By Nagham Makki
“I wouldn’t go to the bathroom during the workday, I would just try desperately not to go,” Asma Jaber recalls. “I’d wait until the end of the working day and use the bathroom at home. I was afraid that my colleagues would accuse me of infecting them with the virus because I was taking care of five members of my family who all had COVID-19.”
Jaber, who is in her 30s, lives in Basra, a large southern Iraqi city. During the day at work, she would wear a face mask and gloves and be sure to disinfectant or wash her hands regularly. She was continuously anxious that her colleagues would get sick and then accuse her of infecting them.
She tried to take precautions at home too – she would put her children in one room to play video games and then assist the sick members of her family in other rooms, while wearing her gloves and mask. She didn’t have holidays or sick leave left to take and needed to earn money so she continued to go to work.
“I was very careful and I was so afraid of transmitting the disease to others,” Jaber says. Nonetheless her colleagues nicknamed her Asma-Corona. Clients at her business would refuse to be served by her because they were frightened of getting sick.
“And I was not the only person who was bullied this way,” Jaber says. “Many of those who were infected when the health crisis first started, have also had to deal with this. It was like some sort of public shaming during that initial period.”
“When my colleagues called me ‘Corona-Asma’ I used to laugh with them but I felt like there was a knife in my heart,” she explains how anxious this made her. “I did think of quitting my job, especially after one of my co-workers asked me to stop coming to work. He told me that if I didn’t take leave, then he would. It was so unfair because I was just looking after my family.”
Unlike Jaber and her family, many Iraqis did not even tell others that they had caught COVID-19. They wanted to avoid being stigmatized or being labelled as “coronavirus families”. This sort of fear, shame and lack of information and transparency seems likely to have the outbreak in Iraq worse.
Both traditional media and the kinds of conversations going on, on social media promoted this kind of bullying and made it more widespread.
In some cities, there were rumours that vegetable sellers stopped selling their wares to anyone they thought was infected.
Thankfully, during the course of 2020, this kind of behaviour did change. As the virus spread and as there was more information about it, people began to adapt in a positive way – for example, the sellers at markets began to deliver their goods to families who were infected. They would simply leave the food at the doors of those homes.
Jaber still has not forgotten how she was treated by people she thought were her friends. And her battle with the virus didn’t end there.
Other members of her family also got sick and she eventually succumbed to it herself too.
“Finally I was able to take sick leave because of the virus,” she recounts. “But I am still worried. When I return to work will they find a new name to call me or will they keep calling me Asma-Corona?,” she says anxiously.