The COVID-19 pandemic was initially perceived as only a threat to people with weak physical immunity. However, after more than 12.42 million people worldwide have tested coronavirus positive, researchers, scientists and doctors are finally turning their attention towards the mental and psychological effects of COVID-19
COVID-19 has brought with itself a wide variety of changes in a range of aspects of human life. It has not only informed us of our lack of preparedness in handling a pandemic but has also highlighted how weak our public health infrastructure is. Even the world’s richest country – the United States of America, has so far failed to control the virus spread. Along with this, COVID-19 has also brought with it a string of new social practices and has changed the way how most people behave socially. This, however, is not necessarily a good thing.
Social distancing, wearing masks, home and institutional quarantine are some of the most commonly practiced social norms to fight the novel coronavirus. However, such practices, and the fear of the virus itself, have also brought with them a wave of paranoia. This has been affecting people across the globe almost simultaneously with COVID. Gripping the general public, a fear psychosis, triggered by the suddenly changed social conditions and the onset of the ‘new normal’, has been devastating to the mental health of different sections of the society.
According to Dr Soumitra Pathare, Director, Centre for Mental Health Law and Policy, Indian Law Society, different sections of the society are hit by a wave of paranoia during the violent spread of COVID-19 at
People with pre-existing mental conditions
These are usually the first ones to be affected by a sudden change in their social environment. As they are already suffering from a mental condition, irrespective of its severity, they are the most vulnerable to mental and psychological effects of a pandemic the size of COVID-19. Moreover, while governments are busy devoting and rerouting all available medical resources to fight the ongoing pandemic, the medical needs of this group of people are usually given the least priority. The situation is worse in a country like India where, according to the findings of a countrywide National Mental Health Survey 2015-16 by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences (NIMHANS), nearly 150 million Indians need active mental health care interventions while fewer than 30 million are seeking this support.
Children and teenagers
This is usually the last section that is expected to be affected by mental/psychological stress. However, according to DrPathare, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when both school and college education have been disrupted, children and teenagers have been affected drastically. In India, while students in class 10 and 12 are stressed due to the vagueness of the schedule of their remaining board examinations, others, mainly those from economically weaker sections, are stressed due to unavailability of technology to connect with their teachers and continue their studies. Moreover, the inability to meet friends, go out and explore their surroundings has also taken a toll on many.
The unemployed and business owners
According to the International Monetary Fund, India’s gross domestic product (GDP) is predicted to contract by 4.5 per cent in the ongoing financial year. A contraction in the GDP means huge losses to businesses and a consequent economic effect on the services sector. This later converts into a higher rate of unemployment which, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), soared to a record 27.11 per cent high in May 2020. All these factors together put considerable stress on all adults in the country, whether self-employed or a business owner.
All of the above sections continuously face stress due to the reasons mentioned. Apart from this, COVID-19 has also become the reason for the formation of a social stigma, one which tends to make people fear the disease more than they should. While this makes the public more alert towards the dangers of contracting COVID-19, it also harms the mental health of those infected by the disease. Being away from their family and friends during quarantine is stressful as it is. Coupled with negative reactions and inappropriate behaviour, surviving and getting treated for the disease is made even more difficult. The social stigma and the altered conditions in all aspects of human life due to COVID-19 has led to a pronounced presence of paranoia in the people. This has not only affected how well people perceive the disease, but is also responsible for the less-than-satisfactory performance of a number of government measures to arrest the spread of COVID-19.
Its most evident effect has been on the lockdown measures. Even though the initial stages of the lockdown seemed to be implemented perfectly, soon, governments were required to use force and fines to keep people indoors for their own safety. One of the main reasons for this was the system of information relay to the public. While some sources said that the one-day long ‘Janata Curfew’ launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 22 was enough to extinguish the presence of coronavirus in the country, scientists and researchers called it a ‘test phase’ for a much longer lockdown. Although this seems harmless, it led to a lot of confusion among the citizens. This was repeated again during the PM’s ‘thaali bajao appeal’. All of this eventually resulted in confusion amongst the people regarding the reasons for these initiatives, thereby adding to the widespread paranoia.
A similar change in public response to COVID-19 testing was also seen due to the prevalent social stigma attached to the disease. While people were encouraged to get tested, a large number of them still found it uncomfortable because of the fear of public reaction to testing positive and the false quarantine stories being spread around.
On Wednesday, March 18, a COVID patient jumped off the Super Speciality Building of Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi and died. According to doctor incharge of the said patient, this was a direct and one of the first results of the prevailing fear psychosis in the people. According to a study titled ‘Aggregated COVID-19 suicide incidences in India: Fear of COVID-19 infection is the prominent causative factor’ published in the journal ‘Psychiatry Research’, a total of 72 suicide cases due to fear of COVID-19 were reported from March to May 2020 in India. Thus, the paranoia caused by COVID-19 started showing its effects almost instantly after the virus hit the country.
Despite all this, Dr Pathare added, the effects of a fear psychosis caused by a pandemic do not become uncontrollable until six to seven months after the disease spread began. Therefore, the central and the state governments still have time to control the paranoia of the public in relation to COVID-19 before suicides rates and the number of people with mental strain and disorders start soaring.