Glenn C. Kharkongor
First of all, be very sure that Covid is real. This is stating the obvious to most people, but there are some who deny its existence or importance. Not that we need only real things to worry about. For those who wish to worry, apparitions will do as well. Many examples of superstitions exist in our own tribal societies, leading to suspicion, fear and even violence. But this is not unusual, superstitions exist in all societies, even in supposedly advanced ones. Some of these superstitions go by a newer nomenclature such as science denial, anti-vaxxer, and covidiocy.
The reams already written on a disease that has not yet run its course, is encyclopedic in its breadth. Never has so much science been written on one topic in such a short span of time. Revisions and retractions have not stemmed the flow of academic and media coverage. The virus has ‘gone viral’. While the focus of science has been mostly biological, the psychological realm is also science, indeed it is part of medical science.
The upshot of our Covid fears, real or imagined, is a gripping of the mind. Apart from physical and social barriers around us, our psyche also erects barricades and withdraws into oneself. We have become self-caged.
It starts with ‘safetyism’, a concept first described by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, an educationist and social psychologist duo. In their book,The Coddling of the American Mind (2018), they define safetyism as a culture or belief system in which safety (which includes ‘emotional safety’) has become a dominant value, which means that people become unwilling to make the concessions demanded by practical and moral concerns.
In safetyism, the right of people to feel physically and psychologically safe supersedes core liberal values, like freedom to practice one’s traditional lifestyle. Tolerance to other ideologies, religions and cultures are not a given anymore. Behaviours that may have merely offended our sensibilities earlier are now re-interpreted and raised to a level of threat to our personal safety. For example, we may have been repulsed by spitting in the street, but now the droplet infection may give us Covid. But this is a mild example. Safetyism may now arouse prejudice or hate against communities who eat paan, or religious groups who gather for crowded rituals.
With this, liberalism with its tolerance for diversity and respect for ‘others’ is becoming diminished. Liberalism also protects civil liberties. In many countries, citizens regard orders to wear masks, or restriction of movement to be an infringement of rights, which cannot be taken away by the state. This may create a confrontation with the police. The rise of rightist ideologies could be partly ascribed to a growing perception that liberal demands for rights will now fail to keep the rest of us ‘safe’.
The first need is to survive. Survival is the instinctive driver of evolution. This urge is embedded in our genes. Richard Dawkins, in his celebrated book “The Selfish Gene” showed that living beings like humans are nothing but a clump of genes that have fought to survive. Even the Covid virus is doing what it does, just to survive.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a pyramid of five levels of human ne eds. The first level of need is physiological: food and water. The second level is shelter and safety. The third is love and belonging. The homeward-bound migration of poor labourers, was driven by these basic needs.
For the fortunate social classes whose focus is on Maslow’s higher levels of self-esteem and self-actualization, Covid is an unexpected threat. Attitudes and behaviours turn to stigmatization and further discrimination against targeted minorities, blaming them and even the poor as irresponsible spreaders.
Common sense, to Merriam-Webster is, “sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.” Cambridge Dictionary defines it as, “the basic level of practical knowledge and judgment that we all need to help us live in a reasonable and safe way.” So common sense is universal knowledge, judgment, and conclusions, that are held without reflection or debate.
One school of philosophy has equated common sense with moral sentiment, which comes from the notion that common sense must lead to community values, which are then incumbent upon us all to abide by. Otherwise the cohesiveness and harmonious relationships of society will be damaged and all of us will suffer. It also means that we should be pleased with the welfare of others, and empathetic to their misery. So common sense cannot only be for one’s self-interest. Common sense, thus, evolves into pragmatic and moral positions.
Common sense gives us a good start to good behaviour. Or does it? Descartes agrees that everyone has a similar and sufficient amount of common sense, but says it is rarely used well. In other words, the mere possession of common sense does not ensure sensible attitudes or behaviour.
Common sense dictates that we wear masks to block the transmission of highly infective viruses. Community values mandate each citizen’s cooperation for collective protection. Moral values require us to protect others from illness and harm. Unfortunately, common sense does not always lead to common good because of stubborn outliers who refuse to wear masks.
Safetyism and mental health
Health professionals recommended social containment measures to prevent spread of Covid. While many leading epidemiologists advised against total lockdowns on a national scale, lockdowns became the order of the day. Apart from the fear of the pandemic itself, and the economic fallout that affected millions adversely, the lockdown itself has had negative impacts on people’s mental health.
Early in the pandemic, the WHO warned of elevated rates of stress and anxiety. The WHO statement noted that, “as new measures and impacts are introduced – especially quarantine and its effects on many people’s usual activities, routines or livelihoods –loneliness, depression, harmful alcohol and drug use, domestic violence and self-harm or suicidal behaviour are also expected to rise.” Going beyond these factors the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said in a video message, “The COVID-19 virus is not only attacking our physical health; it is also increasing psychological suffering: grief at the loss of loved ones, shock at the loss of jobs, isolation and restrictions on movement, difficult family dynamics, uncertainty and fear for the future.”
Many countries have reported escalating mental health problems. Canada’s national statistical agency noted that a fifth of Canadians aged 15-49 had increased their alcohol consumption since the start of the crisis. Increased addiction behaviours will lead to a rise in “deaths of despair,” deaths traced to suicide and the misuse of alcohol and drugs. In the US, as many as 75,000 more people will die from drug or alcohol misuse and suicide. Another US survey found that 14% of people had high levels of psychological distress, compared with an average of 4% during the pre-Covid era.
Mental health services in India were already inadequate before the Covid crisis. The hurdles in accessing mental health care because of Covid restrictions worsens an already difficult situation.We read of suicides every day, but the actual number of severely mentally affected persons is almost impossible to calculate.
According to the India Disease Burden Initiative, the total mental disease burden in the country doubled between 1990-2017 to 197 million Indians, with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder making up the majority of patients. A recent survey by the Indian Psychiatry Society has reported a 20% rise in mental illness since the pandemic started. Higher psychological effects are felt by young people, women, and those with comorbid physical illness, in another study published at the end of May.
But there are others who are at high risk: school children in social isolation and apprehensive about their future, youth who need to finish their degrees and seek employment, handicapped and LGBT persons. We already know about the rise in domestic abuse, the millions driven into life-threatening poverty. A pandemic of mental illness is at hand. It will not receive sufficient attention, because physical illnesses always take precedent over mental disease.
More psychology experts needed
The country has 4000 psychiatrists but needs 13,000. Twenty thousand clinical psychologists are needed against 2000 available. We need 50,000 counsellors, compared to about a thousand at present. For psychiatric social workers, the need is 35,000, but only 900 are available. For any young reader, consider a career in psychology. You will be in great demand.