Panic has gripped the nation with the emergence of Covid-19 and while we are fortunate to live in a technological age with ready access to information, we also cannot completely escape the 24-hour news cycle with its continuous influx of information through electronic and social media platforms. And while quite a few of these platforms provide us with real insights, we also see several self-appointed experts who offer misleading advice and create panic.
Covid-19 is an egalitarian disease which affects everyone, regardless of their station in life or their socioeconomic status. On World Tuberculosis (TB) Day, it is worth reflecting on the lessons learned from TB in the time of Covid-19. Those of us on the frontlines of the fight against TB (in all its changing forms) have witnessed many of the same trends now circulating regarding the novel coronavirus. The fear, the stigmatisation, the blaming of the poor, and the armchair philosophising by the unaffected and privileged.
In this time of rampant information and misinformation, it is easy to conjure up conspiracy theories, disguise them as facts, and pass out advice — all with a faulty premise and even faultier morality. One such example is the stigma that people begin to associate with a specific illness and then start discriminating against those who test positive for it. That is something we have to stop and instead institute in ourselves a degree of sensitivity so we protect everyone's privacy irrespective of whether they do or do not test positive to an illness and be kind and supportive to those who are suffering.
Anyone can get the highly transmittable Covid-19 but it has been observed that those who are getting it are being stigmatised. Those who come into contact with a patient are being stigmatised. And not only that, even health workers have not been spared: the very people whom we count on to fight this fight for all of us. We must confront such behaviour and tendency to blame the affected irrespective of their social class because what Covid-19 has shown us is that in this fight for survival, we cannot win if we do not act in support of each other. Support each other, while practicing social distancing.
The concept of social distancing has also not been explained to and framed for the public properly. We can maintain social cohesion while maintaining adequate physical distance of about six feet with someone who isn't a Covid-19 patient and does not have any symptoms.
Please know that for now there are no approved treatments available for Covid-19. All treatments that have been used are improvisations, experimental or are currently in clinical trials that are yet to reveal their side effects. For all mild to moderate cases of Covid-19, self-isolation is the right thing to do as it would allow those who are old and/or are experiencing a severe form of the illness to have ready access to healthcare.
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Most Pakistanis have likely heard of TB, which remains the highest cause of worldwide deaths due to any infectious disease. In the battle against TB, one of the most important lessons we learned is the real impact on working people and how the burden is highest on those already burdened by life, such as labourers, young mothers, the old and the infirm. Those afflicted with TB will bear a double burden if they also get affected by Covid-19 which affects the respiratory tract.
In this hour, what we need is the application of our core principles of solidarity and togetherness. We need unity in the sense that we are all in this together; that we can overcome this through compassion rather than mocking national efforts to combat the pandemic. We need to collectively believe and support our already fragile healthcare system and that if we follow the scientific evidence on physical distancing, early testing, and rational treatment — we may yet survive this crisis.
We need to educate one another without discrimination and ensure that we adhere to the guidelines around prevention. We must also resist the urge to forward unverified information and we need to respond in a manner that utilises the best evidence possible.
Covid-19, like TB, does not make people unworthy of our empathy. Anyone can get infected. And this is not a death sentence but a call to action. Let’s learn from TB on this World Tuberculosis Day. Let’s do better this time around.
Dr Uzma Khan is a physician and a global public health professional, with expertise in tuberculosis and related infectious diseases. She is an advocate of health equity and hopes for a more unified and compassionate world post Covid-19. She tweets @imuzk
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