Fighting Covid-19 with clean hearts
Covid-19 is a test for humanity on many levels -- health, management, economy, innovation and more importantly, morality.
The case of a Covid-19 patient in Bangkok's Bang Bon district suffering harassment on Friday night reflects a side of human nature that rarely surfaces unless in a severely threatening condition.
And the Covid-19 pandemic is no exception.
In a video clip taken by a passer-by, a large group of people -- close to a 100 in number -- were seen gathered in front of a local clinic demanding that the patient be moved elsewhere for fear that the virus will infect the community.
Apparently, a community member spotted an ambulance with health personnel clad in full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) suits delivering the patient earlier in the evening.
So, they figured the patient was infected with Covid-19.
Several men were recorded referring to the patient as "it".
Here are some excerpts of their demands:
"We have to chase it out."
"If we don't chase it out, other patients who are ill and staying here will be infected. We must deal with it at the root."
"How do we know if this clinic has proper preventive measures?"
The patient was later taken away in an ambulance.
The clip also showed a police officer trying to calm down the mob, saying the hospice had taken necessary precautions and was equipped with a "clean room".
But that did not appease the crowd, who continued to push for the patient's removal until close to midnight.
The episode is just one case that has made it to the mass media, but there are bound to be many that have gone unreported and created unwanted consequences not just for the patient but also for Thai society.
With more than 1,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases at present and around new 100 cases reported every day, the panic and alarm among people is understandable.
However, stigmatising a patient will not make things better in any way.
According to Santhiti Dahlan, director of Chulalongkorn University Health Centre, stigmatisation is becoming a serious problem and needs to be dealt with immediately due to many critical implications.
"It is clear we will be living with the virus for an extensive period of time. So this is a problem that needs to be considered on a social scale," Dr Santhiti said.
On an international front, we can see how this stigmatisation and prejudice has triggered racism and xenophobia, with even US President Donald Trump name-shaming by calling it "the Chinese virus".
There have been many incidents of Asian-looking people in the West being harassed and racial slurs and hate speech related to Covid-19 popping up on social media.
On the home front, stigma against Covid-19 has led to misinformation and discrimination, which may inadvertently impede effective prevention and control of the virus.
The Bang Bon case can put everyone at risk, as many with the infection may choose not to be tested for fear of being labelled as the "one with the virus".
Once labelled, not only will the patient be discriminated against, but also his or her family members.
In fact, just recently a patient admitted at Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital concealed the fact that he had Covid-19 and when the truth emerged, the entire ward had to be closed for disinfection.
This has, in effect, intensified the shortage of hospital beds and unnecessarily exposed health personnel to the virus.
In the past, such discrimination usually took place with diseases that caused impairment or if there were no cures. Aids, venereal diseases, leprosy, certain skin conditions and mental disorders usually topped the list.
In the case of Aids, it took years of education together with effective antiretroviral treatment to bring people to their senses.
For leprosy, which can result in disability and handicaps, stigmatisation was extreme. Leper colonies had to be set up, so that those affected with the disease could lead their lives separately.
In Thailand alone, at least 15 leper colonies were set up in different parts of the country from the early to mid-20th century as a means of prevention and control as well as to ward off stigmatisation and prejudice.
For Covid-19, though it has now become common knowledge that the virus can only be transmitted through close contact (within a distance of two metres) and through body secretions, paranoia still prevails and leads to disproportionate reactions.
Social distancing, proper hygiene and self-protection are undeniably immediate and necessary measures to curb the spread of the virus.
Though organisations and communities can also pitch in by trying to accommodate recovering Covid-19 patients, patients-under-investigation (PUI), those who are in close contact or at risk of contracting the virus.
In Chulalongkorn University, for instance, two buildings have been vacated and turned into shelters for recovering Covid-19 patients and PUIs who are part of the Chula community under the so-called CU V Care project.
"There are people who need to be quarantined but may not have access to proper resources. Our CU V Care project is a small effort to help not only the affected patients but also panicking communities," said Professor Narin Hirunsutthikul, MD.
Prof Narin heads the Chulalongkorn University Covid-19 Emergency Operation Centre which oversees the CU V Care project.
The second phase of the CU V Care project will open its doors to those outside of the Chula community, most likely starting from the adjacent Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital which is overwhelmed and needs to clear beds for new cases of Covid-19 and other illnesses.
Indeed, we need more than just clean hands to fight this powerful virus.
While we wait for vaccines and proper cure to arrive, a clean heart free of prejudice and clear minds that are able to think and take effective actions are vital in this critical time.
Chulalongkorn University Professor
Prof Pirongrong Ramasoota teaches and researches on media, communication and society at the Faculty of Communication Arts, Chulalongkorn University.