Corona stigma killed our son, says Coast family

Monday, April 20th, 2020 00:00 |
George Winjira (centre) displays a portrait of Clinton Shilisia at their home in Ganjoni, Mombasa, yesterday. He is accompanied by his wife Edith and their son Astley. Photo/PD/BONFACE MSANGI

Murimi Mutiga @murimimutiga

“I am troubled, traumatised and my heart is bleeding, my family has been isolated by relatives, friends and neighbours.

We have been left on our own, yet my son did not die from the novel coronavirus.” 

These are the words of Mzee George Winjira, a resident of Ganjoni area in Mombasa, who claims his son was “condemned to death by medics” who abandoned him at his hour of need, because of fear he had contracted Covid-19.

Four days after his son’s death, Winjira says, the National Public Health Laboratories confirmed that Clinton Shilisia, 27, had died of a respiratory infection and not Covid-19. 

Winjira says his son died because of the stigma surrounding victims of the disease that is sweeping across the world. 

Shilisia, who was a Master of Business Administration (MBA) student at Kenyatta University, was taken to Pandya Memorial Hospital, Mombasa, after he developed fever, chest pains and general body weakness on March 30.

He was given antibiotics and told to go back home and isolate himself from his family, an indication that he could have been suffering from coronavirus.

Handle case

However, a day later, his condition deteriorated and he developed breathing difficulties.

On April 1, he was taken back to Pandya at around 6pm but medics said they could not handle his case because “the hospital was not fully prepared for his admission”.

“Referring above named patient to your facility as a Covid-19 suspect for testing and possible isolation as our facility is not fully prepared for his admission.

In view of his worsening condition despite no comorbidities patient presented with worsening cough, associated with fever, chest pain and general body malaise,” read a referral note from Pandya to the Coast General Hospital.

At Pandya, they had waited for about two hours before the doctor who had treated him could be traced. 

“When she saw it was the same case she had treated, she wrote us the referral note. They said the hospital could not handle the case,” Winjira says.

The distraught family arrived at Coast General hospital at 9pm but doctors there ruled out a Covid-19 infection on Shilisia and instead prescribed a stronger antibiotic.

“He was very ill, but they asked us to go back home. I was left in a dilemma because I had hoped they would test him for coronavirus. I carried my son back into the car and went home feeling helpless.

I felt he was really sick and needed close monitoring in hospital but no one wanted to get close to him,” he laments.

On April 4, Shilisia’s condition got worse. “He was struggling to breath, at around 6pm, he collapsed as I was cleaning him so that we could go back to Pandya. I grabbed him and drove with him to the hospital.” 

However, Pandya referred them back to Coast General hospital.

“We drove to the Covid-19 isolation section and before we could enter we met the same doctor who had attended to him. He asked us to take him to the general emergency wards,” Winjira says.

Know details

Shilisia was declared dead a few minutes later.

Contacted for a comment, Mombasa county Chief Officer for Medical Services, Khadija Shikely, said she could not comment on the case because she did not know all the details.

“I am still inquiring on the case, I will let you know after a while,” said Shikely in a phone call.

Our efforts to get a comment from the management of Pandya Hospital were futile.

An employee who picked our phone call told us to wait for the right person who could respond on the issue. However, after calling again, no one responded.

 Shilisia’s family has been left distraught by the incident and is demanding answers. 

“What followed my son’s death is even more traumatising and we have been stigmatised. People think we have coronavirus.

The doctors told us to go home and self-isolate as we waited for results of Covid-19 test from my son’s body,” said Winjira.

The samples were sent to the National Public Health Laboratories in Nairobi and on April 8, results showed Shilisia had tested negative for the virus.

After his son’s death, Winjira had requested that his family be tested for the virus. 

“They said they could not test us until my son’s results were out. We had to wait for fours days but this felt like a month. On the second day, my blood pressure shot up, my wife felt sick and she could not eat.

I drove to the hospital at 2am together with my first-born and wife. We waited until 9am the next day but they still could not test us for the virus despite my insistence,” said Winjira.

Even in death, stigma continued to haunt Shilisia. His father says he sought help to have a postmortem conducted on the body but the pathologist at Coast General Hospital declined, “for fear he could contract the virus”.

“Even after presenting the Covid-19 test report, the pathologist refused to conduct the postmortem. I wanted to know what killed my son before I could bury the body,” says Winjira.

But he would soon realise that burying even those who have died from other causes has become a difficult task. After getting his son’s Covid-19 results, the family was ordered to bury their kin within 24 hours but the dilemma was how they would transport the body to Lumakanda, his home in Kakamega county. 

“We were given the burial permit but we could not transport the body to Kakamega because of the cessation of movement order issued by President Uhuru Kenyatta in the four counties most affected by Covid-19,” he says.

Exhume body

After consultation with his family, Winjira decided to bury his son at the Mbaraki cemetery, Mombasa, on April 12.

He says doctors, nurses, mortuary attendants and pathologists could not get close to the body, “they condemned him as a Covid-19 case even before tests were done”. 

“He died because he was not given the necessary attention,” he laments.

“I plan to exhume my son’s body and give him a decent burial back home. Luhya traditions dictate that I must do so. I suspect my son succumbed to pneumonia. I have to exhume the body after this coronavirus madness is over,”  he adds.

At Winjira’s Ganjoni home, neighbours who saw People Daily journalists entering the compound gathered outside, talking in hushed tones. 

“They were staring at us as if we were unwanted visitors in their estate,” said journalist Boniface Msangi.

Edith Winjira, the mother of the deceased, says Shilisia was his best friend and his spirit is still haunting her “because we buried his body at a public cemetery”.

She says her son died because of the stigma associated with Covid-19. 

“All people have turned away from us. They believe we have coronavirus, though it is not a sin to get sick with the virus,” says Edith.

She believes her son’s life could have been saved were it not for the stigma. 

“I have forgiven those who have tortured us with this stigma. My son was condemned as a coronavirus case even before tests were done. The last two weeks have been very difficult for me,” she says.

Dr Salim Mohamed Ahmed, who has come into contact with Covid-19 patients in Mombasa, says medical personnel have not been spared the social stigma associated with the virus. 

“People started keeping away from us for fear we could be carrying the virus,” he says.

However, Dr Ahmed feels people are justified to keep distance. 

“I believe stigma is good, it helps people to become more cautious. I don’t see this as stigma, health workers are riskier because they are the front line soldiers against the virus.” 

The doctor said some specialist doctors had stopped going to hospitals because most of the health facilities are not adequately equipped to deal with the disease.

“There is fear even among doctors, nobody wants to expose themselves,” he said.

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