Dealing with the human condition
The suicide of a young man, who was admitted to Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital after flying in from Sydney, even as test results to ascertain whether he had the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) were awaited, is a wake-up call. There has been commentary on safety measures required to deal with the outbreak and the individual, social and institutional actions required. But not enough attention has been paid to the toll the disease — and the messaging around it — is taking on mental health.
Covid-19 is new. Rarely, if ever, in recent history have human beings across the world — be in Boston or Bengaluru, Wuhan or Doha, Rome or Seoul — experienced a common set of concerns, driven by a single factor. From its roots to its symptoms, from its treatment protocol to a possible cure, uncertainty is rife. This uncertainty is causing fear, anxiety, panic among people — about themselves, about their loved ones, about their future. This is coupled with a sense of shame among those who are either suspected or have the infection, because of the stigmatisation of Covid-19 patients. Yes, there are people who could have been more careful; yes, there has been a streak of irresponsibility in those should have followed treatment protocols. But it must be emphasised that a patient who gets infected is not guilty, but is actually a victim. Targeting individuals or families with traces of the case is wrong. Unacceptable racial attacks — be it against Chinese-origin Americans in the United States or against people from the Northeast in India — is only adding to this sense of vulnerability. Misinformation is not helping.
The government must weave in the mental health dimension in the way it approaches Covid-19. There has to be sustained counselling and therapy for patients and suspected cases. There has to be better messaging, which battles the sense of shame associated with Covid-19 and emphasises that social distancing is a temporary measure and patients are not criminals. There has to be kindness and empathy in the way families, neighbours, and communities engage with each other. Only a humane response can help deal with the deeply vulnerable human condition of these times.