Coronavirus: What will become of the world?
IMTIYAZ SHAIKH

Yet another pandemic: Still so different

The novel coronavirus outbreak in the fall of 2019 became an epidemic in China in less than a month. And by March 2020 we are in a pandemic. The world has seen pandemics in the past, but there’s something distinct about COVID-19. It’s the first pandemic in the age of advanced social media. And while this enhances access to statistics, awareness and preventive guidelines; it’s also a channel that can potently propagate fear, panic and unrest. The virus is taking the world on edge.

What we know about it

This virus is high on transmissibility as well as fatality; albeit in specific demographic groups. For those with intact immunity and robust physical capacity to fight it, it will only get as severe as a common cold. But many who are older, have a chronic illness, or compromised immunity for any reason; stand higher chances of contracting symptomatic disease, and mortality.

What we can do about it

From a certified public health authority point of view, quarantine and social isolation are the answer to contain this virus. And the hope and effort towards a vaccine in a slightly distant future are in place. Hygiene has become a new mantra in the whole world altogether. Children once back from school, are first running to wash their hands. Adults are becoming mindful of who they greet and how. Everyone is contributing to keeping the house clean by themselves because house help may not be hygienic enough. With all these measures, its more or less guaranteed that the spread will soon come to a halt. Yet, the psychological and emotional impact of this pandemic is unfolding in a very unique fashion.

The fear is looming

When the disease was in China, it felt like it was far away. Now that it is in our neighbourhood, it’s seeming too close for comfort. We have begun to catastrophise within the darkness of uncertainty. We are feeling helpless, clueless, and powerless. And this is driving us to nihilism. Some of us are thinking about whether -

- we will succumb to this virus

- we’ll have access to a vaccine

- we’ll be alive to see the end of this

- our jobs are safe anymore

- stock markets will ever stabilise

What the present is looking like

Our worry is not limited to our own health. It’s extended to fretting over the health of parents, grandparents and children. A lot of us don’t know how to entertain our kids during this extended school break. Or what we should do with so much spare time working from home. We’re stocking up more food and supplies than our houses can accommodate. We’re glued to social media, and obsessed with forwarding information without assuring its legitimacy. Memes and jokes are taking up more of our time than ever before. Anxiety is rippling through the ocean of humanity. The earth is quaking with uncertainty. What might become of us after this?

A dark future?

Natural as well as man-made disasters have the propensity to generate chaos, and render human beings powerless. There are bound to be immediate consequences like sadness and apprehension over the loss of loved ones, health, jobs, money, and security in general. Those with inadequate coping defenses resort to alcohol, nicotine, cannabis and other substances of abuse to help combat angst. However, in the longer term this lengthens psychological turmoil, resulting in more permanent depression and anxiety. Lower income individuals sense more stress because social distancing impacts their jobs and daily wages notably. We’re already seeing unrest and vandalism in some countries over securing food and housing supplies. An incessant fear of the unknown can convert us all into nervous, guarded, and mistrusting human beings. And those already battling anxiety and depression stand greater tendency for catastrophic panic. Prolonged stress dilutes immunity further. If we don’t contain the anxiety pandemic rightly, we might see a physically weaker human race, purely attributable to our psychological shortcomings.

There is hope

Countries are realising the need to strengthen healthcare systems and replenish health budgets. Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore governments adopted stringent measures for containing the disease, people obeyed; and saw positive results. Self-quarantine in Italy drove residents to unanimously sing together every evening from windows of their apartments – an orchestra of a hundred homes altogether. In many cities, people are offering free babysitting, tuition classes, art lessons online, pick up and drop services for kids where needed; as well as food delivery for vulnerable older adults.

In spite of all the darkness, history has proven that some good always comes from the bad; that humans cognise, devise and improvise with time. The biggest yet simplest lesson humanity can learn, is that prevention is better than cure. And that we can take simple steps now, and in the future, to avoid the spread of any and many diseases. That cleanliness is important every day. And kindness doesn’t need a time table. That children learn from observation – how to relax in times of crisis and not go into a state of frenzy. And it’s good to spend time at home in general, not just during a pandemic.

What you can do to lessen anxiety

- Take breaks from the social media overload

- Don’t forward messages from unreliable sources

- Take care of your body, eat healthy, sleep on time

- Deep breathe, meditate, exercise, stretch enough

- Use the time to unwind, do things that you enjoy

- Pick a new hobby – drawing, painting, pottery

- Spend quality time with your loved ones at home

- Connect with other friends and family online

- If you’re feeling overwhelmed, talk about it

- Seek professional help if and when needed

If we put our better sense to practice, we will come out stronger than when we began.

The writer is a Senior Consultant Psychiatrist and Mindfulness Expert. She’s the Founder of MINDFRAMES (www.mindframes.co.in)

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