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Stigma, anxiety make aftermath almost as bad for Covid survivors

By Dang Khoa, Long Nguyen   August 24, 2021 | 07:17 pm PT
Many Covid-19 patients who survived the disease are haunted by continuing health issues and social stigma.

Aware that people around them are scared of the virus, Covid survivors are mostly keeping a low profile, scrupulously adopting preventive measures and avoiding others.

As of Wednesday morning 162,275 people had recovered after contracting the coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic, with more than 369,200 infected patients.

Physical and mental issues linger for many of them.

"I tested negative before they allowed me to go home, but my body keeps aching, I cannot eat or breathe normally and cannot smell anything," Nguyen Thi Dai of Saigon’s Go Vap District, who lost five kilograms in less than a month when sick, says.

A Covid-19 patient (R) listens as a nurse talks to her about follow-up protocols as she is about to be discharged from Hanois National Hospital of Tropical Diseases, May 26, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

A Covid-19 patient (R) listens as a nurse talks to her about follow-up protocols as she is about to be discharged from Hanoi's National Hospital of Tropical Diseases, May 26, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

In the last few weeks many Facebook groups for Covid patients have been set up, attracting thousands of members who share their experiences with the virus and its aftermath.

Many of them speak about symptoms that persist like fatigue, cough, joint and muscle pain, and loss of smell and taste.

"I cannot smell and do not want to eat anything. Can you please tell me when I will feel normal again?" one person asked in a group.

Many also face anxiety and depression.

In Binh Tan District, HCMC’s Covid hotspot, migrant worker Nguyen Thanh An has been tortured by anxiety and insomnia after being discharged from hospital in early August.

Believing he contracted the coronavirus from his colleagues, An says: "I cannot sleep when thinking about patients at field hospitals struggling to breathe, and worrying about the thousands of new patients every day. I try to avoid the news but cannot."

In the last few weeks, he has tried to exercise and practice breathing techniques to recover.

Experts have warned about the high risk of Covid survivors getting post-traumatic stress disorder, especially those who were in intensive care.

A third of patients suffer from neurological conditions such as depression and anxiety within six months of contracting the coronavirus, according to a study published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal of some 236,000 patients.

Rumors and social stigma worsen the situation, making it difficult for many survivors to return to normal life.

When Nguyen Thi Kieu Oanh returned to her home in the northern Bac Ninh Province after spending two weeks battling the virus at the National Hospital of Tropical Diseases in Hanoi last month, neighbors began whispering she had contracted the virus from a secret boyfriend.

"They said I did not follow preventive measures, and told me not to return home even if I test negative and am discharged from the hospital," Oanh says.

She does not dare talk to or meet any of her neighbors, who have been avoiding her since she returned.

"Some people saw me hanging my clothes in the yard and sprayed alcohol around themselves."

The stigma has caused many survivors to lose their jobs or livelihoods.

In Binh Tan District, Le Kim Cuc’s landlord told her not to return home after recovery.

"She called me at the hospital and said she would pack my belongings and I should find a new place to stay after I recover because she did not want other people in the house to face the risk of coming into close contact with me," Cuc says.

After pleading with her landlord to let her stay for two days, he temporarily moved in with a friend.

"Recovering from Covid-19 should be good news, but for me it was awful because I had no idea where I could stay after being discharged from hospital."

Last year the Ministry of Health and WHO called on people not to discriminate against Covid-19 patients.

Three Covid-19 patients (R) are admitted to a field hospital in HCMCs Thu Duc City, July 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa

Three Covid-19 patients (R) are admitted to a field hospital in HCMC's Thu Duc City, July 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa

Not all doom and gloom

"I stay at home and two neighbors help me buy groceries and food," Nguyen Thanh Trung of HCMC’s District 10 says.

"They are all strangers but are nice to me knowing I was a Covid patient."

He says the support and kindness of people have helped him feel better in the battle against the aftermath of Covid.

After the harrowing memories of the pain and fear they felt while battling the virus, many survivors post their excruciating experiences and journey of recovery on social media. Their goal is to arm potential and new patients with information that could be useful when battling the coronavirus.

On Facebook groups like ‘Giup Nhau Mua Dich’ (Helping Others Amid Pandemic) and ‘F0 Khong Co Don’ (F0 Are Not Alone) [F0 refers to Covid patients], recovered patients list resources and tools that help deal with stress and grief and even how to speak to children about Covid.

Vy Le, a Covid survivor, wrote in 'F0 Khong Co Don': "Encouragement and communication are very important to help Covid patients overcome the illness. So after you or your family recover, please keep reaching out to friends and acquaintances to see if they need any help."

Some recovered patients have also volunteered and participated in epidemic prevention activities.

Nguyen Hong Ky is one of them.

After recovering he returned to the field hospital where he was treated on August 16 to help support patients being treated there.

He has been assigned to work in the recovery room for critically ill patients requiring oxygen. Though coming into contact with the virus is a given, he often jokes, "Now I'm immortal, the virus can't do anything to me."

The 34-year-old from Binh Tan District hopes the city will soon bring the outbreak under control so that he can reopen his street food stall. But for now he is determined to stay at the hospital to take care of patients and spread optimism and positivity.

Meanwhile, Nguyen Thi Nam, who was treated at a field hospital in Ho Chi Minh City’s Hoc Mon District, is praying every day that her family members, who are still under treatment, will return home soon.

"I want my son and husband to come home so that I do not have to face this coronavirus aftermath alone."

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