Gulu, Uganda – Despite the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring that COVID-19 “no longer qualifies as a global health emergency”, former COVID-19 patients in the Acholi sub-region are still battling stigma in their communities.
Florence Abalo, a social worker at Terra Renaissance, a non-profit organization in Gulu, said that they have been rolling out community outreach sessions to sensitize about the dangers of stigma in post post-COVID-19 era.
“We know that stigma is a big problem in northern Uganda,” Abalo says. “It has a big impact on our well-being and mental health, especially in northern Uganda where stigma is already common on war returnees, and this has now shifted to the COVID-19 patients”.
She also noted that the spillover effects of stigma towards former COVID-19 have also led to social upheavals such as dropping out of school, early marriages, death, and domestic violence.
Abalo also revealed that Terra Renaissance is currently training youths in the Acholi sub-region on how to make face masks and hand sanitizers, adding that such items are donated to the people, especially in rural places where accessing them is hard for many.
Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is an infectious respiratory disease caused by the SARS-COV-2 virus that can spread from person to person through sneezing and coughing droplets. Its symptoms are fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, and loss of taste or smell.
Despite the devastating impact of COVID-19, Juliet Aunu Okeny, a health worker from Alero Health Center III, says most community members are still not convinced that COVID-19 is real.
She, however, cautions people to follow strict operating procedures to catch COVID-19. She added that some people with underlying health complications such as lung or heart diseases, renal failure, or weak immune systems are highly susceptible to COVID-19.
“There are simple everyday actions that can help prevent the spread of the virus: avoid close contact with people who are visibly sick with flu-like symptoms (fever, cough, sneezing); avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands; wash your hands often with soap and running water for at least 20 seconds,” she said.
“If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and stay home when you experience these symptoms to avoid spreading illness to others. The sick are encouraged to use a facemask to cover their nose and mouth,” Aunu added.
She added that most people refused to get vaccinated to date due to their poor attitudes towards the vaccine. To ensure easy mass mobilization and sensitization, Aunu added, there is a need to involve Village Health Teams (VHTs), politicians, and religious leaders in a bid to fight vaccine mistrust.
One of the locals, who preferred anonymity, said he still fears being vaccinated against COVID-19 because he doesn’t trust the drugs.
“I have stronger immunity. Covid-19 is for town people who are exposed to open places than us who are always in the village,” he says.
Aunu urges multi-sectoral involvement of all stakeholders in a bid to create enough awareness about the value of vaccinations
“After that, we will create vaccination points at all public places and gatherings for easy access,” she adds.
Between 2020 and 12 July 2023, Uganda registered 171,729 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 3,632 deaths, according to WHO, while a total of 26,406,936 vaccine doses had been administered as of May 2023.