Pandemic within pandemic

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The twin destructive features of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) leading to never-seen-before health emergency in the past 100 years and simultaneously steering to worst ever economic calamity derailing economy of even strongest nations, is loaded with another contagion. We may be in denial mode, but the fact is that it’s a frightening time. Covid 19 is a huge issue and the subsequent lockdown has left a massive impact on all economic sectors, derailing the economic growth. But most dangerous is the psychological impact unleashed in a most subdued manner.

Being in the middle of this unprecedented pandemic, fear has gripped populations as the worry about health, financial situation, loss of job, loss of income and support services they rely on, is only mounting without any definite time-line of an end in near future. The most worrying part of this uncontrolled health emergency is that the infection is spreading fast and every day we find the situation getting worse.

Everyone, including best of the health professionals, are clueless and hopelessness looms large. Everyone wonders “when is this pandemic going to end and what will be the exact post-pandemic scenario?”

While trying to stay alert against the infection in absence of an authentic preventive measure or treatment protocol, people have been witnessing behavioral changes, most of the times unwittingly. As the pandemic is rolling out new norm almost in every aspect of life, there are certain areas where coronavirus-induced changes are translating into a state of fear, high level of stress, anxiety and many more health hazardous acts.  For example, as explained by a psychiatrist friend, cases are mounting where patients are reporting abnormal changes in sleep, eating patterns, lack of concentration and use of drugs to beat their high stress levels. It’s alarming to see that mental health condition of people is worsening to dangerous levels.

While observing the reaction of people to the new norms, changing every now and then, driven by the pandemic, it’s the uncertainty surrounding the virus outbreak which is proving the hardest thing for them to handle. The actual impact of the crisis on individuals is unknown yet. Nobody exactly knows its time-line to end, or how bad things might get in future. This is what makes the coronavirus-induced crisis a deadly health emergency never seen before. This biggest challenge in post covid era would be managing anxiety and fears.

While keeping myself abreast with the pandemic-induced situation and its off-shoots, I came across with a study which has found that coronavirus outbreak may lead to rise in paranoia, depression and other mental health disorders. Here it makes a sense to share a gist of the study findings which were published in the New England Journal of Medicine in April 2020. The study indicated that public health emergencies of the scale of the novel coronavirus outbreak can evoke a number of emotional reactions and unhealthy behaviours in both individuals and communities.

“Let’s establish a fact at the very outset: the COVID-19 pandemic is estimated to have long-term effects on the global economy, politics, society, culture and everyone’s way of life, and such effects will have an immense impact on the mental health of almost everyone living through these times. There’s no escaping this fact, especially now that this highly contagious viral infection has raged through the globe for well over six months while infecting over seven million people, claiming the lives of lakhs and making billions of others feel restricted and insecure,” suggested the study.

Precisely, a threat looms large that public health emergency of this magnitude can evoke a number of emotional reactions and unhealthy behaviours in individuals as well as communities. However, the study suggests that at the same time, it can also give rise to resilience and help people find new strengths during a crisis. But, many people are more susceptible to the psychological effects of a pandemic than others.

A psychiatrist friend while discussing the unnoticed pandemic within pandemic pointed out some of the most common mental health disorders that are showing up in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. He listed some symptoms and if anyone feels showing up any of such symptoms, it would be better to consult medical professional in the concerned field without wasting any time. Generally speaking, uncertainty about the future like the one created by the outbreak of coronavirus disease, always leads to paranoia (fear) among general masses. The current uncertainty has automatically increased stress and anxiety levels of the people not only about the virus and its health hazards, but the deteriorating economic scenario also affects their mental health. The prolonged anxiety leads to anxiety disorder.

Here a study published in Psychiatry Research in June 2020 is worth quoting which analysed the mental health of 7,236 subjects in China between December 2019 and April 2020, and found that generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) and depressive symptoms were on the rise among young people and healthcare workers.

Another study in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity in May 2020 underlined how insomnia, anxiety and depression are showing up. The study suggested social isolation and restricted mobility also leading to depressive symptoms in most individuals living under quarantine or lockdowns.

Notably, quarantines, loss of lives, stigma associated with the infected, limited resources for healthcare, etc, too are also believed to trigger can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Precisely, when we look at the ongoing pandemic, we find all those symptoms in most of the people that indicate stress on their mental health and medical professionals vouch that today’s anxiety has full tendency to become a tidal wave in the post-covid crisis. If these apprehensions turn out in practical shape, it would be a huge shock to the healthcare system to cater to this pandemic. Rates of anxiety and depression have steadily risen for years, and people are most of the times in denial mode when it comes to their mental health issues.

It’s a matter of great concern that the COVID-induced anxiety-provoking changes to everyday life that people are enduring are not getting noticed seriously. In the words of a clinical psychologist, “anxiety is exhausting and terrifying. If it is happening long enough, you’re going to get depressed about it. You’re going to get hopeless and maybe even suicidal.”

As all of us have experienced that the pandemic has caused serious emotional challenges. It’s the young people, which according to a  peer-to-peer counseling community, “pandemic anxiety is almost three times more worrying to this young people than any other stress-creating experiences pre COVID-19.”

Meanwhile, let me share some tips to keep yourself upbeat in this frightening time.

Don’t dwell on the news. However, it’s important to stay up to date and that too in a gentle way. You don’t need to stick to the idiot box (TV) for news and news only which can be anxiety-provoking.

Don’t heed to misinformation going around, and avoid sensationalistic coverage. All this breeds fear. Strictly, stick to reliable sources.

Avoid constant monitoring of social media feeds. This can fuel anxiety rather than easing it.

Be careful what you share. Do your best to verify information before passing it on. Help to avoid spreading rumors and creating unnecessary panic.

It’s always better to focus on the things which are under your control. Avoid finding answers of questions which you don’t know and don’t thinking over all the different scenarios that might happen. Even don’t look at circumstances outside of your personal control. This strategy will get you nowhere and leave you drained, anxious, and overwhelmed. When you feel yourself getting caught up in fear of what might happen, try to shift your focus to things you can control.

To conclude, let government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with specialized focus on mental health come to the aid of people before a full-blown mental health disorder surfaces. The second crisis is inevitable. Only a planned intervention can help to contain the disorder which is in the offing.

(Inputs from mental health professionals are acknowledged. The views are of the author & not the institution he works for)