Perhaps the most grievous effect of Covid-19, especially on those dying of or receiving treatment for it, is the loneliness.
In their desire to limit the spread of infection and prevent possible outbreaks, health authorities the world over have dictated a severe protocol for the care and handling of people battling the most serious impact of Covid-19. The patient is bundled off into an isolation room, off-limits to everyone but the most essential health personnel who are themselves suited in intimidating personal protective equipment.
Once confined, the Covid-19 patient is left to his or her own devices, tethered to a bewildering array of machines. The majority of those diagnosed positive survive the ordeal and the treatment, but only after several days of painful struggle and two additional weeks of quarantine even after being discharged.
For those succumbing to the virus, the last days are spent in silence and isolation, while loved ones can do nothing but peer through glass windows or communicate by mobile phones. Even in death, loneliness reigns. The bodies of the dead are taken away and immediately cremated, urns bearing ashes the only concrete signs left that once a human being lived, loved, and walked the earth.
But the impact of Covid-19 reverberates far beyond the confines of ICUs, hospital rooms, or quarantine facilities. The emotional toll the disease takes on family members and friends is immeasurable.
However, even those with no personal contact with Covid-19 but living in a world suddenly dominated by the virus can feel and imbibe the free-floating anxiety, as they manoeuvre and behold their surroundings behind a face mask and face shield while keeping physically distant from other people, alert for anyone coughing, sneezing, wheezing, or otherwise unwell.
Such paranoia can only result in a spike in mental health problems, as the findings of a seven-country survey (including the Philippines) show.
The report, titled The greatest need was to be listened to: The importance of mental health and psychosocial support during Covid-19 and released by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, “demonstrates how the pandemic is adding an extraordinary level of stress and suffering on communities around the world”.
With countries seeking to balance the competing demands of keeping everyone safe indoors while encouraging the public to get out and stimulate the stalled economy, societies are grappling with both old and new mental health issues. According to International Committee of the Red Cross director-general Robert Mardini, the “Covid-19 health crisis has exacerbated the psychological distress of millions of people already living through conflicts and disasters”.
“Lockdown restrictions, a loss of social interaction, and economic pressures are all impacting people’s mental health and access to care. Mental health is just as important as physical health, especially in crisis situations, when mental health needs are especially critical,” Mardini emphasised.
In the Philippines, the need to recognise and address mental health issues is made even more urgent by the lack of data. Estimates on the number of Filipinos suffering from depression, say researchers Lance Espejo and Yoo Jung Lee, are easily more than a decade old. But even old data produced alarming results. For instance, suicide rates increased from 1984-2005 among males, while 32 per cent of 327 respondents experienced a “mental health problem”. Third, intentional self-harm was the ninth leading cause of death for Filipinos in their 20s, per a 2003 study.
In time for the enactment of the mental health law in 2018, the Philippine Department of Health’s statistics on mental health were updated, but using data generated since over a decade before.
“Since 2018, therefore, we don’t know any official government data on the mental health situation,” said Espejo and Lee.
Given the events in the interim, especially the economic reversal resulting in millions out of work, the draconian measures applied to impose isolation, and the lack of contact among friends, classmates, and workmates, we can only expect the number of people falling prey to depression and mental stress to increase.
But it is not too late to act.
“Mental health programmes are some of the least expensive interventions in humanitarian response, but they have a lifesaving and priceless impact on the lives of people who need them,” says Jagan Chapagain, secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
“Now more than ever, we must invest in mental health and psychosocial support for everyone – communities and carers alike – to help people cope, rebuild their lives, and thrive through this crisis.”
Editorial/PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK