THE OTHER INVISIBLE ENEMY, LURKING IN THE SHADOWS OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC

Anxiety and Depression (Stock Image): 

At no point in recent history have we had the very fabric of humanity’s collective social and economic structures stretched, tested, and shaken to the core, like it has been during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It is actually hard to fathom how a tiny, invisible, aggressive, and marauding microbe known as the Novel Corona Virus has successfully forced us all to abandon the little norms that we have always held dear – the very small things that make us truly social beings.

A tight hug here; a hearty handshake there; that much-needed pat on the back; an occasional little peck on the cheek; a tender touch of an older hand on the head – for blessings; or even just silently holding hands and letting the silence speak for a while, are all powerful nonverbal communication gestures that make us feel really connected to the rest of humanity.

Unfortunately, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, these little intimate gestures have suddenly become highly restricted to close family members only!
Even my own children no longer jump all over me, whenever I come home, after a long day away. The first thing they do now is shove a sanitizer into my hands or direct me to a sink, where they order me to wash my hands with soap, as they eye me suspiciously to see whether I am exhibiting any peculiar fever-like signs.

What is more, people no longer congregate in social places such as churches and mosques, while the communal rituals and ceremonies that brought people together, such as dowry payment and wedding ceremonies no loner happen. All these are activities that gave people a chance to interact and feel like they are part of a larger community. This helped a great deal to combat loneliness, which is normally a fertile ground for anxiety and depression.

Just eight months ago, if you had to sneeze in public, all you needed was to do it with some decorum, by ensuring that you sneezed into a handkerchief or tissue paper and maybe add that occasional “excuse me.” And all folks around you would understand since there is no known mechanism used to postpone a sneeze.

Today, if some random guy lets out a proper sneeze in public, the people around him will automatically scamper for safety, like they would run away from a terrorist. This can be understood given that each person that you encounter is a potential carrier of COVID-19.

Less than one year back, everyone in a packed banking hall would be scared stiff and even mumble their last prayers, if a masked man suddenly walked in. Today, if you walk into a packed banking hall without your mask on, everyone will give you a nervous sidelong look, wondering whether you’ve been sent by the enemy to finish them off!

I sometimes look at all the masked people around me and feel like I am on a totally different planet, surrounded by aliens. Have you ever talked to a familiar masked person and felt like you were talking to a stranger? The mere fact that you can’t tell whether they are smiling or grimacing at you is quite discomforting, simply because communication is always incomplete without the all-important feedback only made possible by facial expressions.

Due to the disruptive nature of COVID-19, our normal social setups have been completely turned upside down. Consequently, the familiar social support systems have been shrinking at an alarming rate, while giving way to a steady rise in anxiety and depression cases, within the world populace. As a matter of fact, life has been somewhat unkind to all of us.

Thanks to the social distancing measures that have been imposed on us, in order to contain the virus from spreading exponentially, even very close relatives no longer visit each other as often as they used to. Most folks have hence been left to their own devices when it comes to dealing with anxiety, stress, depression and related afflictions. The worst part of it all, is that most people rarely know that they are battling with these mental health problems.

It is no wonder then that cases of domestic violence and family breakups have spiked alarmingly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ours being a heavily indoctrinated and superstitious society, what is even more worrying is that most people are likely to associate mental health issues with evil spirits and other unseen supernatural powers.

I was deeply saddened to watch a middle-aged woman from Naivasha, who recently strangled her four children to death, struggle to explain why she carried out such a gruesome act. While talking to the media after her arrest, the seemingly sober-minded lady appeared totally convinced that evil voices in her head instructed her to strangle the children to death!

It would suffice to say that people suffering from chronic cases of depression and anxiety suffer from hallucinations. There is every likelihood that they see and hear things that the rest of us around them may not perceive. Due to ignorance, most people will then think that they have been visited by evil spirits!

The strict measures put in place to contain the spread of the corona virus, by the World Health Organisation and the health ministries in individual states, drove the entire globe into a virtual total lock-down. Several businesses (both small-scale and large-scale) have since been forced to close shop.

The resultant economic meltdown, due to collapsing industries and stalled businesses, has led to massive job losses and an obviously dwindling purchasing power among majority of folks the world over. What is the net result of all these? Livelihoods have been unexpectedly lost while anxiety and depression cases have shot through the roof globally.

Having to constantly worry about your own safety and that of your loved ones, without knowing what tomorrow might bring, is enough to drive one nuts. What is more, financial woes, coupled with the fact that our social interactions have been grossly constrained, have seen mental health issues rapidly become a dreadful nightmare.

This is a nightmare that the world leaders and policy-makers must be prepared to deal with, alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, and its devastation might heavily weigh on us even long after the pandemic is contained.

To all the folks out there who might be feeling that they have been stretched to their elastic limits, after either losing their livelihoods or even loved ones to the pandemic; to those who think that they might not hold on to hope any longer; just hang on in there.

As they say, the darkest hour of the night is the one nearest to dawn. When hard pressed by life, try to live one day at a time, but by all means; keep going. Remember that tough times always have an end, and the COVID-19 season will definitely also come to pass.

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