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Covid-positive doctor speaks out to end stigma

24 June 2020 - 15:46 By Nonkululeko Njilo and Naledi Shange
Joburg doctor Masego Meyer recently tested positive for Covid-19 and is speaking out to get rid of the stigma.
Joburg doctor Masego Meyer recently tested positive for Covid-19 and is speaking out to get rid of the stigma.
Image: Twitter

The stigma attached to Covid-19 for those diagnosed with the virus has prompted a Johannesburg-based doctor to publicly speak about her journey to healing.

Dr Masego Meyer, who recently posted her positive results on social media, said she wanted to create a healthy conversation on the virus as many approached it with fear and uncertainty.

Meyer said her symptoms started two weeks ago when she had a slight irritation in her throat. It continued for three days after she was exposed to harsh weather,  including the cold front, during her night shift at George Mukhari Academic Hospital.   

“I just thought my body was reacting to this and assumed it was the common cold,” she said. Meyer said she took a vitamin C supplement, which eased the pain slightly - but the symptoms would not go away.

“I got home obviously very fatigued but also with a tension headache, which is uncommon for me. This headache is what made me decide I should probably test for coronavirus.”

Meyer said she took to the internet to find a doctor in her area and request a test.

“The doctor charged me R450 cash upfront to do a consultation over the phone and sent me the referral lab form via e-mail. My boyfriend then drove me to Lancet to have the swab done. This cost about R850 when I asked but was charged to my medical aid,” she said. 

“They told me that the lab had a backlog so my result would be out in 48-72 hours [on] average - and maybe even over 72 hours.” 

On Saturday, she learnt that she was Covid-19 positive.

Meyer said she first noticed that there was a stigma around the virus in March, when the country recorded its first case. She noticed media reports in which families asked not to disclose the identity of those infected, for privacy reasons. She said this also happened in hospitals where staff members were infected but their identities are not revealed.

This is a public health crisis - a pandemic that affects all of us. Nothing should stay hidden ... We need complete transparency.
Dr Masego Meyer

“This tells us that there is fear among us regarding this virus, and there is fear of stigma and possible fear of being discriminated against and alienated by the communities in which we live, our workplaces, our families and friends,” she said.

“For me, this is a public health crisis - a pandemic that affects all of us. Nothing should stay hidden.

“I believe that for us as a country, as a people, to be able to beat this, we need complete transparency. If you know that Dr Meyer is infected, and you are my colleague and you were maybe in my car, or we had lunch together, or we work closely together every day, you are able to identify yourself as a contact and seek medical attention.”

While the government publicly revealed the number of those infected daily, Meyer said more people would be cautious if they knew exactly who had contracted the virus. 

“If we don't know who is infected, how can we know whether we've been exposed? When I told my family in the North West, it finally registered for them that this virus exists. I think for a lot of people, it needs to hit close to home and only then will we realise how real this is.”

She said a lot more could be done to educate and raise awareness to avoid people being in denial or getting confused when they contract the virus. 

"I think most are just confused and do not know what to make of it. Although they've heard about this virus on the news, they lack insight about the virus. I think we all lack insight about it to some degree. We merely just depend on the experiences and accounts of people who have first experience about it, either through being infected themselves or treating those that are infected," she said.   

Meyer has taken to it upon herself to share her journey with her social media followers under the hashtag #RealPeopleTalkCovid. A number of other people infected with the virus have since joined the conversation, sharing their experiences as well as their coping mechanisms and remedies. 

"I have learnt a lot since my disclosure on social media. I've had people who have now recovered tell me what medications and remedies they've used - even though they are not medical professionals - and I'm heeding all their advice,” she said. 

Asked if she felt there had been enough personal protective equipment (PPE) supplied to people in the medical fraternity, Meyer said the situation had improved and the government was trying its best to meet the demand. She recalled how doctors had to recycle the same masks and in some instances buy PPE using their own money. 

“I remember when we had our first case and our first suspects, there was barely any PPE. As the cases started increasing, we started complaining more and more to management. Over the past one to two weeks, there's been enough PPE for everyone, in the form of gloves, masks, disposable gowns, gloves, which three to four weeks ago were difficult to attain,” she said. 

"From April to around the first week of June, we were being asked to recycle masks as they didn't have enough for everyone. Some doctors were wearing the same masks for two to three 3 days, some for a week, and some had to buy for themselves so they wouldn't have to recycle.” 

The pandemic has wreaked havoc, causing massive job losses, for example. Meyer said she was grateful to still have a job, as well as a good support structure. She expressed gratitude at being able to share her story, which she hopes will help encourage a healthier, more open conversation around Covid-19.