By Robert Lalah
Just when you thought it was safe to break out your favourite pair of shorts and go for an evening stroll, here comes a dengue outbreak to spoil everyone's fun.
With more than 1,000 suspected cases of dengue across Jamaica, there's certainly reason to be concerned. Nobody wants to get dengue. If you've ever had it, you know the kind of bone-aching, stomach-churning torture it involves. And if you've never had it, well, the list of symptoms is enough to keep you inside with a can of Baygon and a rolled-up newspaper to defend yourself against any mosquito that might get too close. No use taking any chances.
It's not yet clear how many of these suspected cases are actually dengue and how many are just the result of overactive imaginations. There's an official outbreak of dengue after all, so every itch, every muscle twitch is likely to raise alarm. Mosquitoes, which were nobody's favourite to begin with, are now public enemy number one, and anyone suspected of having dengue becomes an immediate social outcast.
Needless to say, this outbreak is doing nothing to foster friendly relations.
I recently came down with a cough (not dengue related, I swear!) and certainly felt the pressure of the dengue paranoia. I'm not even sure if dengue causes a cough, but it suggests you aren't well and that's all that's needed to feed the panic.
This made for some awkward moments in line at the pharmacy. Every time I coughed, I felt like I should provide some sort of reassuring explanation to those around me. "Oh, it's just a cough. It's not dengue."
Or to make life easier, I could have just got a T-shirt printed with the words 'This is a dengue-free zone', and wear it every time I left the house.
It was the same thing at the doctor's office. The waiting area is always a place to have your guard up. You can't help but glance around the room at everyone else waiting to see the doctor and wonder why they're there. But when there's an official dengue outbreak, well, as far as you're concerned, that's what everyone there has and the best thing to do is avoid getting too close.
Of course, I was the only one there with a cough, so much of the suspicion automatically came my way. I could feel all the eyes on me and tried desperately to suppress the cough as much as possible. But this isn't the easiest thing to do and often the cough would only sound worse when I tried to hold it in.
Eventually, I just gave up the fight and let the rumours run wild. It was rather liberating, actually. Anyone who'd dare send me an 'Oh, my Gawd, I wonder if he has dengue' look after I coughed would be met with an equally hostile 'yeah, that's right, I coughed' stare.
It must be tough for those who actually do have dengue. You're already dealing with the discomfort associated with the illness, and then the second those around you find out you have it, you run the risk of being exiled to the land of 'don't-come-outside-till-you're-better'.
Someone really should start an Association for People Dealing with Dengue to tackle this sort of discrimination. I mean, it's not their fault they caught the fever. It could happen to anyone. Mosquitoes don't pick and choose their victims.
I, for one, would be more than willing to lend my time and support to this cause. I'd certainly send an encouraging email to be read by someone else at the meetings or even call in with a pep talk or two. So committed am I that I'd even be open to the idea of speaking to the members in person, via satellite.
This is the kind of unity we need to tackle this problem. Each one, help one - from a reasonable distance. Now, if only everyone were so selfless.
Robert Lalah is assistant editor - features, and author of the popular 'Roving with Lalah'. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.