Social and Psychological Effects of the Pandemic – Its Encumbrances and a Way Out

The COVID-19 pandemic is the defining global health crisis of our time and the greatest global humanitarian challenge the world has faced since World War II. The virus has spread widely, and the number of cases are rising daily as governments work to slow its spread. Not only the rate of contagion and patterns of transmission threatens our sense of agency, but the safety measures put in place to contain the spread of the virus also require social distancing by refraining from doing what is inherently human, which is to find solace in the company of others.

Social distancing seems to be hitting people even more than the scare of the deadly virus. Cases of domestic violence have more than doubled in the world during the lockdown period. Victims of domestic violence are locked in inside their homes with their abusers. Moreover, the opening of liquor shops shows spike in Domestic violence cases as alcoholism is very well associated with violence at home. For the majority of housewives, the “work” burden increased manifold. The man being at home all day means incessant “demands” for cooked food round the clock and more household chores. A situation made more untenable without the usual household help – the cook and domestic helper. There is minimal or zero help coming from the male member of the household. With children not going to school, and stuck indoors, the demands on the housewife are unimaginable.

The nationwide lockdown has left farmers across the country bereft of agricultural labor just before the crucial harvesting season. Farmers also worry about government procurement and their ability to sell their crops, given that many agricultural markets are still closed. Coronavirus crisis drives many poor workers to walk hundreds of kilometers to villages: Millions of migrant Indian workers are fleeing possible starvation in cities, many trekking hundreds of kilometers to try to reach the safety of their villages during the countrywide lockdown to control the spread of coronavirus. Battling hunger and fatigue, the daily wage earners of all ages are choking roads, especially across northern India, as they trudge along in the heat, driven by the prospect of making it home.

Amidst free distribution of food and essential items to the needy and poor, people were seen fighting among themselves in the race to receive the services. Another aspect is that of panic buying that has been observed in almost all parts of the country. Everyone tries to procure as much as they can with least concern for others.

It is not just the virus that we should be afraid of, but eating, lifestyle and conditions imposed by confinement also matters. For, obesity is a real risk that increases co morbidity deaths due to coronavirus. The lockdown has restricted mobility of the masses which means that people cannot indulge in any outdoor physical activities or sports. Phone users under coronavirus lockdown are reporting significant increases in the amount of time they are spending on their devices. Unable to leave their homes to socialise with friends and family, people are increasingly turning to their smartphones for entertainment and to stay connected. This has resulted in people developing bad postures, headaches, lethargy which is among the many negative effects of gadget addiction.

Disbelief, anger, sadness, acceptance and hope are the five stages of emotion we will experience as the virus forces large swathes of the globe into lockdown, a leading psychologist has revealed. As time marches on and the anguish of staying home intensifies. Many people living alone and working remotely are suffering from isolation and boredom too cut off from the daily in-person interactions they may have enjoyed at work and restricted from participating in social events. Working parents are equally at risk of the lockdown stress especially with newborns and toddlers at home. The productivity of people especially students have decreased and due to lack of movement complaints of obesity are pretty common. The physical health consequences of the pandemic are clear, and there’s clearly a lot at stake; but the mental health consequences should not be ignored or minimized.

However, if we focus on the positives the lockdown is not a matter of hue and cry for everyone stuck at home. Some people are using the lockdown to spend time with their families, learning and upgrading new skills like cooking, painting, gardening, content creating etc. People who usually do not find time for themselves in their everyday busy routines have finally some time to relax amidst work from home. They can indulge in creative work or a hobby of their choice, get into shape, watch a favorite movie/Netflix with their partners, practice yoga and meditation etc. This will definitely put people in a good mood and will have positive impact on their mental and physiological health which is very important during such tough times.

Governments should ensure the financial support measures to immigrants and other vulnerable groups. Victims who are not yet in quarantine status should seek help now. The hotline numbers offers services via online chat or texting, making it easier for victims to seek out help while at home. Some workplaces are creating virtual workspace where people can work and connect over video connections, so they are not virtually alone. Employers should ensure that each employee receives daily outreach during the work week, through a supervisor or buddy system, just to maintain social contact. Extra efforts should be made to ensure connections with people who are typically marginalized and isolated, including the elderly, undocumented immigrants, homeless persons and those with mental illness. Social media can also be used to encourage groups to connect and direct individuals to trusted resources for mental health support. These platforms can also enhance check-in functions to provide regular contact with individuals as well as to allow people to share with others information about their well-being and resource needs. Even with all of these measures, there will still be segments of the population that are lonely and isolated. This suggests the need for remote approaches for outreach and screening for loneliness and associated mental health conditions so that social support can be provided.

Surveillance, reporting, and intervention mechanisms should be used, particularly, when it comes to domestic violence and child abuse. Individuals at risk for abuse may have limited opportunities to report or seek help when shelter-in-place requirements demand prolonged cohabitation at home and limit travel outside of the home. Systems will need to balance the need for social distancing with the availability of safe places to be for people who are at risk, and social services systems will need to be creative in their approaches to following up on reports of problems. Young people should be given the love and attention that they need to resolve their fears, and being honest with children, explaining what is happening in a way that they can understand, even if they are young. Parents also need to be supported in managing their own stressors so that they can be models for their children, helping children to find ways to express themselves through creative activities and providing structure in the day through establishing routines, particularly if they are not going to school anymore, can be beneficial. Mental health and psychosocial support services should be in place, and child protection services need to adapt to ensure that the care is still available for the children of families who need it.

In urban India, stigmatization of those who are self-isolating or in quarantine is becoming more visible. Prejudicial behavior in such gated complexes must be addressed, and police and local health authorities should not become accessories to the stigmatization of sick individuals. This crisis should bring out our best in neighborliness. There needs to be more social solidarity, a caring for those that may be vulnerable, especially the elderly in our communities, all the while ensuring physical distance. I have personal difficulty with the terminology of social distancing in these fraught times and would implore on greater physical distancing and social solidarity.

-Saptaparni Majumdar (One of the prize winners of Covid-19 Article Writing Competition in the 18-24 years age group)

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