COVID-19 in Kurdistan: Stigmatising a Public Health Emergency

Stigmatisation and denial hinder an effective strategy against the spread of the Corona Virus in Iraqi-Kurdistan

By Goran Zangana, 01.08.2020

Like in Albert Camus’s La Peste (The Plague), people in Kurdistan responded to COVID-19 in three phases all carrying seeds of stigma and discrimination.

First, like in Camus Oran, people in Kurdistan denied the importance of the outbreak. Citizens, as well as the authorities, ignored all the signs that something terrible about to happen and were slow to see the threat. Such response created stigmas at several levels. While the epidemic has not arrived yet, people started seeing themselves as superior to other societies that are already infected. In this vein, Kurds were viewed as immune from COVID-19 because they are religiously pure, have certain genes, got high levels of Vitamin D or enjoy more sunshine…etc. Mulas in Kurdistan, like Father Paneloux in The Plague, for example, claimed that COVID-19 only happens in people who eat Haram food such as consuming bats alive.

Looking for scaremongers

‘Pure Muslims’, therefore, according to this analysis should not get COVID-19. This religious-based denial created significant difficulties for public health measures such as closing mosques and preventing other religious gatherings. But it also resulted in outright discrimination against ‘infidels’ or people from countries where the outbreak happened first. Chinese people, for instance, were singled out in Kurdistan’s border closure and restriction of movement. On another level activists (particularly health workers) who highlighted the dangers of the epidemic were viewed as scaremongers who equate the ‘clean’ society of Kurdistan to the ‘dirty’ others. They were also accused of having particular political or economic agendas. This denial can be explained by the desire to continue ways of life and protect economic interests. However, Sooner or later, these narratives, fail to explain the spread of the pandemic and eventually people awake to the reality they find themselves in.

Around the end of May 2020, the second phase kicked in. COVID-19 became an undeniable reality as it was spreading in Kurdistan. In response, people started to look for explanations. One common argument was that COVID-19 is a foreign illness brought from outside. This narrative is consistent with the social response to outbreaks elsewhere. Iranian drivers of vehicles transferring goods across the border were singled out. Kurdish students coming back from Iran and Cyprus were forcefully put in quarantine.

Accusing health workers

Many in KRI accused Arabs from middle and southern Iraq who were visiting for tourism of bringing COVID-19 to the region. As case numbers spiked, however, explanations tended to internalise towards domestic suspects. Paradoxically, some accused healthcare workers for the health system’s poor response to the pandemic. Reports appeared on social media claiming that the kits used to take swabs from suspected cases carried the virus and were a tool for spreading the virus by healthcare workers. Many accused health workers who went on strike demanding salaries (that are no paid for months) of cowardice and inhumanity for abandoning patients when they are needed the most. These views perhaps contributed to attacks on health care facilities in KRI including one that devastated Kifri’s General Hospital.

Doctors in Khanaqin calling for help

Finally and as the outbreak in Kurdistan is reaching its peak and will eventually resolve, other explanations and forms of stigma and discrimination are likely to arise. Although we are not at that stage yet, but one can make certain predictions based on the trajectory so far. The relatives and families of those who died from COVD-19 will potentially suffer the burdens of social isolation and consequent economic consequences. For example, one of the most popular Falafel shops in Selemany has been deserted by customers because the owner died of COVID-19. Hotels and Motels that were used to quarantine confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients might suffer economically as people might tend to avoid using them in the future. More importantly, hospitals that are used to treat COVID-19 patients might be stigmatised and avoided by patients in the future.

In short, COVID-19 was stigmatised and infected people were discriminated against in KRI. Such stigma and discrimination appears to arise mainly from irrational thinking and behaviour resulting from fear and anxiety related to the outbreak. These narrative and consequent behaviours deserve close examination that situate them in cultural, social and religious contexts. Without such understanding, public health measures are likely to fail in controlling the pandemic.

This piece was first published in German in the Wadi Newsletter Summer 2020