back to the hospital the following day, but was sent back home in the evening. The same night, Mustafa committed suicide.
“It is neither a corona death, nor a suicide. I would call it a murder in the name of corona committed by our society. Have we become so insensitive?" asks S. Venkatesan, CPI(M) member of Parliament from Madurai. Venkatesan says the incident is yet another proof that the “marginalized will suffer more, will be humiliated more and marginalized more in a crisis like this".
“Of course, there are patients who would not cooperate, who would deny that they have the virus, that is also an issue," Venkatesan says. “But I keep getting calls every day from people who are stigmatized only because the neighbours think they could have contracted corona (sic)."
The journalist says most patients at isolation wards where he is quarantined continue to live in fear of being ostracized. “In smaller towns and villages, it is more acute. Until my family was also quarantined in hospital, they were not able to access even basic necessities. I am worried about going back and living in my neighbourhood when I am cured."
In daily press briefings, the government continues to urge people not to stigmatize patients or their families. “Nobody wants to be sick. It just happens. Let’s be kind to those who are suffering," health secretary Beela Rajesh tweeted.
However, denials by the state government is also raising concerns.
“We do not have enough evidence to say he (Mustafa) committed suicide because of the stigma," said Madurai district collector T.G. Vijay.
“We keep telling people using mass media like FM channels that we need to be cautious about the virus but there is no need to panic or stigmatize," he added.
Kavitha Muralidharan is a Chennai-based independent journalist and translator.