Blaring in its uniquely attention-grabbing manner, an ambulance rolls into the apartment complex. In a few seconds, there is a flurry of messaging on an internal WhatsApp group.

Frenzied questions tumble, one over the other. They have curiosity written all over them.

Which flat has called for the ambulance?

What for?

Is it COVID-related?

There is a lot of anxiety around COVID-19, and scenarios like this lead to considerable speculation, which is not good for any neighbourhood.

So, how does one deal with it?

K. Satish Karthik, a resident of Radiance Mercury, an apartment complex with 400 flats in Perumbakkam, recalls how some people panicked when a resident tested positive.

“Initially, the Association had a policy that they would not reveal the person’s name and other details, but the group was getting many messages that the resident himself opened up that he is being treated for COVID-19,” says Karthik.

Later, with more people being tested positive in areas in the vicinity, the apartment association thought it was better to have residents informed than allowing rumours to float around, causing people to speculate hard on the matter, and make some misleading inferences. Besides, many residents of a gated community wanted to know what steps were being taken by the Association towards having the area fumigated.

Recently, another resident from a block tested positive and the Association immediately put out a message in the common WhatsApp group. A birthday party was also being celebrated on the same floor, so there was an urgency to alert.

“We also informed people that the person would be admitted in a hospital the next day and all residents on the floor, including those who attended the birthday party should quarantine themselves for 14 days,” says Karthik, a block representative.

Speculation and misinformation can fuel needless fear and therefore residents’ associations must issue statements that put all stakeholders in the picture, and help them take the right steps based on reliable information.

The fact that residents’ association is tackling the issue can be reassuring for the family members of the person who has tested for COVID-19, as well as other residents of the community.

According to a World Health Organisation communication, stigma can “undermine social cohesion and prompt possible social isolation of groups. It can drive people to hide the illness to avoid discrimination; prevent people from seeking health care immediately; and discourage them from adopting healthy behaviours.”

Positive communication

C.K. Mohan, a committee member of an apartment complex in Anna Nagar, feels regular communication is key to keeping residents’ morale up. It begins with clearly detailing the steps that ought to be taken by the Association and sharing best practices followed by others.

“Ours is a small community and we have shared certain roles, and communication is key to making these roles effective. I, for instance, monitor the Twitter handle of Chennai Corporation and pass on any new information in our group, only if it’s relevant,” says Mohan.

Warriors do the talk

Neighbours play an important role in making sure that a family with a COVID-19 positive member is not pushed into social isolation of a psychological kind.

“After a person tested positive in Mandaveli, a couple in their 80s wanted to get themselves tested for COVID-19 but did not want to go to the hospital. We arranged for a doctor to test them at home and started talking to them regularly to give them hope and lend them support whatever be the result,” says Vasanthi Sampath, secretary of Mandaveli 6th Trust Cross Street Residents Association. Fortunately, the elderly couple tested negative.

In Mylapore and surrounding areas, she says, people have been working informally to support families with a COVID-19 positive member. Says Vasanthi, “Another way by which we build the confidence of a family in quarantine or those being treated for COVID-19 is to connect them with people who have successfully fought the virus. Many a time, instead of a pep talk from me, the effect is manifold when a person who has recovered from COVID talks directly to the person affected.”

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