Covid-19 Exclusives: How the Medically Ailing Survive the MCO

PEOPLE LIVING WITH health anxieties and existing medical conditions had enough to be anxious about without Covid-19, but the Movement Control Order (MCO) brought a new set of worries to contend with. Penang Monthly speaks to three individuals about what it means to be cut off, to a degree, from seeking medical attention.

Nasrullah*, Suffering from Anxiety Disorder

When the surge of Covid-19 cases in China started to make headlines last January, 36-year-old sales representative Nasrullah* found himself worrying. Every time someone sneezed, he started thinking the worst. “My sister-in-law runs a car rental business at the Penang International Airport; whenever she visits my house, I’ll ask her to wash her hands before touching anything. Soon after that, I told her to stop coming by.”

Tired of getting anxious all the time, Nasrullah has started to take proactive steps to get a grip on his emotions.

This has inevitably put a strain on Nasrullah’s relationship with his sister-in-law, but he says he tries not to dwell on it too much, not when he has a five-year-old child at home to protect.

Nasrullah would also keep abreast of Covid-19-related news, constantly monitoring the number of confirmed cases and googling ways to keep his family safe. “I can’t stop myself from reading news reports or citing information I had learned. My anxiety increased and it started to interfere with my job,” he says. “I’m falling behind in my work because I’d spend a few hours a day sanitising myself, my house, and even my groceries.”

Nasrullah became convinced that he too had contracted the virus. He had developed a prolonged cough and flu-like symptoms during the first weeks of the MCO. “I didn't have a fever or breathing difficulties, but I read somewhere that 80% of people who tested positive for the illness showed no symptoms.”

To clear his doubts, Nasrullah decided to schedule a visit to his doctor. “Coincidentally, I had just moved to Pulau Tikus from Sungai Ara, so I had to drive more than 10km to see my physician, who has my medical record. Luckily, I wasn’t stopped at roadblocks. It turned out that I have rhinosinusitis, which can be managed with a simple nasal drainage and anti-inflammatory medicine,” he says.

A month later, Nasrullah developed a severe headache. “It felt like someone was poking a needle to my cranial nerves every few minutes.” His anxiety returned with a vengeance. “It could have been an undocumented or a new symptom of Covid-19. So, just to be sure, I went for an MRI scan at a nearby hospital,” he says.

It was his rhinosinusitis acting up again. Tired of getting anxious all the time, Nasrullah started taking proactive steps to get a grip on his emotions. “I started setting limits on my news intake. I used to diligently follow the daily press conferences by the Health Director-General, but not anymore. And knowing that Penang has stayed on top of things has helped too,” he says.

Carmel Dominic, a Diabetic

For people living with diabetes, a pandemic easily triggers anxiety and depression. These are further amplified by the stress of possible job loss, inaccessibility to insulin, medications and healthy food, as well as disruptions to daily routines.

But for former journalist Carmel Dominic, nothing much has changed. Diagnosed with diabetes three years ago, Carmel has settled into what she describes as her “new normal”. “I was already under a self-imposed quarantine, recovering from a long-term illness,” she says, adding that her access and supply to healthy food and medications during the MCO was uninterrupted since grocery shopping and hospital visits were still allowed.

Diagnosed with diabetes three years ago, Carmel Dominic has settled into what she describes as her “new normal”.

The difference now though is that she wears a face mask whenever she ventures out. “People with diabetes are more likely to experience severe complications if they contract Covid-19, so I have to guard against it. The hospital where I seek treatment also takes all measures necessary to protect its staff and walk-in patients. They even provided a letter for patients who are in need of frequent follow-ups in case we get stopped at roadblocks."

Carmel recalls how her illness debilitated her health: “One moment I was in control of my mobility and eyesight but the next, I was almost blind.” Confronted by her sudden unemployment and deteriorating health, she says, “I spent many months at home and in the hospital, cut off from everyone except my parents and close relatives. I became depressed, I even contemplated suicide at one point. I was convinced I was useless and a burden to my parents.”

Still, Carmel knew she must turn the tide. She started seeing two therapists and two priests for counselling and spiritual guidance to help her cope with her struggles and to take stock of her mental health. “I’m quite healthy now, but if I ever find myself teetering on the edge of depression again, I’ll do what I have been doing all this while to dig myself out from the rut: I read and exercise within my ability, stay connected online with my friends and watch movies,” she says.

Norita Habib, Cancer Survivor

Norita Habib finds that the public health crisis has taken a toll on her mental health. Unlike Carmel who depends on dialysis to survive, making weekly hospital visits mandatory, Norita would only go to the hospital in case of emergency. “My doctors did tell me that I’m still able to come in for checkups, but I’m trying to limit my visits,” she explains.

Nasopharyngeal cancer survivor Norita Habib.

Norita is a cancer survivor; and although she has been quite lucky to not have experienced any serious complications during the quarantine, Norita is still wary of suffering a relapse of acute supraglottitis – a potentially life-threatening infection of the airway which causes shortness of breath, a condition that had previously landed her in the hospital.

“When it first happened, it was difficult for me to breathe, let alone swallow water properly, because when I did, it would flow out through my nose. I had nasopharyngeal cancer, so it is quite normal for food and drink to go up my nose. I didn’t give it much thought but then, it got so bad that when I finally sought treatment, my airway was already swollen. I was immediately admitted and diagnosed with acute supraglottitis.”

Unrestricted hospital visits used to give Norita the assurance that she had a clean bill of health. “Right now, I get very anxious if my body starts behaving differently.” When asked about how she soothes her concerns, Norita says she consults her doctor and pharmacist friends whenever the need arises which, she admits, is becoming increasingly frequent.

She also takes her medication religiously and tries to limit her outdoor activities. “I still get breathless sometimes but thankfully, it is manageable and can be treated at home. But I know I’ll feel more secure when the pandemic is over, and I can go back to the hospital if and when I need to,” she says.

* The names of the people interviewed in this article have been changed to protect their identities.

If you are suffering from depression and need someone to talk to, contact:

The Befrienders Penang
Hotline: +604 281 5161 or +604 281 1108
WhatsApp: 011-56997687
Service Hours: 3pm-12am (daily)

The Sneham Malaysia Welfare Association
Hotline: 1800-22-5757 (in English, Malay and Tamil)
Service Hours: 4-8pm (daily)

Penang General Hospital
Address: Jalan Residensi, 10990 George Town, Penang
Contact: 04-222 5333

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