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Is COVID-19 virus the new leprosy?

'Could the COVID-19 virus become a sort of biological racism?' wonders Philip Maher in this edition of Mercy Traveller
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With confirmed cases of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Toronto and London, it’s getting close to Guelph — and it may already be here.

A sign at the entrance of Guelph General Hospital asks people if they have flu-like symptoms, and if they have recently been to China or had contact with anyone who has been.

The director of the World Health Organization Dr. Michael Ryan cautioned countries to “wake up and get ready” for COVID-19. “It is in your control to contain and we must not be complacent,” he said.

The world is in lock-down mode. Air Canada is following the lead of other airlines by cancelling flights to China. Invisible diseases like this tend to make people go a little crazy. One of the difficulties with any disease is stigma.

Historically, we saw how AIDS spread when the infected were unwilling to admit they were ill for fear of being shunned. Ebola in West Africa created grim times for medical workers who lived in the community, and in some cases, violence ensued — even resulting in beatings or murder at the hands of fearful villagers. Could it happen here?

In Ukraine, a mob stoned buses with citizens from a cruise ship who had finished their quarantine. I’d like to think we’d be different in our humble town of Guelph. But before we get all uppity, let’s ask: How would you react if your child were at school with some kid who had just finished quarantine or had just been to China? That’s a moral and philosophical question for each of us to ponder.

During the SARS virus outbreak in Canada in 2003, I happened to be in Uganda. I was headed for the Democratic Republic of Congo, driving through Rwanda. When the lone guard at the Rwanda border saw my Canadian passport, he stepped back, telling me that they did not let Canadians into Rwanda. I explained that I’d been in Africa for three weeks. The incubation period for SARS is much shorter, and besides, you can’t ban an entire nation from entering. He ran up a hill to call his boss in Kigali on his cell phone. He got approval for me to drive through Rwanda to the Congo as long as I did not stop. By the time I got to the Congo border, it was late at night and closed. I slept in my vehicle on the Rwanda side waiting for the border to open. So much for non-stop.

The stigma I felt made me feel infected, unclean and slightly ashamed. Unless with friends, I did not mention to anyone that I was Canadian for the rest of the trip. Stigma breeds secrecy.

At the time, I remember thinking that they should be more concerned with Ebola, cerebral malaria and yellow fever in Congo than with some Canadian who had been in Africa for a few weeks. But those are diseases they dealt with regularly—this one was new and foreign.

Back then, banning an entire country was unthinkable. Now it’s the norm. We’re banning countries like we’re ordering pizza toppings. In February, Trump banned all foreign nationals from entering the U.S. who had been in China. Saudi Arabia has suspended pilgrims arriving from two dozen countries.

The COVID-19 virus has become the new leprosy. Could this become a kind of biological racism? Will the formerly infected be required to wear a yellow star?

This virus has become a scary ghost. We fear invisible things we don’t understand. Sadly, like other things we can’t see or don’t understand—such as HIV/AIDS, addictions or mental health—we attach simple names like unclean, infected or crazy. And we run. It makes people want to protect themselves by sitting on their roof with a shotgun to keep strangers at bay.

If I’d been to China recently, would I admit it to my friends? Perhaps not. That is what stigma and lack of acceptance does. We make things worse by being secretive. Isn’t that part of the reason China has tried to keep a lid on how bad this is?

I remember the first time I cautiously shook the hand of a man with full-blown AIDS in a Nairobi slum. I’ve shaken many hands and hugged many survivors since. Of course, we need to be cautious. We don’t know where this is going. But I hope we can remain calm and avoid exacerbating the crisis by accepting those who have survived being infected by COVID-19.

Of course, we want to ensure that no harm comes to our loved ones or ourselves. But we also want to ensure that we do no harm physically or psychologically to survivors whether they are in Guelph, Toronto or any place in the world.

Stay healthy.