Health Emergency Operations Centre (HEOC) on Monday night called to end prejudice and discrimination against individuals that test positive for COVID-19, describing the stigma as "worse than the virus".
HEOC spokesperson and Health Protection Agency (HPA)'s Medical Officer Dr Nazla Rafeeq made the statement in the wake of an incident where a group of people prevented a patient from being brought onto their island earlier the same day.
A number of people on Villingili, Gaafu Alif Atoll, held a protest and obstructed authorities from bringing an elderly man, aged 68, who tested positive for COVID-19 from Thinadhoo, Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll, onto Villingili to be hospitalised at the island's COVID-19 management facility.
The obstructions saw the elderly man, who was accompanied by health professionals and the police, be forced to remain inside the sea ambulance in Villingili's lagoon for around four hours before authorities returned him to Thinadhoo.
He was brought to capital Male' via a chartered seaplane flight later that night and is currently being treated at the Hulhumale' Medical Facility.
Over 40 individuals identified through contact tracing have been isolated, while one of them, a Bangladeshi national, has tested positive.
The incident sparked outrage and harsh criticism from the public at the actions of the protestors, with HEOC also calling for everyone to set aside misguided prejudices against people that test positive for the coronavirus, and to not deprive them of the medical and social help they need.
Dr Nazla stressed that patients suffer not only from physical symptoms but ensuing psychological effects as well. Delays in receiving medical care result in several other challenges and complications, she said.
"We're speaking of a human being like us. A Maldivian. Who will provide the help that we do not provide for each other?" she said, while speaking at the press conference.
"These kinds of prejudices and discrimination against people over a sickness, or their island or race, are worse than COVID-19", she stated, calling for kindness and empathy.
Dr Nazla added that HPA was compiling a report on the incident that occurred at Villingili. She assured that HPA will work with relevant authorities to take the necessary action after looking into the details.
Different reports have cropped up regarding why the group of people from Villingili barred the patient from entering the island.
Reportedly the main reason was fear of COVID-19 spreading in Villingili, while some allege the protestors were fuelled by political motives. Some media reports also claim that HPA had permitted for only the patient to be brought to Villingili's facility but not his accompanying caretaker, with the group protesting against the latter.
Amid the controversy, the parliamentary representative for Villingili MP Saud Hussain spoke out in defence of the island's residents, claiming that reports of their alleged discrimination and prejudice were painting them in a false light.
At both parliamentary sittings held on Monday and early Tuesday, MP Saud maintained that the group had protested against bringing the patient's caretaker onto the island.
"The problem was that the patient refused to go to the facility without a caretaker. HPA had granted permission for the patient only. The ambulance was also late in picking up the patient. There is no coordination between the institutions, and in the end he had to stay [inside the sea ambulance] for several hours", MP Saud said, criticising HPA and the authorities.
He further claimed that the COVID-19 management facility on Villingili was not equipped with the required resources to provide treatment for patients, including critical care.
The MP went on to say that the patient would have received better treatment from Thinadhoo, stating that the island's regional hospital could provide COVID-19 testing and was equipped to treat patients as well.
However, Saud's claims were refuted by the manager of Villingili's hospital, Shareef Ahmed, who told local media that the facility was fully equipped for COVID-19 treatment.
"Everyone knows this is a facility to treat high-risk patients. [The elderly man] was barred [from being brought here] by some people due to political reasons".
The COVID-19 management facility in Villingili is one of two such centres open by the government to provide treatment for people that test positive in the south of Maldives. The Villingili facility was established to accommodate patients from Huvadhu Atoll, which encompasses the administrative divisions of both Gaafu Alif and Gaafu Dhaalu. The other facility was opened in Addu Atoll.
Following Monday's incident, some parliament members have also called to transfer Villingili's medical facility to another island.