The pressures of COVID-19

When former United States first lady Michelle Obama cited this week the impact of COVID-19 as one of several contributors to her experiencing “low-grade depression”, it brought to the fore of popular western culture discussions about the pandemic and its effect on emotional and mental health.

In The Bahamas, as in other countries throughout the world, mental health remains a taboo subject, with those suffering from anxiety, depression or other forms of mental distress encouraged simply to pray, or to downplay the severity of their struggle.

Urbanization and shifting social norms have resulted in a kind of social distancing in our country that enables a minimizing of emotional distress in our communities, and social distancing brought about by COVID-19 has now added an even deeper degree of separation.

Nevertheless, what is disturbingly evident is that jobless workers, exasperated breadwinners and business owners on the cusp of financial ruin throughout the country are hurting, and fighting to keep their mental health in check as they try to protect themselves and their loved ones from COVID-19.

When on numerous occasions we admonished the competent authority, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis, to cease from condescension and finger-pointing in his pandemic response, we did so not only from the knowledge that the same is antithetical to good governance.

We also made this call from the recognition that the emotional state of our country, only recently ravaged by the deadly impact of Hurricane Dorian, was in too fragile a position to safely acclimate itself to public discourse that adds division to the destitution made common to tens of thousands by COVID-19.

Together with the pressure felt by the country’s adults is the stress suffered by its children, who have had their essential psychological structure of in-person schooling stripped away by responses to a virus many have not had properly explained to them.

For those already suffering with diagnosed and undiagnosed mental illness, triggers associated with lockdowns, curfews, social distancing and fearmongering, abound.

Shortly after Dorian’s landfall, health officials said they expected to see increases in cardiac impacts and a worsening of chronic illnesses due to stress brought about by the death, loss and joblessness the storm left behind.

It would be instructive to know whether trends have begun to emerge in the general population of physical health problems brought about by the stress of business closures and lockdowns implemented in response to COVID-19.

Equally instructive would be an analysis of how stress levels endured by the country’s frontline and essential workers in the pandemic response, are impacting their overall health and ability to effectively serve the public.

When Obama said of her emotional state: “I’m waking up in the middle of the night because I’m worrying about something or there’s a heaviness”, it was an admission that no doubt resonates with scores of Bahamians who do not know when their life will return to some semblance of normalcy.

Along with the impact of COVID-19, she spoke to recent uprisings over longstanding racial inequalities in her country that have added to her managing of “emotional highs and lows” during this period.

For this country, it is the social inequalities laid bare by the pandemic response that have revealed the extent to which executive decisions take a disproportionate toll on lower income groupings whose voices are too often disregarded.

Business closures, lockdowns and a prohibition on public transportation have added tremendous upheaval to the lives of those who can least afford to manage the fallout, plunging unknown numbers deeper into poverty or to the precipice thereof.

Public health has commenced a social media campaign targeted at addressing emotional and mental health needs of residents during this period, but they and mental health professionals in the private sector cannot do this important work alone.

The competent authority must invite and take advice necessary to avoid unintended consequences in his pandemic responses that add unnecessary pain and suffering to an already frazzled and financially insecure populace.

And each of us must become more sensitive and attentive to the silent cries of men, women and children across this country who are endeavoring to persevere, but are buckling under emotional hardship they do not know how to cope with, or are afraid to reveal.

Let us practice compassion and forbearance both with ourselves and with one another.

As the popular adage states, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

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