As China is slowly recovering from the awful coronavirus outbreak, the divorce rate of that country has soared. Young people spent more time together in isolation, and possibly got into heated arguments because of something petty and are now rushing to get divorces.
Similarly, during the third week of March, British MP and leading divorce lawyer Baroness Fiona Shackleton of Belgravia said in the UK parliament that lawyers had predicted a likely rise in divorce rates in the UK following ‘selfimposed confinement’. A major part of the world is now experiencing social distancing and mass isolation in some form or other – quarantine, lockdown, curfew.
This is because, in the absence of any pharmaceutical intervention, the only strategy against Covid-19 is to reduce mixing of susceptible and infectious people through early ascertainment of cases or reduction of contact. We in India are also in a nationwide lockdown mode for 1.3 billion people – a desperate attempt and possibly the last resort to fight against the deadly coronavirus.
But what are the psychological impacts, and consequent social impacts, of this? The recent experience from China suggests that isolation has led to neglecting vulnerable people, babies being abandoned, increased domestic violence, fear and anxiety. Back in Kolkata, one acquainted psychiatrist has forwarded me a WhatsApp message which reads: “Don’t let the virus invade your mind”.
It’s obvious that nationwide lockdown to stop Covid- 19 will leave many of us feeling lonely and anxious, leading to an epidemic of psychological health issues. The situation might become worse due to fake news and contradictory expert opinions across media, and also due to serious financial difficulties. Governments around the world are currently putting their energies on managing the epidemic – rightly so – forgetting other risks.
Life in mass isolation like quarantine or lockdown can negatively affect mental health, and might cause post-traumatic stress, confusion and even anger. ‘Cabin fever’ creeps in – involving feeling dissatisfied, restless, irritable and bored when confined. In an article entitled ‘The Psychological Impact of Quarantine and How to Reduce it: Rapid Review of the Evidence’, published in the leading medical journal ‘The Lancet’ in February, a group of researchers led by Samantha Brooks of the department of psychological medicine at King’s College, London, wrote: “Quarantine is often an unpleasant experience for those who undergo it.
Separation from loved ones, the loss of freedom, uncertainty over disease status and boredom can, on occasion, create dramatic effects.” They revisited 24 previous studies across 10 countries that have quarantined parts of their populations during virus outbreaks like SARS, Ebola, swine flu, MERS, and horse flu, and suggested that the psychological impact of quarantine is wide-ranging, substantial, and can be long-lasting. And this needs to be handled carefully.
Also, in another recent research letter entitled ‘Public Mental Health Crisis during COVID-19 Pandemic, China’, in the scientific journal ‘Emerging Infectious Diseases’, published by the US government’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the authors – Lu Dong and Jennifer Bouey of RAND Corporation – termed Covid- 19 “a heightened public mental health crisis”.
They went on to opine: “The World Health Organization’s strategic preparedness and response plan for Covid-19, however, has not yet specified any strategies to address mental health needs of any kind. As the virus spreads globally, governments must address public mental health needs by developing and implementing wellcoordinated strategic plans to meet these needs during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Many other researchers are also studying this issue. For example, a group, led by Richard Bentall of the University of Sheffield, is surveying 2,000 people in the UK to measure impacts of the epidemic on people’s mental health. Certainly, ‘Psychology of Epidemics’ will be enriched, and knowledge on the psychological impact of the pandemic might take a concrete shape amid one of the biggest existential threats the world has faced this century.
Recently in China, and during the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic in Senegal, psychological support hotlines were established to help people under lockdown. Certainly, we need innovative self-help during such isolation. One of my former students has posted a picture drawn by him jointly with his sixyear- old son. What a nice attempt, Pritam! We need to stay occupied in reading, listening to music, watching movies, and other indoor activities that we wished to do for years but never accomplished. Let’s grab this rare Covid-19-opportunity. What’s more – we have mobile phones, internet, and social media.
Just imagine that people didn’t have any of these connections during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, for example. We must keep ourselves mentally fit so that we don’t have to stand in the long queues for divorce or consulting psychiatrists in the post- Covid-19 world. That’s not easy though. One of my friends, already tired of the lockdown and social isolation, has told me that he’d take a day off to relax peacefully once normalcy returns! And he was not joking, I know.
(The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute)