01 March 2021
Edrine Mukalazi a teacher of Literature and English at Insula Secondary School in Kitasiba village in Kyotera district about 60km from Kyotera town on the Mutukula highway has a stunning experience with COVID-19 infection he will never forget. A positive test result and the consequent mandatory isolation made him a village pariah and he nearly starved to death.
“When I came back home after testing positive for COVID-19, my immediate neighbour locked herself and her children in the house,” he says. Mukalazi stays alone in his house avoiding interactions with neighbours and friends as a “safety net”. Socializing moments and comfort he would enjoy if he would have mingled with other people were no more. Therefore, being shunned by these people was overbearing yet understandable.
It all started in November 2020, when two students at Insula Secondary School tested positive for COVID-19 at Kakuuto Health Center (IV) following presentation with flu-like signs and symptoms. The school management was concerned and they, in turn, alerted the Kyotera District COVID-19 Task Force and the World Health Organization (WHO) field team.
Mandatory COVID-19 testing of all students and teachers was ordered leading to the detection of 45 students and 2 teachers, one being Mukalazi. The District Health Team with support from WHO teams recommended immediate isolation and treatment of the students and teachers.
While isolation and treatment of students within the school premises went well, it was not the case for Mukalazi who was isolated at his home, a few meters across the school. As the count for the days went on the rumours and misinformation about the students and teachers spread like a wildfire causing near stampede and sadly total rejection of the affected in the community.
Mukalazi nearly starved to death. “I could not buy foodstuffs from the neighbourhood and the village as a result of stigma, yet I was observing the Standard Operating Procedures and guidelines recommended by the Ministry of Health.” He was also denied access to all essential social services such as community wells, boreholes, and other amenities.
His luck for survival lay in a fellow teacher who braved the stigma to bring him food and other necessities. The District Health Team members who often monitored and checked on his progress also helped a lot by way of supplies and food.
The second teacher who tested positive did not fare any better either. “My other colleague operates a shop in the trading centre, but people rejected this shop till the end of the year 2020,” Mukalazi recounts. In fact, all teachers of Insula Secondary School were rejected by the community.
To mitigate the situation, the district authorities, Uganda Red Cross Society, AMREF and WHO stepped in to assuage the anxieties and fear. With generous funding from the Irish Government, they mounted a rapid community engagement intervention that addressed the stigma.
Under this support, the entire Insula school community was offered psychosocial services and information on the basics of COVID-19 prevention, control and treatment. The whole school was also disinfected in clear view of community members and other sceptics.
The amiable Resident District Commissioner, Major David Matovu led the task force which led a community response intervention reaching individuals, families and community leaders. They dispelled misconception, rumours and misinformation in addition to offering psychosocial support. The team also used FM radio stations managing to reach many people with correct information and messages.
The DHT and the WHO team engaged the parents of the affected and assured them about the safety of their children. This was further facilitated by the quick recovery of the affected students without needing hospitalization. These activities allayed fears which greatly lessened the widespread stigmatization.
The situation is slowly returning to normal in Kakuuto Sub County and at Insula Secondary School. The rejection, isolation, and denial of social amenities for the teachers and students of Insula are increasingly being talked about as an issue of the past. But for Mukalazzi, the experience is still vivid and is one he will always live to tell.
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