No matter what your opinion on diseases may have been before, over the past year, millions of people all across Malaysia have become far too familiar with the realities of life during a pandemic.
However, while we’ve all suffered from lockdowns and isolation, some of us have had the misfortune of being directly affected by COVID-19.
Unfortunately, while many of those infected will eventually recover from the physical effects of the disease, they soon realise that in some ways, the suffering will continue long after they’ve been given a clean bill of health.
“Stop punishing us for getting sick!”
For 36-year-old Mohd Adli Mohamad of Kampung Matang, Terengganu, the pain of getting infected with COVID-19 wasn’t the worst part — it was dealing with his neighbours afterwards.
Adli’s nightmare started during Ramadan, when his brother-in-law came to visit his wife who’d recently given birth.
“He obtained police permission to travel interstate and even took a Covid-19 swab test and came back negative. Only God knows how he was infected with the disease,” Adli said, explaining how no less than 48 family members later tested positive and had to be taken to the hospital for treatment and quarantine.
After leaving the hospital, Adli was shocked by how differently he and his family were being treated by everyone in the kampung.
“Despite being told that we are no longer infecting people, some of the villagers still find it difficult to accept us,” he said. “One of us wanted to buy some essential items from a sundry shop here but was totally ignored by the owner for fear of being infected with the virus.”
Said family member later had to ask the authorities for permission to go to a supermarket farther away from his home in order to get the groceries he needed.
Despite this cold treatment, Adli and his family don’t blame their fellow villagers, saying that it is all caused by fear and a lack of understanding about COVID-19.
“We have to be strong in facing this challenge and hope that everything will return to normal soon,” he said, adding that he hoped all Malaysians would continue to remain careful in order to avoid having to go through his family’s ordeals.
Alas, Adli’s Experiences Are Definitely Not Unique
Last year, COVID-19 survivor Hartini Azmi decided to set up a “Covid-19 Survivor Sabah” Facebook page in order to offer a safe space for former COVID-19 patients to share their experiences and support each other.
In an interview with the New Straits Times, Hartini explained that she wanted to help the public understand that ex-COVID-19 patients should not be feared or avoided as they were not a threat to society. She gave an example of the difficulties she’d faced simply going to the hairdresser.
“I waited for so long for my hair to be washed, but no one came. It turned out that they were scared that I might (still) be carrying the virus,” she explained.
Since its creation, many ex-patients have used the COVID-19 Survivor Sabah page as a place to share their own experiences and raise awareness about the discrimination that they have been experiencing.
One of the ex-COVID-19 patients, Ella Hipin from Keningau, wrote about how it was hard for her to even order grocery deliveries.
“When the person knew the order was from us, we were told that there were no more of the items we wanted,” she recalled, adding that her family members had faced similar situations since their infection had become known.
This Virus Doesn’t Discriminate, So We Shouldn’t Either
In October 2020, the Malaysian Mental Health Association (MMHA) called for improved support for COVID-19 patients after a woman, suspected of having COVID-19, fell to her death from the eighth floor of a hospital in Kota Kinabalu.
MMHA President Dr Andrew Mohanraj urged authorities to take steps to maintain the mental health of COVID-19 patients and ex-patients, especially those who were already suffering from pre-existing mental conditions.
“Clearly there is a great deal of stigma associated with this,” he said, pointing out that many former patients were dealing with increased stress due to being socially “boycotted”.
“They need community support,” he said. “And for that to happen, there must be a clear flow of information to the patients and to their family members. People might not fully understand the extent of damage that COVID-19 can cause.”
Mohanraj added that Malaysian society needed to learn how to accept and assimilate former COVID-19 patients back into the community instead of isolating and discriminating against them.
Even the World Health Organisation (WHO) has stepped in to tackle the issue of COVID-19 patient stigma, pointing out that this behaviour would only lead to more negative effects in the future.
Look at it this way — if people are too afraid of how they’d be treated after being confirmed positive, doesn’t it make sense that they might become less likely to seek out medical care or testing?
In other words, this kind of discrimination not only harms the former patients themselves, but also causes the pandemic to be extended even further — something which will make life difficult for the rest of us too!
The White Flag Should Be For All
Today, more and more Malaysians are showing their support for the #BenderaPutih Movement.
In just a few days since its conception, this idea has gained the backing of thousands of ordinary people from all across the country — proof that even after all we have been through, the rakyat of Malaysia still remain committed to helping those in need.
However, just liking a post or sharing your support on social media isn’t enough. If you want to make a difference, you need to start by treating those around you with care and compassion — even (or especially) if they’ve had personal experiences with COVID-19.
After all, they’re not asking for special treatment. They just want to be treated like everyone else. By all means, do whatever you need to in order to stay safe; it’s fine to wear your mask and follow the SOPs, but stop treating the victims as though they’re the virus themselves!
If you’re interested in learning more about what happens in a Malaysian lockdown, here are some of our thoughts: