Surviving COVID-19 and fighting stigma in Uganda

WHO Africa

Kampala: When 30-year-old Ugandan entrepreneur Laura Nagasha returned from a holiday in Dubai in March, Uganda was yet to register any confirmed cases of COVID-19, and Dubai was not on the list of high-risk countries for the virus. Nagasha was tired from a busy trip and had developed a slight cough, but felt fine otherwise. After her arrival she decided to stay with friends for a while rather than returning straight home to her parents.

But when Uganda’s first case was imported from Dubai on 21 March, Nagasha knew she needed to get tested, despite feeling some trepidation about doing so: “At the time they discovered that first patient, a lot of travellers were being harassed by people in their communities and being accused of bringing the virus into the country,” she says.

The government hotlines were already being flooded with calls, but through the Ministry of Health, Nagasha got a team to come and test her. She was shocked when her results came back positive. “It was just a mess. I was crying. You can’t believe that you have this new killer disease,” she recalls. Following government protocol, she was promptly isolated in Mulago Hospital in Kampala. “It was pretty scary,” she says.

But as a long-time social activist, Nagasha decided she could use her time in isolation to help the cause of other patients. “There was a lot of hateful talk going on, instead of compassion being shown,” she says. “So eventually that’s what prompted me to say: ‘I know I have this disease in my body, but I feel okay. I am undergoing isolation and did what the doctors are telling me. I don’t honestly see anything I should be ashamed about.’”

Nagasha wrote an article about her experience, which went viral on social media. She started receiving calls from journalists and did a local TV interview. “When I got out of hospital, I wanted to use these platforms to talk about stigma. Suspected cases were being beaten up in their communities, or even kicked out. But it was because people were scared. They were trying to protect themselves, they were just not doing it the right way.”

Since the beginning of the outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been working alongside communities across Uganda to fight the stigma associated with COVID-19, as well as providing technical support for clinical and psychosocial care for patients. With support from WHO and partners, Uganda’s Ministry of Health sends health workers into homes and communities before recovered patients return home to help prepare them and to fight stigma. A key message of risk communications teams on the ground across the country is “Do not discriminate”. Alongside this messaging, testimonies from former patients like Nagasha remain vital in raising awareness and fighting stigma.

Now back to running her catering business in Kampala, she continues to speak out whenever she can, encouraging other recovered patients to donate plasma, or motivating her community to respect public health measures to help slow the spread of the virus. “People really need to follow the guidelines and be mindful of others,” she says. “The quicker we get rid of this thing, the better for everyone, for businesses, for the economy. We should all do our part.”

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