Under the auspices of the ‘Whose crisis? The global COVID-19 Crisis from the Perspective of Communities in Africa’ project, a team of  researchers from Uganda, Malawi, Eswatini, Nigeria, Botswana and Glasgow; Scotland, aimed at exposing unseen aspects of living with COVID-19 by co-curating representations and understandings of the social and cultural crisis generated by the pandemic in Africa. The project was funded by the African Humanities Research Council (AHRC, UK) through the University of Glasgow.

The Ugandan researchers carried out a study in Apala and Abia counties in Alebtong District in Northern Uganda and Banda, Nakawa Division, Kampala District.

However, in this particular article, I particularly focus on the issue of COVID-19 related stigma as experienced Mr. Paul Odida and his family. Mr Odida is from Abia County, Alebtongo district. Before we had an extensive interaction with him, we had earlier on heard in our pre-fieldwork visit that Mr. Odida’s family had faced unprecedented COVID-19 related community isolation and stigma in the region. The research in Alebtong took four intense days from 11th to 14th May 2021. And the extensive interaction we had with Odida, took place on 13th May 2021.

When Covid-19 started in China in late 2019, the ambitious Mr. Paul Odida who wanted to retire with a degree was at his graduation at Kampala University (one of the private universities in Kampala, Uganda) after completing his Bachelor’s degree in education. At that time, he was only hearing about the Corona Virus and its related COVID-19 on radio and television and word was passing around that the virus was intensifying in China.

By then, the 63 year old retired teacher who currently engages in commercial agriculture and religious work, did not know that the pandemic would find its way to Uganda and finally hit him hard in unprecedented ways in his rural enclave in Abia County, Alebtong district. Abia is about 260 Kilometers from Kampala; Uganda’s capital city.

It was around May, 2020 when his son’s wife who works in Southern Sudan came to live with the family that the whirlwind of unexpected events started to unfold. At first the family was afraid of her, but later, they calmed down and she started doing the house and farm chores and to go to church with other members of the family.

Mr. Paul Odida, his wife and granddaughter on the day of our interaction on 13th May 2021 in the compound at his home. Photo taken by Phionah Alonyo

Paul’s daughter-in-law had stayed with the family for about 27 days when one evening, while the family was about to have supper, she informed her father in-law that she was not well. She was feeling dizzy, had a headache and was also sneezing. Paul advised his daughter in-law to go to the health center early the following morning to get medical attention. And that is what she exactly did at day break.

Even though by the time we had our interaction with Odida, his daughter in-law had already left the home, he narrated to us how the events unfolded as follows.

While Odida’s daughter in-law was in an out-patient queue at Apala Health Centre, she sneezed and then one Health Assistant came around and inquired about who had sneezed. At that moment someone within ear and eye shot of the unfolding events shouted ‘Corona’ and all people around ran away for their dear lives! She, and a weak old lady were the only ones left standing in queue. People who were peeping at the developing story from a safe distance then shouted at the old lady that she was standing with a corona victim and the old lady fainted!

At that moment, all the ill equipped medical personnel at the rural Apala Health Centre who had never handled a COVID victim were scared of her. Luckily enough for her, there was one Health Committee member of Apala Health Centre who knew her and her family who came to her rescue and she was taken to an isolation room.

However, all along, people from the nearby Apala Trading Centre were peeping at the Health Centre asking about a person who had brought them the Corona virus. Meanwhile, while at the Health Centre’s Isolation Room her blood and other samples were taken, she was given some medicine, masks and gloves and told to go and isolate herself from home as they waited for the results of her tests.

Since the rural Apala Health Center had no ambulance, she had to walk home. But as she was leaving the health facility, one lady passed word around Apala Trading Centre that the corona virus victim was coming out of the Health Centre and that they should not allow her to pass by and spread the virus around town. At that particular time, the community’s belief was that a corona virus victim could contaminate all his/her surrounding environment with the virus! The young lady was shouted at, and people were calling her a prostitute and all sorts of derogatory names, while others wanted to lynch her. She had no option other than passing through thickets and bushes until she arrived home in the evening; very tired and exhausted. The family took all precautionary measures and isolated her in her own hut. Her mother in-law was given part of the protective gear of masks and gloves, and it was only her who took food and tea to her hut. During this time, we were told that she was remorseful and apologetic all the time; begging the family to forgive her because she did not intend to kill them all with the corona virus.

Mr. Paul Odida, far right, his wife in the middle and granddaughter on your right, and the research team members on the left at the time of our interaction. In the background on your left is the hut in which his daughter in-law was isolated. Photo taken by Phionah Alonyo.

Meanwhile, the entire village was wary of Odida’s family. His home was declared a no-go zone! No family member dared to leave the home least he or she was lynched by the angry villagers who thought that his family had brought the virus to finish off the entire village!

For three consecutive days the daughter in-law was isolated in her own hut and a nurse who had kept her number at Apala Health Centre usually called her to ask about her condition. On the fourth day, her results came out indicating that she had no corona virus! However, by this time, the declaration of her negative results could not change the community’s perception about her and her family for an inch. Their family’s community isolation and stigmatization continued.

Due to the communal isolation and stigma, Odida’s family was almost running out of basic necessities like salt, sugar and soap and at one time Paul telephoned and requested his own son to buy him a kilo of sugar and deliver it home but the son refused fearing to catch the virus! The situation was worsened because during the first wave of the corona virus (as I earlier on hinted),   in Uganda, the belief in the village was that since it is airborne, one victim could contaminate the air of the entire neighbourhood. Therefore no one dared come near Odida’s home! However, when his son in Southern Sudan heard about the family’s predicament, he sent him some money over the phone and one other daring young man who called him uncle bought all the supplies and brought them home declaring that if he were to die, he would die with his uncle other than seeing him and his family starve to death at home. Therefore, it was the supply of a sack of rice, sugar, ginger,  cooking oil, paraffin and other basic necessities plus his chicken and vegetables that pushed the family through the months within which the entire neighbourhood  was stigmatizing them. And throughout this time, Odida’s family was conducting church service at home.

It was around this time when the Alebtong District Health Officer and the Local Council 5 Chairman came to follow up with the case and along the way the community members stopped them saying that Odida’s home was a no-go-zone. The officials then called and invited the young woman to go to them but along the way people were running away saying ‘corona victim’. The Local Council Chairman and the District Health Officer had an impromptu meeting with the converging community members and informed them that the young woman did not have the corona virus and that they should stop mistreating her and Odida’s family unless they had personal vendetta against them. But even after this, they continued stigmatizing her and she couldn’t go to the communal bore hole to fetch water.

In total, Odida’s family was isolated by his community for three months. However, even though one can say that this communal behavior towards Odida’s family showed the community’s anti-corona virus vigilance; an approach that shielded them from the spreading of the virus, on the other hand it shows how the virus’ multifaceted claws tore apart the African communal fabric.  For people in an African setting where communality is part of the social menu, Odida’s family communal isolation and stigmatization was too much and unprecedented in his living memory – it was a socio-cultural crisis! And it was not only that, but also a medical one because it was during this very time that he also developed depression and hypertension. He was also worried that his daughter in-law will never set foot again at his home because of the gross stigmatization and stress that she faced while there.

However, when he critically looked back at his experience, humble and religious Paul said ‘it is only God who saved me and my family’. And when he was asked about the major lessons he picked from this predicament, he told us that:we should look after our health I am now more conscious than before and I cannot go to a public place without a mask… follow what the health officials tell you and it is good to go for medical checkup’.

For the Ugandan government which distributed face masks to Alebtong District communities almost a year after the first 2020 corona virus wave in Uganda he had this to say: ‘Government should always act immediately. It should not wait for a year to distribute masks’.

Commenting about his post-stigmatization relationship with the community Odida said:

We are on talking terms. Some seem ashamed but no one has ever asked for forgiveness … but I do not blame them much for treating me and my family the way they did because when I look back, I think if I had corona I would have killed so many people because a week before my daughter’s sickness, our catholic Bishop was around this place and we moved in four zones with him and other believers.

Even though at the time of our fieldwork in May 2021 Alebtong district had not had a corona virus victim, the above scenario shows the far reaching socio-cultural and psycho-social consequences of the pandemic even in areas where it did not physically set foot. The above story also shows that the advent of the corona virus came with a new phobia – Corona or COVID Phobia; a form of hatred directed towards both suspected and real corona victims. We have also heard and read about stories around the world where kinds of generalized attacks and hatred are directed towards people from countries where particular variants say COVID-19, Indian Delta and Omicron are suspected to have come from. This means that as governments and other institutions are focusing on telling people to wear masks and get immunized to hold this virus in its tracks, they should also find a way of offering psycho-social support to victims of gross COVID-Phobia or even sensitize the public about the effects of stigmatizing victims of the still unfolding corona pandemic.

By Dr. Richard Kagolobya