Dr. Meenakshi Saxena*
The pandemic of Covid-19 has stirred human psyche very deeply. It has changed life in an unprecedented and unimaginable manner. The change is overwhelming and adjustment to it requires tremendous efforts. It has presented an enormous picture of human tragedy. It may never be possible to come to terms with it. The ways of living, feeling, and acting have undergone a sea change. Besides the usual consequences of serious illness, Covid protocols of social distancing and hygiene may also have caused far-reaching impact on the human psyche.
From elementary to very complex, change has come up in all areas of life which has deep psychological implications. It has affected social gatherings, group celebrations, face-to-face communication, economy, travel, education, politics, and even the protection of wild life. It has generated mental health issues, promoted stigma and a terrible sense of isolation and depression. In many cases, death anxiety and fear of losing near and dear ones has become an obsession.
Change in the physical environment is evident. However, change in the minds of people has made a much deeper impact on psycho-social functioning of an organism. People are social animals. Pandemic has deprived them of this basic need of theirs.
A major change brought out during Covid was to work from home. The set-up of the house in many cases was changed to suit that. After some time of lockdown, work from home became extremely exhausting. No fixed hours, minimum physical activity and a life devoid of social interaction have caused increased stress levels, zoom fatigue and physical complications like postural problems, backaches and obesity etc. Many people have become highly dissatisfied with working in this manner. Even cases of family dissonance and interpersonal clashes began to appear. Management of children became a problem where both husband and wife were working from home.
More spaces were created in the houses by adding dividers to allow more of isolation from each other. The world shrunk to the boundaries of the homes. The idea of roaming around normally looked so distant. Outside in the markets, hospitals, and offices etc., markers were made to distance people from each other. Family celebrations like weddings and sad gatherings like funerals turned into online events through Google Meet or zoom. An individual started viewing himself or herself also in a strange kind of entity involving fear and anxiety. One was constantly plagued by thought like: “I may be a carrier and infect my near and dear ones”, or “I may anytime be attacked by this invisible enemy”. A state of constant hyper vigilance was created.
The global economic crisis has been a heart-rending experience. The media images of migrants returning to their villages, and the hardships they faced on the way, were extremely distressing. It had deep personal connotations. Uncertainty about one’s own job was created and the tendency of hoarding all essentials increased. People had to over work and work beyond stipulated hours to keep their seniors happy for fear of losing their jobs even in organised sector. Several marriages were broken or indefinitely postponed because would be groom lost his job. New jobs were almost non-existent. Loss of jobs and seeing people gradually going below the poverty line is a frightening experience. Several cases of severe depression came up in this context. Criminal activities of snatching etc also increased. The maximum earnings were made through creating start-ups, home deliveries, and selling of masks and sanitizers. The normal economic activities came to almost a stand still.
A poignant change in social relationships was described by some Covid patients. They mentioned that overnight, they became untouchables. During the first phase of the pandemic, the local bodies also started sticking posters outside a patient’s house. Though it was with the objective of safety, it created a great stigma for the patients who needed more care and attention. No neighbours or relatives came near them, and even supplies of milk and vegetables to their home were affected. They found this stigma even more painful than Covid itself.
Several factors led to the development of psycho-somatic disorders among people. Lack of physical activity, minimal social interaction, and having no catharsis became perennial problems. There was frequent reporting of deaths due to Covid, and repeated mention of the symptoms of Covid in media. Inability to go to the hospital for regular checkups, and for specific non Covid physical problems due to the fear of contacting infection added to the psycho-somatic problems. Even doctors were not so easily available during that time. Google was frequently searched for symptoms of various diseases, and the anxiety that they have actually developed those disorders became very high. They developed illnesses due to psychological reasons. Many of them developed complications due to the overuse of products they consumed to enhance their immunity.
Changes in education system brought a tsunami into the lives of children. They had to turn to the online mode of learning. It threw some disadvantaged children out of the education system itself. Comprehension in certain subjects like science, mathematics, and geography became highly difficult. The joy of learning together was totally gone. Social interactions which led to personality development had to be stopped. It has been an especially difficult mode of learning for the very young children. The multi faceted development of the children was totally neglected. Moreover, the examinations were either cancelled or postponed. Degrees were delayed, and the employment chances were badly affected.
Many changes were observed in diverse activities. There was a thrust on digital literacy. Several workshops were organized, especially for the senior citizens, for this purpose. In the light of increasing cases of mental health problems due to isolation and death anxiety, several counselling services and workshops were organized. Obsession with messaging on WhatsApp and other social media was observed. Addiction to cell phones became a perennial problem.
The pandemic has left us with many questions to ponder over. It is still not gone, and the fear of the third wave is still looming large. The fear of infection will always be there. Human gatherings may never have a free flow of mixing too soon. Shake-hands, warm hugs or friendly back-patting may remain absent for a long time to come. People may not be comfortable in any shared physical spaces. Eating-out, pleasure outings and socializing will continue to be on hold for an uncertain period of time. A kind of emotional dullness and muddled thought-process may mar all human interactions. Will we ever be able to return to our normal pre-Covid lives?
Another observation is regarding the gruelling information in media about the daily deaths and the devastation of total families due to pandemic, especially during and in the aftermath of second wave. Almost every family had a painful story to tell – if not of their own, then of their acquaintances. The panic, uncertainty, overwhelming hopelessness, anger and frustration will have a lifelong impact on the minds of people. Extremely gruelling dilemmas have been observed by people as well as by doctors, such as; giving oxygen to an elderly or a younger person if only one cylinder was available. Several incidents were reported where the life of one had to be scarified to save another due to limited resources.
People have been observed either to move towards spirituality; indulging in more of prayers, meditation and the observance of religious rituals or to move towards atheism; denying the presence of God after seeing such devastating scenes of death and misery. The search for hospital beds, procurement of oxygen and medicines, especially in the second wave, the scenes at crematoriums where bodies were piled one over the other, and the indifference of people towards those infected, bribing the hospital attendant to get some food or to let the patient use the cell phone, huge amounts paid to the ambulance drivers to take the patient to the hospital, and the scenes of people dying due to lack of oxygen will, perhaps, never fade from the memory of people. Will we ever be able to return to normal human life after the fury of the pandemic dims down?
Psychologists all over the world have witnessed a yearning in people to go back to pre-Covid times. As soon as an occasion comes, they come out totally ignoring the Covid protocols. Social life has come in a state of chaos. Adjustment to the new normal is required, which may be a task of arduous human effort. Will we ever be able to achieve that normality?
Before concluding, it would not be out of place to mention a few positive aspects which were observed during the pandemic. Greater appreciation for the frontline workers, especially the medical fraternity including the ward-boys and Safai-karamcharis besides the doctors and nurses, arrangement of community eating, common people including women becoming drivers to commute the patient to the hospital, donations to help the needy, counselling services etc were observed. It is hoped that the good work done by people for humanity will be remembered and carried on. And we will be able to overcome the emotional turmoil created by the harrowing experiences of the pandemic.
*Dr. Meenakshi Saxena has been an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology in Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi.
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