Nalzaro: Is Covid-19 a stigmatized disease?

Bobby Nalzaro

IT HAS been 48 hours since the Department of Health (DOH) confirmed that a native Cebuano has been infected with the dreaded coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19). The first case in Cebu. But until now, health authorities have failed to give an update and provide specific details about the patient. When I talk of specific details, I’m referring to the medical bulletin of the patient: his recent travel history, his whereabouts before he was diagnosed and the people whom he possibly interacted with before the result of his swab sample arrived which confirmed that indeed he was positive of the virus.

DOH 7 Director Jaime Bernadas was fuming mad when he confirmed it to the local media on Wednesday afternoon, March 18, 2020, because the report was already flashed in the DOH tracker website by their central office before he was even informed. It was the Cebu media that first got the information from the DOH tracker website. In other words, he was scooped.

As usual, Bernadas provided the local media with “generic” information. He only revealed that the person is a professional and has a travel history in Mindanao and the patient is in the process of recovering. Maybe as of this writing, the person whom they only tagged as Patient (PH) 188 has been discharged from the hospital.

Health officials miserably failed to provide other information about the patient. Were they able to trace the people whom PH188 interacted with before he was diagnosed? What is the status of these people? Are they under monitoring or investigation? Will they be required or forced to undergo quarantine or be tested for the virus? Why did health officials refuse to name the hospital where the patient was confined? Is the information really confidential? But why did health authorities in Manila reveal the name of the hospitals where Covid-19 patients were confined and died like the San Lazaro Hospital and other private hospitals in the metropolis? Are local health officials worried they might scare the public or they’re just protecting the business interest of these hospitals?

This is what I gathered about PH188. He is a known physician here in Cebu. A medical specialist. He went to Mindanao last March 6. He then operated on a patient in one of the hospitals here. During the last week of February, he was already showing symptoms of Covid-19 like a cough and colds. Last March 11, he was confined in a private hospital in Mandaue City where his attending physician took a specimen from him and sent to Muntinlupa to be tested for Covid-19. The result arrived last March 18.

According to my source, PH188 has a girlfriend who is also a physician, who “surrendered” to authorities upon learning that the former was positive for Covid-19.

She was subjected to a Covid-19 test and is now under quarantine. But what about the people whom the patient interacted with like the medical staff who assisted him during the surgical operation? What about his family and his friends? I doubt these people have been traced.

I may be asking these nonsense questions. But why not reveal the identities of Covid-19 patients? Are they covered under medical privacy or health privacy, which is the practice of maintaining the security and confidentiality of patient records under Republic Act 10173, or the Data Privacy Act, which protects individuals from unauthorized processing of personal information? Will they suffer public stigma? Is Covid-19 a stigmatized disease?

Other Covid-19 patients like Sen. Migs Zubiri, veteran actor Christopher de Leon, Hollywood actor Tom Hanks and wife Rita Wilson, NBA stars Rudy Gobert and Kevin Durant had the courage to publicly announce they were infected with the virus.

Amid the novel coronavirus, how do we weigh medical privacy against public safety? Where does someone’s medical privacy come into play? And what other medical ethics questions will arise or will be violated if we reveal the identifies of patients as some sort of precautionary measure?

This disease is curable and once a patient is cured or is found negative, he or she will no longer be considered a health risk and may no longer contaminate others. So does this mean that there is no more public stigma if a patient is cured? But stigma also occurs after a person is released from quarantine even though he or she is not considered a risk for spreading the virus. Stigma hurts everyone by creating fear or anger towards other people. And we cannot also blame people for discriminating against Covid-19 patients because of their ignorance of the disease.