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The trauma of a pandemic


May 14, 2020

Covid 19 has had traumatic consequences because of the uncertainty, fear and helplessness resulting from the outbreak. In the face of every trauma resilience plays an important role in helping people cope with the consequences of the event.

In order to build resilience, the ability to recognize one’s helpful and unhelpful thought patterns is important. Social support, making sure that one is staying in touch with those that help their emotional needs, is necessary. Focusing on one’s religious or spiritual activities with responsibility also helps. Putting all of this together with a routine with fixed sleep hours, mindful activities and exercise is a way forward.

In the midst of pandemic, financial adversities have hit almost all income classes in some ways. However the plight of low wage earners, daily wagers and everyone else at the lower end of the curve is incomparable. Many people are not able to maintain their jobs. Women supporting their families have no means of transport anymore. There have been many layoffs. People can't afford to pay their bills. Many of these people have been self-sufficient and never asked for help in the past – but now have to. Thus suggestions like learning a new skill or talent during this lockdown can be very disrespectful and insensitive towards many.

The need is to build community resilience and provide structures where all can be helped respectfully. This requires long term changes. Governments need to learn and build sustainable systems. Literacy, employment, access to efficient health systems, fair and just legal systems, safety and proper efficient governance is what is required. Processes to improve accountability in these systems should also be implemented.

Individual acts can contribute towards community resilience too. People from a higher socioeconomic stratum can ensure that they are paying their home and work employees. They can branch out further and seek out their electricians, plumbers, carpenters, salon personnel, cloth shopkeepers, etc, to see if they are in need of help. Renters can try to forgo rent; debtors can forgo debt payments and so on. If someone in a neighborhood is going hungry, then one can share food with them. Others can donate money or rations through non-governmental organizations, who are already providing support in areas where aid is needed.

The government is also collecting funds which it can utilize to provide for those in a dire state. All can reach out to their family members and friends and provide social support. All can ensure that they treat each other, at home, with respect and dignity and prevent any forms of abuse. All can minimize the stigma associated with the infection and prevent discrimination towards those in quarantine.

If someone in an apartment complex has been quarantined, their families should be respected and people should actually offer to deliver food to their doorsteps rather than ostracize them. People in every socioeconomic group can provide help in their capacity, sharing what they have. Ultimately altruism provides fulfilment, helps reduce stress and increases happiness.

This pandemic will end, but it will take a while. Some are more resilient than others, financially or psychologically. When one looks at it under the trauma lens is when one realizes this. All are undergoing collective trauma but many are facing numerous other traumas, which have been exaggerated in this situation.

There is a financial and mental health pandemic coming. Thus long-term sustainable changes towards a fairer society are needed. Short-term plans without a longer-term initiative will not create helpful change. There are usually many who want to help and numerous initiatives are taken in the face of disasters like the earthquake in Pakistan. But there has been no sustainable change. We should not allow that to happen after this pandemic.

In the end, there are many facts that create hope and thus can encourage the evolution of our habits, in this lockdown. When humans back off, the Earth recovers, which should reinvigorate all of us to make a sustainable transformation in our lifestyle. It has shown everyone what is truly meaningful in life and how relationships and communication are necessary. It has shown the importance of flexibility, as plans change and people do best if they can adapt.

Those who have a well-rounded life adapt better, thus purely focusing on work or school should change. Work hours allowing family time, communicating with others, focusing on strengths in education, using different ways of teaching, all should be part of the future normal. But remember that all of this is a luxury for those who are under a financial crunch. Nothing will work if all people can't afford their bills and feed their families.

These social determinants need to be addressed in a holistic fashion so countries are better adapted to handle similar future situations. It will not be as simple as walking into the sunlight after the pandemic ends. It will leave the world with a financial crisis – thus this is the moment to think about how we help each other within families, communities, cities and countries. This is a skill we need to develop at an individual and government level. We need to have hope but based on facts, and work hard to produce it.

The writer is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Aga Khan University.