In Africa, those who beat the virus continue to live under its cloud

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Kinshasa (AFP) - As coronavirus cases accelerate in Africa, those who recover from the virus find that their struggle is not over as denial of the disease and stigmatisation run deep across the continent.

People who have been treated for COVID-19 say they are ostracised in their communities, are discouraged from going to hospital and face constant suspicion that they are spreaders of the disease.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, indifference and disbelief toward coronavirus have become major obstacles for prevention teams.

Workers with watchdogs battling the virus have been threatened at knifepoint, while residents regularly defy them with cries of "corona eza te", or "there is no corona" in the local Lingala language.

"I am living proof: the disease exists. I will ask people who still have doubts to be very careful, because I can confirm that I suffered," said Thembo Kash, who lives in the capital Kinshasa.

"I think we have to take (coronavirus) seriously, respect social distancing and strictly follow the health authorities' advice," said the cartoonist, who would normally point out the inconsistencies emanating from the very same authorities in his satirical sketches.

Even government officials have admitted they did not take the virus seriously until they were directly affected.

"Like many I was sceptical. Like many, I thought this disease would stay in China. And yet I was a victim of this fatal disease," Acacia Bandubola, the country’s economy minister, said in an online video.

Bandubola recovered from COVID-19, but lost two relatives to the disease.

Survivors have a "duty and mission" to raise awareness, she said, adding: "Do not stigmatise the sick. Let us show compassion to those who need it.”

- 'I was afraid' -

People often continue to be shamed even after they have recovered from the virus, with many believing they are still endangering public health.

Awareness campaigns are needed to combat ignorance of the disease, and to prevent people from delaying medical treatment for fear of being associated with the virus, said journalist Dieunit Kanyinda.

The media in DR Congo has been vigilant in promoting awareness "so that people understand that this is not a disease of shame, that it can be cured," said Kanyinda, who has recovered from COVID-19.

"There is a stigma," he said. "My kids were nicknamed Covid in the neighbourhood. People called them Corona. This is the type of behaviour that drives people into hiding.”

In Senegal, the popular comedian Samba Sine, known as Kouthia, plans to devote a large part of his daily satirical programme to raising public awareness when he returns to television in two months' time.

Diagnosed with coronavirus at the beginning of May, he had to interrupt the programme on the private channel TFM for the first time in a decade.

The 49-year-old comedian spent 20 days in intensive care, and said he was on death’s door.

"There were five people, and every day I was told that someone had died," Sine said. "The last day, I looked to the right, there was no one there. On the left, no one. Just me. I was afraid."

Undoubtedly protected by his fame, he did not suffer discrimination. "People are praying for my recovery," he said.

But "people were running away" from members of his team who were also infected.

"We shouldn't run away from people, because sooner or later we will come back into society and we are going to be together," he said.

- 'Bad advice' -

In South Africa, the African country most affected by the disease with more than 76,000 cases, many who have recovered have eagerly looked to share their experiences.

The online campaign Living Corona Positive, which promotes itself as a patient guide to COVID-19, has racked up more than 10,000 followers on its social media pages.

Megan, 35, from Cape Town, launched the accounts in March after she and her family tested positive. The woman -- who did not wish to give her last name -- offers a platform for others to share their stories of healing from the virus, and gives advice about testing and treatment.

Christine, a 28-year-old analyst who was among South Africa's first 250 cases, has also become something of a spokesperson for recovery.

"Four of us at work had the disease," she said. "We have weekly sessions on (the videoconferencing application) Teams to talk to our colleagues about the disease and answer questions.”

Christine and her partner Dawie, a 30-year-old lawyer who also tested positive, both regret not going to the doctor as soon as they got sick.

"I am completely out of breath when I walk to the shops," said Dawie, who like Christine has lost nearly a third of his lung capacity.

"When we were sick, we were advised not to go to the hospital, not to spread the virus," he said. “It seems like it was bad advice."

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