Covid-19: The Invisible Impacts

The whole world is on its knees. Borders have been closed. International movement is at a halt. Countries have been locked down. The cause: a microscopic deadly virus challenging world intelligence. Annihilating its exponential spread is a painstaking preoccupation for governments worldwide.

While socio-economic impacts of the disease have become the major concern of governments, there are little signs psychological challenges of this unprecedented crisis are receiving the attention warranted in the circumstances.

Covid-19 is the infectious disease caused by the newly discovered coronavirus. Characterized generally by fever, dry cough and tiredness, some infected persons may experience nasal congestion, pain, sore throat or diarrhea. Older people and people with underlying medical conditions like high blood pressure, heart and lung problems, and diabetes or cancer are at higher risk.

The disease spreads by inhaling droplets from an infected person. It has an incubation period of 14 days, which means a person may not know whether they are infected. That is why it is recommended to wear masks, keep social distance (at least 1 metre) and isolate oneself as basic preventive measures, besides observing strict hygiene rules like regular hand washing and disinfecting.

Cases of infection rose exponentially since the outbreak in Wuhan, China in December 2019 crippling the world economy at staggering speed. To date more than 3 million people have been diagnosed positive to the virus with more than 200 thousand reported dead. A little more than a million have recovered according to global figures.

In Mauritius the first case was officially diagnosed on 18 March on a returning resident. Contact tracing resulted in identification of an increasing number of infected persons. Latest figures show 332 cases with 10 deaths and 315 recovered.

To prevent importing or exporting the disease countries worldwide have adopted lockdown procedures and closed borders. Because Covid-19 knows no barriers. We are all concerned. Rich or poor, in the slum or in the castle, it doesn’t discriminate.

Like the bitter pill, lockdown is an essential measure towards containing the crisis. It has no doubt yielded positive outcomes. So much so that some countries, including Mauritius, are already in the process of “unlocking down”.

National lockdown means home quarantine, isolation, physical distancing, closure of schools and workplaces. Life has changed overnight when this drastic measure was announced late night on 19 March 2020 in Mauritius. The whole country has come to a standstill. Borders have been closed. So are schools and businesses. We’re all required to be confined to our respective premises. No work, no religious or social gatherings, no commuting, no leisure and sporting activities, and no air flights: we are practically cut off from the usual routine.

Initially programmed to be valid through mid-April, it was subsequently extended until 4 May. A further extension has been announced until 01 June with, however, a gradual opening of some businesses and workplaces as from 15 May under specific conditions. This is probably due to the fact that the situation seems to stabilise. The number of cases is peaking around 332 with hardly any new cases identified despite more than 10,000 tests done.

Without dispute the socio-economic impacts are gigantic and cannot be underestimated, which is where most emphasis seems to have been laid so far. Potential closing down of businesses, reduction of workforce, and in a number of cases, loss of jobs, represent a big challenge for governments. Various packages (whether these are adequate is beyond the ambit of this article) have been implemented in a gesture towards alleviating extreme hardship. These actions stem from the premise that the “physical” impacts are “visible”, although difficult to quantify in real terms at the moment.

But threats considered as “invisible” are looming: psychological and mental health consequences of remaining under curfew for longer periods with inadequate preparation. Imagine a child being confined within the four walls of the house, no playground, no candy, and no buddies. And imagine the parent who has to earn their living on a day-to-day basis; they have no other regular financial resource; and they have to feed a hungry family without storage capacity. They cannot go out without a valid pass. All these coupled with other resulting family distress are things that are not visible and have a direct bearing on the psychological and mental health of people. Nobody seems to be talking about them.

Health as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) is the state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing of a person and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity..

WHO Experts and behavioral psychologists recognize that staying within the four walls of restrained compounds during long periods of isolation and social distancing can potentially trigger symptoms of stress, depression, anxiety, fear, and loneliness, among other underlying health conditions. Children are the most vulnerable group due to idleness and lack of space to “blow off steam”.

People are deprived of things they need to stay well. Those earning their living on a day to day basis are already in precarious situation; stocking is out of question for them. They have no alternative than to go out in the “hunt” for food. A hungry child, and an idle child, knows no reason. Parents’ anxiety has definite negative impact on children’s behavior, aggravating the family distress.

The initial response to contain the deadly virus should not overshadow the need to ensure the protection of people’s mental health, which is yet another challenge for governments, now and in the future. Psychological and mental health should be part of the physical health response to the covid-19, as advocated by WHO experts.

Note: This article was written for This Week News Mauritius on May 4, 2020

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