Choose to be kind: Covid-19 and social stigma, seen through survivors’ eyes

Yiswaree Palansamy And Ashman Adam
·8-min read
Dr Menaga Kaliyana Sundaram speaks to a Malay Mail reporter during an interview in Shah Alam March 24, 2021. — Picture by Miera Zulyana
Dr Menaga Kaliyana Sundaram speaks to a Malay Mail reporter during an interview in Shah Alam March 24, 2021. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

KUALA LUMPUR, April 2 — Covid-19 has killed millions globally, with countless more who have caught it left dealing with both the short- and long-term effects of the disease on their health and lives both physically and mentally.

The same can be said of many Malaysian survivors of the coronavirus.

For 32-year-old Dr Menaga Kaliyana Sundram, who contracted Covid-19 in January, she was forced to deal with discrimination and social stigma after her diagnosis.

The family medicine practitioner was serving at the government’s Taman Medan Health Clinic when she tested positive for the infectious virus.

“On January 1, my friend called me, and at the time, I was conducting mass screenings at my clinic. She said she was coming to the clinic to get sampled as her brother had contracted Covid-19, and she was his close contact during Christmas.

“We had just met for lunch a few days before that, and I was very confident that she would test negative. However, the very next day, she tested positive and we all had to be quarantined,” Dr Menaga told Malay Mail when met at her home in Shah Alam.

Dr Menaga, who had been tested and quarantined twice prior to this due to the nature of her job, was sure her result would come back negative, as she was not experiencing any symptoms associated with a Covid-19 infection.

Indeed, her first test came back negative, but her second test, taken after eight days, showed otherwise. That was when reality hit.

“Usually, it is very rare for someone to have their second swab test return positive. I thought since the first test turned out negative, I would test negative again the second time,” she said, adding that she was under home quarantine in her room, after her first swab test.

A stunned Dr Menaga cried her heart out for an hour over the phone with her best friend, who is also a doctor, and then picked herself up. But not without some help from her elder brother, who is also a medical doctor based in Terengganu.

“Despite me being a medical doctor who understands Covid-19, I was still devastated when I found out.

“It took me some time to reveal my diagnosis to my family. I sought the help of my elder brother, who is also a doctor, to explain why the second swab came back positive and why I needed to be admitted. They were clueless but it is normal for those from a non-medical background,” she said.

Dr Menaga said she tried to take things in her stride nonetheless, and toughened up to prevent her family from worrying further.

A better person

It was also not easy for her family, who were shunned by their acquaintances. A few, she said, only called to confirm that she had Covid-19, before spreading the word to others.

“But the problem is, some people still do not understand what Covid-19 is despite living in the pandemic’s shadow for over one year.

“As a person, yes, it has made me stronger, but the problem is those who judged and stigmatised me. All of them do not belong to the medical field.

“I was actually reading a book when I was admitted. It stated that we can understand people without having to agree with them. So I embraced that.

“People who are not in the medical line would not understand, no matter how many times you explain quarantine and isolation, why you need to get admitted, why the 10-day quarantine.

“The thing is, if I were not a medical doctor, I would also probably discriminate against and stigmatise people.

“How has this whole episode changed me? I have learnt to be more understanding and patient. It was too hard for me when I was blamed and shunned. But I am a doctor. I am trained to save lives so I cannot be feeling angry even though I was devastated,” she added.

Dr Menaga admitted that her mental and emotional health was badly affected, but her colleagues at Kuala Lumpur Hospital (HKL), where she was admitted, and her family members, helped lift her spirits.

“From a doctor who treated those in the wards to being one of them, it was really very frustrating. But after becoming a patient, I can now understand things from their perspective. I would say it has made me a better person, a better doctor,” she said.

When asked if she knew of any support group for Covid-19 survivors, Dr Menaga said that she is not aware that any exist, but expressed a willingness to be a part of one to help those like her, if there are.

“For those who stigmatise others, we have to be really kind. Choose to be kind. Anyone can get Covid-19. We can get it, our family members can get it. So imagine ourselves in their shoes,” she added.

Triple whammy

For Muhammad Haikal Azizan, a 22-year-old contractor in the construction industry, Covid-19 infected his father, younger sister as well as himself.

“Initially, it was my father who had Covid-19 symptoms. He started to feel a tightness in his chest, along with body aches. We grew worried that he had contracted the virus because he works at the port in George Town.

His father tested positive on January 17, and the whole family had to be subsequently screened.

“Then, on January 18, I got a call from the Ministry of Health (MoH), saying that another close contact of mine from work was also positive. On January 20, I was confirmed positive too, along with my sister,” he told Malay Mail.

All three were brought to a quarantine centre, with their father heading there two days earlier after MoH deemed their house unfit for home quarantine. They spent a total of eight days in quarantine.

“We were separated. I was placed in a dormitory with six others. There was nothing in the dorms. All we had were the things that we had brought with us. We weren’t allowed to step outside our dorm either,” he said.

“The only other people I met were the health officials who came twice a day to conduct a blood check. Other than that, I had no one besides the other people in the dorm with me. Of course, we had our phones, but it’s not the same.”

When asked about his symptoms, Haikal said that he only started experiencing a loss of taste and smell after entering quarantine.

“I didn’t feel sick at all before being admitted. I lost my sense of taste and smell two days later. Then my chest started to ache so much it was difficult to sleep,” he said.

“Until today, my sense of taste and smell still hasn’t returned fully. The same goes for my sister and my dad. It has been especially challenging for my dad because he has high blood pressure and had to be transferred to hospital from the quarantine centre. Now, he feels tired all the time and this has made it difficult for him to work.”

Ostracised by workmates

A man is seen standing at his house gate after being ordered to undergo home quarantine in Kuala Lumpur October 4, 2020. — Picture by Hari Anggara.
A man is seen standing at his house gate after being ordered to undergo home quarantine in Kuala Lumpur October 4, 2020. — Picture by Hari Anggara.

For Haikal, it was hard to get back to work too because people shunned him after finding out that he had contracted the virus.

“Word spread that I had contracted the virus, and my colleagues kept their distance, even after I had recovered from the virus.

“It was difficult at the beginning because in my line of work, I need to depend on others to get the job done. I can’t put up scaffolding on my own.

“Eventually, the few of us, who had caught Covid-19 and recovered, banded together, and our boss divided our projects that way to ease everyone’s worries. Thank God, my family and friends were more understanding,” he said.

Haikal’s family members were quarantined at the Pusat Latihan Zakat in Balik Pulau.

He said that they were taken to the centre on January 20, once he and his sister were confirmed positive.

Haikal’s father was taken there on January 18, as they had been self-quarantining at home before then; hence, the reason why they only had to stay at the centre for eight days instead of the usual 10.

He said, while wary, their relatives helped in any way they could.

“We in fact asked them to keep a distance from us, at least until we had cleaned the house from top to bottom. It is dangerous because we all live so close to one another,” he added.

But overall, Haikel remains optimistic that he will regain his strength and make a full recovery eventually.

“No, no, I am not worried. Yes, I still get tired easily now, but I am sure that I will recover 100 per cent. You just have to keep moving forward,” he said.

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