Op-Ed

COVID-19: the emotional factor

“What the citizens of the world share in common, is the fear and panic associated with the threat of contagion and an uncertain future.” Dr. Timothy Barrett

One of the most common expressions that we hear daily is, “Oh! What a time!” And what a week this has been!

The new coronavirus, aka COVID-19, has taken its toll in ways that we could not have imagined a few distant weeks ago.

We have had to literally rescript the social contract of which Thomas Hobbes wrote in the 17th Century.

In his 1651 landmark masterpiece, “Leviathan”, Hobbes wrote that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler, or to the decision of a majority, in exchange for protection of their remaining rights or maintenance of the social order.

With our revised social contract here and in most global societies, we have witnessed the surrender of everyday personal freedoms to the state to protect the welfare of their citizens.

Entire countries have transitioned to lockdown status, requiring most of their citizens to stay at home for indefinite periods of time.

At the time of this writing, more than 600,000 have contracted the COVID-19 virus, and, so far, more than 30,000 have died.

Today, there is no end in sight to this worldwide pandemic, and the primary focus, understandably, has been on how to contain this new virus. The world’s best research and scientific minds are frantically pursuing the development of a cure.

There is, however, another factor that has not been given a position of primacy: the emotional factors that accompany this unfortunate crisis.

Therefore, this week, we would like to consider this — what are some of the essential emotional factors that we must keep uppermost in our minds and hearts during these challenging times?

The economic fallout

Over the last week, we witnessed one unprecedented revelation after another.

Major tourist destinations – Atlantis, Baha Mar, Sandals, Resorts World Bimini and RIU – announced that they will cease operations.

This resulted in the immediate displacement of 15,000 employees for the foreseeable future.

Thousands of other citizens and residents in the private sector were also ordered to stay at home and observe a 24-hour curfew for all but those who provided essential services.

These developments have had the effect of virtually shutting down the Bahamian economy. This is not unique to The Bahamas. The same order was issued to the largest world economies, including India, whose population exceeds one billion citizens.

While there have been varying approximations of the estimated loss to our economy, it is too early to make an intelligent assessment of what the ultimate economic effect will be.

Only time will tell.

The emotional factor

Despite the presently incalculable economic and financial costs that will result from this pandemic, we must be mindful that there are equally critical emotional factors that will affect many of us.

In the best of times, which these most certainly are not, there is a degree of anxiety and uncertainty that invades our daily lives.

In the best of times, persons who are gainfully employed, and who live from paycheck to paycheck, are inundated with competing priorities for limited and rapidly evaporating resources.

In the best of times, it is challenging for most people to make ends meet.

We can only imagine the enormous angst that thousands of Bahamians are currently facing.

The level and scope of anxiety vary with each person’s circumstances. Some people are unable to sleep, some have lost their appetite, while others are emotionally paralyzed because they have no idea of what the future will bring.

Most of us are apprehensive about our prospects of contracting the virus and equally unsettled about the possibilities for its containment and cure anytime soon.

While we daily confront these existential uncertainties, we should be enormously grateful for the first responders, the health service providers who daily face the possibility of themselves becoming infected by assisting those who are symptomatic and those whose status is questionable.

They are the unsung heroes who deserve our appreciation and support.

We must never forget that they also have families who must be enormously apprehensive about the first responders’ prospects of becoming infected in the line of duty.

Then there are those who are infected.

We can only imagine the angst that the family members of those who have contracted the virus must endure and the attendant risk and stigma of becoming infected.

We should recognize that this is an illness, and, like any other illness, those infected can recover.

More than 95 percent of those who have been infected have survived this deadly virus.

Although at the time of this writing, there were only 14 confirmed cases in The Bahamas, we are all concerned about the exponentially accelerated speed at which the number of infected can increase.

Prominent Bahamian psychiatrist Dr. Timothy Barrett recently observed: “While our priority has to be educating and protecting all our citizens from illness and possible death, we also have to remember that ‘there is no health without mental health’.” (the World Health Organization)

Dr. Barrett continued, “The kind of fear and panic that exists now, coupled with the fact that we all have access to the news of the world at our fingertips, and we are all swamped with messages over social media, will undoubtedly cause those with pre-existing psychological disorders to have an increased rate and intensity of symptoms like anxiety and depression.

“Additionally, maladaptive coping strategies like drug use/abuse will increase, and I have already had to deal with three persons with psychosis who have the delusion of being infected with the coronavirus along with the consequent hopelessness that accompanies this delusion.

“Persons who have never had any distressing psychological symptoms may find themselves not being able to sleep properly, constantly worrying and not able to enjoy life, becoming irritable and snappy with family and friends alike, as well as having a sense of a foreshortened or most uncertain future.

“Remember that mental health or psychological health simply refers to thoughts, feelings and behavior, along with our perceptions. Stigma should not get in the way of good sense at this time.”

What can we do?

We must be extraordinarily vigilant and strictly follow the advice of health service providers and government officials.

We must uncompromisingly practice social distancing protocols and unhesitatingly observe preventative hygienic measures.

Above all, we must not panic, no matter how dire the situation becomes.

Over the weekend, I spoke to my high school classmate and lifelong friend, Wayde Christie, who is as concerned about the emotional factors as well as the life-threatening ones.

Wayde observed: “For far too long, we have become so disconnected from each other because of our busy lives, disparate lifestyles and personal preoccupations.

“We have failed to reach out to persons who are near and dear to us and should view this crisis as an opportunity to renew old acquaintances and build a closer sense of community, albeit at a distance.

“While we are busy strictly practicing social distancing, we can take advantage of this opportunity to reach out to our friends, family members and colleagues, by phone, texts, or other modern technologies, and reconnect with those from whom we have become disconnected over the years.

“I really believe that this crisis presents a golden opportunity to become closer to those whom we have overlooked over the years. This will go a very long way to assuaging some of the emotional challenges that some of our fellow citizens face.”

Dr. Barrett offered several practical suggestions about what we can do.

He advised: “There are some things that the general public can do to mitigate the effects described above and ameliorate their current situation:

• Accept that fear is a natural reaction to the pandemic and is universal.

• Take responsibility for ensuring that all the instructions given by the credible government sources for protecting yourself and your loved ones are adhered to.

• Take this time to engage in self-reflection and self-evaluation, especially in light of the fact that this opportunity may not come again.

• Rediscover the importance of good family relationships.

• Make sure that you do not comfort eat as I observed a growing tendency for persons to do that.

• Take a break from social media (research shows this improves mental health).

• Ensure that you get 10 to 15 minutes of exercise every day and commit to it as a discipline for the future.

• Recite the serenity prayer and rediscover the power and purpose of prayer.”

Conclusion

It would be an extremely beneficial public service if a mental health expert could be included in some of the Bahamian public health COVID-19 briefings to answer questions that are submitted by the general public as well as by the press.

Other countries realize that the issue of emotional and psychological health should be urgently and simultaneously addressed.

The Bahamas should not be an exception to this reality.

Finally, we must fully appreciate that after COVID-19’s physical effects have been resolved, the emotional factors, if not urgently addressed now, could be with us for a very long time.

We must make sure that these emotional scars do not impede us from fixing the future fallout from this disease in the most effective and efficient manner to fully repair our individuality, our economy and our nation.

• Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis and Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic & Litigation Support Services. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to pgalanis@gmail.com.

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