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Sydney churchgoer with coronavirus says she's been 'judged' within her own community

Jessy Harfouch in a hotel room after contracting coronavirus. Source: Supplied

A Sydney churchgoer who tested positive for coronavirus says she's been stigmatised due to misconceptions within her community that she didn’t follow health advice closely enough.

Jessy Harfouch is a member of the St John the Beloved Church congregation in Sydney, who was infected with coronavirus on July 16 after coming in contact with a member of the Our Lady of Lebanon congregation during choir practice. 

The Our Lady of Lebanon church has been the focal point of containment efforts by NSW health authorities, after a number of its members were diagnosed with coronavirus following their attendance at services on July 15, 16, and 17.

“I spent Friday with the family, then went to work on Saturday, and then I received a call on Sunday saying my friend tested positive for COVID, and I should go get tested,” Ms Harfouch said. 

“I told my family and my friends and went to get tested, and it came positive.”

Cars wait for Corona pop up test in Lady of Lebanon Church in Sydney.
Cars wait at a coronavirus pop-up clinic at the Our Lady of Lebanon church in Sydney.

Ms Harfouch, who works at a radio station, said she was “shocked” by the news of her positive test. 

“I was in isolation after I went for the test, and when I received the results, I told my family, who couldn’t come to the room to support me. 

“It is a moment where you freeze, you don’t know what to think, and your feelings can’t be described.” 

She decided to move out of the family home to a hotel recommended by health authorities. 

But as news of her positive test circulated, she said stigmatisation and judgment within her community became apparent.

“There is a misconception that a person who tested positive wasn’t following health advice. 

“Anyone who knows me knows that I was very careful about myself and people around me at work or at the church or in the broader community. 

“I have always carried sanitiser and kept the social distance.”

She laments that she had “no control” over how she caught the virus.

“No matter how careful you are, the virus can reach you, sometimes while walking in the street. 

“When I knew I was positive, I put my hand on my face and I prayed for Jesus and our mother Virgin Mary and all saints, and I had the support of my family and friends.

“But there are these people who don’t support in such a situation, and you hear that they are saying negative things about you, and that made me really sad.

“The people I work with are so supportive and have been at my side from the beginning. It’s the other people in my church community that started spreading false news.”

NSW is still battling to contain the increase in coronavirus cases that have hit a number of establishments, mainly restaurants and churches.

Social distancing signage is seen at the Thai Rock restaurant at Stockland Wetherill Park Shopping Centre in Sydney, Thursday, July 23, 2020
Social distancing signage is seen at the Thai Rock restaurant at Stockland Wetherill Park Shopping Centre in Sydney, Thursday, July 23, 2020.

A number of the current infections are concentrated in western Sydney and some have been traced to the Thai Rock restaurant in Wetherill Park. 

The virus reached the Our Lady Of Lebanon church through a parishioner who dined at the Thai restaurant and attended church services over the three days in July. 

Ms Harfouch confirmed that she caught the virus from the same parishioner. 

She is now alone in quarantine, an experience she said is “hard” because she, like other Arab Australians, are members of tight-knit communities who meet and socialise frequently. 

“You also feel symptoms that make you uncomfortable, and with the isolation, the quarantine affects you mentally, socially and physically. 

“When I hear about these negative comments, I try as much to stop it from getting to me. To stay positive and to strengthen my faith.

“That is why I say, you never know where you might get the virus, the person who gave the infection didn’t know he has it, and he was adhering to health advice. 

“When I went to work on Saturday, I didn’t know I had been infected. I always try to adhere to health advice as much as I can.” 

NSW Health is calling on anyone who attended services at the church on Wednesday, July 15 at 5.30pm, Thursday 16 July at 6pm; and Friday 17 July between 1.30pm and 6pm to be tested immediately.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

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