Thu | Jan 28, 2021

The psychological impact of COVID-19

Published:Tuesday | April 7, 2020 | 12:12 AM

By Professor Wendel Abel


COVID-19 will go down in the annals of modern history as an event that would have impacted the entire global community as the rapidly spreading virus continues to threatens the lives of man. The impact is wide-ranging as it shatters families, devastates communities, and forces even the more developed countries to shut down. The impact is immeasurable and long term as this disease has a negative impact on business and global economies. The psycho-social impact will not only be experienced at the individual level but also globally.

Pandemic Anxiety

As we grapple with confirmed cases and the spread of the epidemic, this generates a high level of fear, scare, anxiety, and panic. People are overcome with the fear of themselves, loved ones, and persons within their communities becoming infected and possibly dying. This has resulted in increased levels of panic and sometimes confusion, resulting in a run on shops, empty supermarket shelves, persons walking around with masks and gloves that should be spared for health workers. Although these emotions are normal and natural, it is important that we manage these.

Containment Fatigue

As countries and communities implement public-health strategies such as travel bans, social distancing, avoiding crowds, school closures, resulting in a massive social dislocation and shifting of many of our activities further online. It has begun to change the way we interact, work, teach, learn, worship, and even play. These strategies and the more restrictive containment strategies of isolation and frustration will soon begin to result in fatigue and frustration as we grapple with the limitation on our freedom of movements, disruption in our routines, and the social restrictions. This may result in high levels of boredom, frustration, and containment fatigue.

Isolation and quarantine distress

In many instances, persons confirmed with the virus will end up in isolation, and those with contact end up in quarantine. These are more stringent measures, which certainly limits one’s freedom and social contacts. In addition, persons may end up being stigmatised, ostracised, and discriminated against. They may be blamed for causing havoc on their families and communities, leading to sickness and sometimes death. This may result in high levels of depression and other negative mental health outcomes.

Catastrophic Thinking

It is so easy to engage in catastrophic thinking as we anticipate the worst for ourselves and our communities and possibly the world. In addition, this has started to cause widespread economic distress with long-term consequences of business failures, job losses, financial upheavals, and the possibility of a worldwide recession. Many perceive this as an apocalyptic event.

Reframe the perspective: COVID-19 does not spell all doom and gloom. We are a resilient world, and we will bounce back. Many persons with the disease will have it in a mild form and many may not even know they had it. One to three per cent of persons with the disease die, but remember that 97-99 per cent of persons survive so let’s them stop the catastrophic thinking.

Manage information. There is a lot of information out there that stokes the fear, anxiety, and confusion. Limit your exposure to media. Manage social media and beware of the conspiracy theories. Ensure that your information source is clear, consistent, and credible.

Maintain structure. As we grapple with working from home, classes online, social distancing, dealing with the sick, let us maintain some structure and equilibrium in our life. Eat well, sleep well, exercise, and maintain our centre.

An opportunity to master technology. Every crisis presents new opportunities. When this pandemic is over, we will all be forced to use modern technology for social connecting, working, learning, teaching, commerce, and banking. This is an opportunity for many of us to improve our skills.

Maintain social contacts. Let us reach out to each other through phone, video calls, chat groups, social media. Maintain contacts with friends and loved ones, especially the elderly, the sick and those who live alone. Let us share hope, give meaning to life, build our resilience, and strengthen our coping strategies.

Professor Wendel Abel is consultant psychiatrist at The University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica.