The novel coronavirus outbreak threatens to permanently alter the way we live. With the ever-increasing number of infections, only a small proportion of the total population being tested and a significant number of casualties, caution can evidently not be thrown to the wind. That is why governments around the world are being compelled by circumstances to impose partial or complete lockdowns. The key reason for this drastic step is the reckless attitude of citizens who seem oblivious to repeated warnings. Many confront reality only after being infected.
The fact that we still know precious little about the said virus which appears to be a recent mutation does not help. Scientists are still unsure whether it can remain airborne and we have seen contradictory claims by various studies. The findings discussed at the first-ever “virtual Grand Rounds” at Massachusetts General Hospital, are alarming to say the least. The clinical challenges that were highlighted include transmission before symptoms, biphasic illness where symptoms remain mild for some time and then situation takes a turn for the worse, transmissions in hospital and prolonged viral shedding. These alone build a strong case for precaution. And since no vaccine has been invented and no breakthrough is in sight, you can rest assured that social distancing and eventual confinement to your homes remain the best options. Flattening the curve and breaking the chain may go a long way in gaining enough time to find a cure at best and helping governments build capacity to do justice to the dire cases at the very least. Hence, even if your government has not imposed a full-fledged lockdown, you should know that it is just a matter of time before that happens. In this climate of uncertainty, you can see how tense people already are. It is very important to keep your wits about in this age of public anxiety.
But mental health becomes a serious concern when you are in a state of lockdown, confined to your living quarters. Kids who are accustomed to going to schools in this time of the year seldom get comfortable with the idea of staying in one place for such long intervals. When they get jittery parents often lose their cool. And that is not all. Adults are hit the hardest. Their usual privileges like mobility, social lives, entertainment, exercise and professional lives, all are compromised. Therefore, there is a serious chance of mental decay or harm. Sadly, our media’s obsession with politics ensures that such finer details are rarely paid the heed they deserve. And when the authorities are preoccupied with the chores of everyday firefighting there is very little chance that they would take out time to focus on these matters. So, the public message is usually an incoherent mix of alarm, aspirational words and the desire to avoid mass panic.
It might help to remind yourself why you are confined to your home. You have only one life and nothing is worth losing it. Then you are also protecting your loved ones. Since almost everyone possesses a cell phone these days, keeping the phone number of a qualified shrink may always come handy in case of severe depression. If you have a smartphone with data connection, you can always have a video call with family and friends through a videocall app. You will be surprised how many people forget that their phones have this feature. If you can do neither then perhaps you need some hacks. To find some I consulted a few very accomplished experts. Here is what you can do.
The most important thing is to ensure that you and your loved ones keep their minds occupied. An idle mind can encounter many problems ranging from boredom and frustration to severe depression. The first thing experts advise is to shield yourselves from the mental stress caused by distressing news. In a gloomy climate unless the media decides to invent happy stories it is bound to report more disturbing news. While information is essential to survive a prolonged lockdown, there is no need to binge watch news channels. Watching news reports twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening, should suffice. If you must watch television, find something entertaining, light and funny to watch. Like sitcoms perhaps. If you like more intense content, then there is no dearth of serious drama on entertainment channels or streaming services. Or finish that book you have been planning to read for a long time. And then another. Listen to good music. If you are religious and avoid music, listen to something religious. There is melody there too. Take up a hobby. If you are not in self-quarantine play games with your kids. If you have a pet pay more attention to it. If you like cooking or gardening indulge yourself. Give yourself small goals and find joy in accomplishing them. If you have pending office work finish it. Document what you do. Write a blog, publish a video online. Nothing heavy. Mild, happy stuff. And while you are at home don’t be a slob. Get up and work out regularly. All of this will keep you from going stir crazy. On social media stay away from divisive political debates. Hang out with people and in online groups that are fun.
And whatever you do please do not succumb to conspiracy theories. Traumatic times are usually not easy for everyone to handle. Many give in to the temptation of seeing a conspiracy behind everything. Two common trends these days: claiming that the coronavirus was produced in a lab and seeing it all as a conspiracy against your religion or country. Remember, propaganda wars are going on between nations that want their opponents to be blamed for the outbreak. There is no point in falling for this. This trend of spreading rumours and conspiracy theories started with 9/11 and has worsened with every passing day. In recent days you must have seen countless videos ranging from Saddam using the word corona in his Arabic testimony to many documentary clips claiming that the virus and its probable cure have existed for many years. One former ambassador to the UN has even listed some patents linked to an alleged coronavirus. Interestingly, from astronomy to anatomy, the word “corona” has many meanings. And coronavirus is the name of a class of viruses. The current one is called the novel coronavirus. These conspiracy theories usually have many moving parts, many variables and details. The fact that one or two verifiable bits are added doesn’t change the whole unverified body of the theory. In the current case please remember that nature is fully capable of producing something as lethal as this virus and far worse. Stick to the verifiable mainstream explanations. Conspiracy theories at times can be deadlier than all viruses put together.
Stay safe and sane. You owe it to yourself and your loved ones.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 28th, 2020.