The Covid crisis we don’t see

By Lekha Rattanani

The official death count due to Covid-19 in India stood at over 400,000 around mid-July. It is widely understood and accepted that the actual death toll is many times that figure. Yet, these numbers do not count the deaths of despair caused by a host of factors that are not directly due to Covid-19 but are indirectly a result of the pandemic – like suicides, depression, anxiety, and the devastation and deprivation of families whose lives have been upturned either because they survived, or after Covid-19 has claimed one or more of their loved ones, or the financial difficulties as family incomes have vanished. There is no official count of this tragedy playing out in parallel, painfully and silently, leaving families to manage what essentially is a desolate, hopeless situation. As Covid-19 numbers come under control, as vaccinations pick up and as the health system prepares for a possible third wave, the government will have to begin to turn its attention to providing support and relief to those suffering in silence. This may well be the silent majority of Covid-19 related victims, a group that needs a helping hand but is too weak to even ask for it.
Consider the case of Reshma Matthew Trenchil, a journalist, who jumped from the 12th floor of her rented suburban Mumbai high rise in June, taking her seven-year-old son with her on Father’s Day. Her husband died of Covid nearly a month before that, as he contracted the disease tending to his parents, both of whom died in Varanasi while on a pilgrimage. Reshma was left alone in a nuclear family system with no one she could turn to or depend on for support in Mumbai, where they had moved from Bengaluru recently.
This is a silent crisis that is already here and growing. Research by US-based institutions have shown that alongside the thousands of deaths from COVID-19, there is a growing epidemic of “deaths of despair” due to the pandemic. As many as 75,000 more people will die from drug or alcohol misuse and suicide, according to new research released by the California-based Well Being Trust. The report from WBT notes that “if the country fails to invest in solutions that can help heal the nation’s isolation, pain, and suffering, the collective impact of COVID-19 will be even more devastating.” The three factors cited as “already at work” in exacerbating deaths of despair in America are not uncommon here: unprecedented economic failure paired with massive unemployment, mandated months of social isolation and possible residual isolation for years.
Many Indian nuclear families of three and four members have virtually collapsed after losing their mainstay, especially those who have moved to new cities or are estranged from their relatives after disputes or inter-faith marriages. Shut indoors as State governments have been continuously reinforcing lockdowns after every spike in Covid cases, and without any recourse, those left behind in these family units are moving into increasingly desolate situations. Many have suffered traumatic experiences as they could not be with their loved ones in their dying moments, and often were unable to fully participate in the last rites and/or perform all rituals as prescribed by their faith.
There is also the case of many families coming to terms with a lifestyle that is considered the norm – high EMIs and maintenance charges for houses and cars that signal success and achievement in an age of consumerism. Now, this high-expense living is coming to terms with realities as loans come calling and self-esteem is sacrificed at the altar of recovery agents and processes. Take the case of the Shetty family in Gurugram, where the father committed suicide, followed by his wife and a daughter a fortnight later as debts piled up. The suicide note, according to reports, requested that their home and car loans be waived.
Reports of this breakdown will only mount as Covid-19 extracts its price, economic, social and psychological. An online survey in May covering some 8,000 respondents reported that 61% of Indians were feeling angry, upset, depressed or worried as the second wave of Covid-19 hit. The survey by “Local Circles” said 23% of the respondents reported that they were “anxious or worried”, 8% said they were “depressed, gloomy or sad”, 20% said they were “upset and angry”, 10% said they were “extremely angry”, and just 7% reported being “calm and peaceful”. Other reports have indicated that calls to helplines and other support centres have jumped during the pandemic.
Another study has drawn on 1,856 Indian print and television reports and scientific literature to obtain 151 Covid-related suicides, or CRS, reports to compare suicide-related pressure between lockdown and unlock phases. The findings showed that 80.8% of the CRS cases were male. And the average of the deceased was around 38 years. Those who died by suicide during the lockdown were significantly younger compared to those who died when the lockdown was lifted. Similar findings were made by Mpower, a mental health helpline which has a tie-up with the Maharashtra government. The helpline received as many as 70,000 calls from people across India between the lock down last March and this April. The maximum number of callers were between the age groups 26 and 40 and over 70% of the calls were made by males. Timely intervention with medication, grief therapy and psychotherapy have helped pull back many suicidal callers from the edge. But what happens to those who don’t call?
Yet, a causal visit to shopping centres or places that are open might indicate that matters are returning to normal. Several stores have reported seeing a rush of buying as pent-up demand makes its way to the market. This is sometimes used to signal the return of normalcy but it ignores the ticking time bomb caused by disruptions, lying just beneath the surface. Clearly, it would be a mistake to conclude that this nation and its people will be back with business as usual, unharmed and not changed by the effects of what the pandemic has done – on the health front and behind the scenes.
For those who are alone, and working in different cities, cut off or estranged from their families, the pandemic and lockdown have exacerbated a problem that has been brewing slowly as some social changes entered the Indian family system and culture with the liberalisation of the 1990s. This is when aspirations rose, EMIs multiplied, and the joint family was given a jolt. Today, there are more than a 100 million Indians over the age of 60, according to the 2011 census. These “senior citizens” who once headed, guided and held together the joint family of the past now face an uncertain future themselves as the Indian family has been changing.
Looked at from this perspective, the pandemic may be etching some new fault lines in the Indian social structure. Will “Work from Home” reverse the trend of nuclear families? What impact will it have on the culture of instant food, instant cash and instant gratification that the new generation has grown on? While these trends build and take root and are watched by marketers, it is time for the government to wake up to the unseen crisis that is brewing and will hit a new high as Covid-19 itself wanes.
(The writer is the Managing Editor of The Billion Press) (Syndicate: The Billion Press) (email: [email protected])

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