BEIRUT: "Everyone will avoid my family and look at them with fear,” Dr. Naim Ballout told The Daily Star. Ballout tested positive for Covid-19 on April 16 and has so far only told close friends and family fearing a backlash from his neighbors.
While in times of difficulty people may turn to their neighbors for emotional support and also practical support, both the fear of discrimination and actual discrimination is likely to add to the isolation and emotional distress of those who have coronavirus.
Dr. Abdul Bizri, a specialist in infectious diseases at AUB and a member of the Health Ministry’s crisis committee, told The Daily Star that in some cases neighbors of those who test positive for Covid-19 have been panicking due to misinformation, with some people wrongly believing that patients self-isolating at home can spread the virus through the walls of apartments, leading to hostility. However, Bizri says accurate coronavirus information campaigns have reduced this problem across the country.
The very real danger of coronavirus can also lead to justifiable fear, the brunt of which coronavirus patients bear. Zeina, who preferred only to be referred to by her first name for fear of discrimination, described to The Daily Star the harrowing first day when she tested positive for Covid-19. Although she felt quite healthy, the call confirming that she had tested positive dramatically changed her mindset.
“I was really relaxed, I didn’t feel so sick. [Meanwhile], when they called and said I needed an ambulance, they were panicking. Suddenly I felt as if I would die in 10 minutes.”
Zeina opted to drive to the Rafik Hariri public hospital herself, arriving to a chaotic scene which she described as staff screaming at people to get away from her because she was infectious. While the staff's fear and urgency was understandable, for Zeina the experience was dehumanizing, “I felt like infection walking.”
Afterward, while made to wait for an hour before entering the isolation unit, Zeina sat on a chair overwhelmed and crying.
This is an ordeal being faced by a significant portion of the more than 3 million around the world who have contracted COVID-19, which has already killed more than 234,000 lives and is claiming thousands on a daily basis.
Held in isolation wards with little physical human contact, many are uncertain as to how they and their families will be treated by their neighbors.
Such experiences can prove traumatic even if patients experience only mild symptoms, as was the case with Ballout and Zeina, “It triggered something in me, I felt like a prisoner,” Zaina told The Daily Star. “I went completely crazy.”
Dr. Rabih Chammay, the head of the MOPH’s National Mental Health Program, told The Daily Star that because patients face a long period during which their only physical human contact is health care workers, he believed it essential that health care workers have guidance on how to provide emotional support.
Consequently, the National Mental Health Program has created a checklist for nurses detailing how to tend to patients well-being, as well as procedures if patient's mental health deteriorates or if they have pre-existing mental health issues.
A section of the extensive list instructs nurses to regularly check on patients’ moods and also to recommend physical and breathing exercises.
Asserting that these daily interventions from the nurses helped her a great deal, Zeina described how the nurse raised her spirits through comforting conversations, and how the their calmness around her proved reassuring following the fear she had felt when she arrived at the hospital.
Ballout also said he found isolation at hospital a depressing experience, but emphasized the role of his close friends and family in calling him and being supportive. “I barely had time to eat in those first few days,” he told The Daily Star.
While nurses providing support in the hospital was welcome but not unusual, Zeina told The Daily Star she was surprised by the amount of care she received even after leaving. “It’s the first time in my life where I felt like the government really cared for me,” she said.
Over the course of the month following her release from the hospital during which Zeina isolated herself at home until she finally tested negative for COVID-19, she said at times her mental health deteriorated and she started to imagine hearing her two elderly parents coughing, prompting fears that she had infected them.
Thankfully, Zeina said the regular calls she received from a mental health professional from the MOPH during this period of anxiety helped her to recover mentally until she was in a good place.
While not all coronavirus patients experience significant emotional distress, with Bayan Rafeh telling The Daily Star he had been fairly relaxed during his period in isolation at hospital, the cases of Ballout and Zaina show the varied ways that testing positive for COVID-19 can be harmful.
With this in mind, Dr. Rabih Chammay emphasized to The Daily Star that it was essential that those who contract coroanvirus be treated with kindness and compassion.