By Irene Kalulu
The Covid-19 pandemic has claimed millions of lives worldwide since it was first discovered in China in 2019. Governments, in an effort to curb the loss of even more lives, came up with strategies like lockdowns, social distancing measures and good hygiene practices to slow the spread of the deadly virus.
But lives continue to be lost and in some instances whole families have been wiped out, a few are lucky to have tested positive for the virus and survived.
Public health actions, such as social distancing that are necessary to reduce the spread of Covid-19, have increased the feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Losing loved ones, being infected by the coronavirus takes an immense toll on one’s mental health yet mental health care remains a secondary issue in most societies.
For Fiona Dube* losing her older brother to Covid-19 was an unexpected blow that she is still trying to deal with.
Her brother was not the first family member to test positive for Covid 19 and Fiona was not overly anxious when she heard her brother had been admitted to Hospital as she thought he was going to be okay.
Unfortunately, because of breathing difficulties he died a day after admission and dealing with the loss has been difficult for Fiona.
“I’m not managing at all, in my mind I cannot believe he is gone, I keep telling myself that I will see him soon. What has kept me sane up to now is God, faith and family but the grief is too much.
My brother was not meant to die, not now, not this way, he was supposed to grow old and we were going to laugh over old memories. The experience hurt us all deeply, we never got any counselling at any point during the whole process,” she said.
Government and different organisations in the country have focused more on the physical interventions of managing the pandemic at the expense of the emotional and mental aspects yet both are equally important. No counselling services are offered before one gets tested or even after getting their results or after losing a loved one.
One is just expected to deal with the trauma of knowing they are infected by a virus that has killed millions by themselves. If a person receives traumatic news and it is not managed well it can lead to depression and untold mental health problems.
This is the current situation presently where a lot of people are facing situations that are stressful and overwhelming caused by the mental impact of the pandemic.
A leading independent mental-health research organisation in Australia recently raised concerns about a significant minority who will be affected by long-term anxiety because of the coronavirus.
In the UK, a group of leading public health specialists also warned in the British Medical Journal that the mental health impact of the pandemic is likely to last much longer than the physical health impact.
These thoughts were echoed by Zimbabwean Psychiatrist Dr. Nemache Mawere who said that Covid-19 has brought on a parallel mental health pandemic. He said people are traumatised in a big way and the effects will be felt even much later when the pandemic is gone.
“Currently, many are suffering from Acute Stress Disorder. The symptoms include multiple anxiety symptoms like shortness of breath, sweating, chest pain, headache, dizziness, abdominal discomfort and loose stool, palpitations, general body pain. These are similar to Covid 19 symptoms,” Dr. Mawere said.
For Angela Ndebele* testing positive for Covid 19 was disturbing because she thought she was safe as she had been doing everything that is required, masking up, sanitising and maintaining social distance but somewhere along the line she got infected.
She did not panic when she heard her results because she had seen many people who had the virus who had survived and how they had coped. She, however, said that she never got any pre or post-testing counselling and that getting counselling is essential for one to be able to deal with the life-changing news.
“Those results disturb the mind and people need assurances as we all donot take that information the same, so counselling is vital. The fear of dying was there and my other fear was that I might not get oxygen or a ventilator if I was admitted to Hospital. We would hear of all the shortages and the exorbitant charges associated with treatment of the virus,” she said.
Angela had a good support system and was able to successfully isolate without exposing any of her family members as they live in a spacious house.
“My family did not panic and I managed my fear by constantly reminding myself that others had survived and so could I. There were no counselling services so I did what I could to save myself from depression. Music played a big part as it took my mind off so many things and it kept me sane. Concentrating too much on the sad and gloomy statistics will ruin your mental state which won’t help you recover,” she said.
Social isolation and the banning of gatherings of faith based organisations deprives citizens of social and psychological supports at a time they are needed the most, this has resulted in chronic loneliness.
The burial process of people who die from the corona virus although necessary adds salt to the injuries. Relatives and friends cannot gather in one place as has been the practice and a limited number of people is accepted, most have to witness the ceremony virtually.
At the cemetery, people now usually stay in their cars to prevent further spread of the virus. Fiona could not attend her brother’s burial as she has an underlying respiratory condition and was told attending the burial would be a health risk for her.
Financial struggles during a global pandemic have been associated with a long-lasting decline in mental health. For most families who have been affected and stay in high density suburbs, it has been a double tragedy. Living space has made it hard to self-isolate coupled with the exorbitant costs involved in medication, all this whilet having to deal with being infected by the virus.
Denver Moyo* tested positive for Corona Virus in September last year. It was not easy self-isolating having three children and living in a three roomed house and his wife had to take care of him when his condition deteriorated while also caring for their children.
The whole family later tested positive but they all survived with the children only getting mild flu throughout the whole process.
“I blamed myself for infecting my family and I would never have forgiven myself if anyone had died. It was better for me to die than for my wife and children. I felt so helpless and it was made worse by knowing that I had no medical aid or any money reserved for such a crisis. The anxiety of getting re-infected is real, we are living in constant fear because we know how hard it is dealing with this virus,” he said.
Sikhathele Matambo, the Executive Director of Emthonjeni Women’s Forum said that Government should set up mental health intervention strategies in the context of Covid-19 to enable support to health professionals, the infected and affected at the different levels.
She also called on more organisations to set up more hotlines to provide online support and confidential crisis support for those feeling suicidal.
“It is important for individuals to focus primarily on their psychological well-being and their peace of mind. Covid 19 survivors and patients should take breaks from following Covid related news as it might depress them, get plenty of sleep and exercise and eat balanced meals,” she added.
*Not their real name