Nagrik Dialogue

Lock Down Syndrome – its maladies and cure

Issues of mental health-By Dr. A. Didar Singh

Alwyn Didar Singh
Former Indian civil servant and former Secretary General of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry 

We have just about finished 21 days of a lockdown and there is more in store. Another three weeks almost. We all must learn to manage it, even though many dread it.

“You are least lonely when you are alone”, said the old sage. The sagacity of the nostrum is being tested during this corona pandemic. Countless articles have appeared on the arcane subject of solitude vs loneliness which broadly state that whilst solitude is a physical condition, loneliness, on the other hand, is more psychological. The latter manifests itself as a foreboding of abandonment from society. With movement curtailed during current times, let’s call it the ‘lock-down syndrome’ with all the attendant issues that we have not encountered before..

The emphasis during Covid-19 has been on social distancing as opposed to a physical one (unless the terms are interchangeable). Is it leading to the populace shunning all kind of social contact? These are early days of the infection, so drawing any conclusions is fraught with risk. However, practically everyone is hunkered down to the confines of their homes thereby minimising social interaction of the physical sort. Is this period of self-isolation going to yield to a large number of humans indulging in “solo pastimes”, or for the more sociable or socially inclined (and business people) this presents new opportunities of virtual parties, virtual dinners and virtual games, online meetings and online classes etc.

This virus demands social distancing, quarantine and isolation so that vulnerable individuals are not exposed and healthcare systems are not overwhelmed. Most countries (including India) are following a strategy of “flattening the curve.” This lock-down is probably the only weapon available with society to slow the spread of COVID-19. But that is not the only epidemic we are facing right now. The requirement to separate ourselves from others (social distancing) comes at a time when many nations are in the midst of an epidemic of loneliness whose antidote is greater positive social connection. Although social distancing is essential in the current crisis, staying at home with limited human contact can have a significant impact on our mental well-being – and in particular, feelings of loneliness.

Social distancing requires increasing the physical distance between individuals and requires cancelling group events and closing public spaces, and maintaining a six-foot distance from other individuals. Quarantine (from the old Roman concept of quarantino or 40 days of separation) requires separating and restricting the movement of people who have been exposed to a contagious disease for a period of time to see if they become sick. Isolation is separating sick people who have a contagious disease from people who are not sick. From a physical health standpoint, these are important public health measures. From an emotional health standpoint, this separation runs the risk of increasing the negative feelings and resulting in negative health outcomes associated with social isolation (being alone) and loneliness (feeling alone, even when surrounded by others).

The current pandemic is not just a medical tragedy. Even when the medical threat has disappeared, psychiatrists say people across the globe will battle psychological scars for years. Research in America has found that three-fifths (61%) of Americans over the age of 18 are lonely and that loneliness is rising. Even before this pandemic, experts have talked about people over 60 feeling socially isolated and lonely. This just got worse.

Loneliness is problematic because it is associated with a host of negative outcomes including poorer cognitive performance, impaired executive control and self-regulation, lower levels of self-rated physical health, substance abuse, depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation. All of these are mental health issues.

Online connectivity is an option but for many people (especially the aged) computers and smartphones can feel daunting; about a third of Americans over
65 told Pew Research they weren’t confident about using digital technology. About half said they needed help in setting up new
devices and handling broadband connections.

And then there is fake news – especially spread thru social media. Lack of information or the wrong information, either provided inadvertently or maliciously, can amplify the mental health effects. There is a huge amount of misleading information circulating online about COVID-19, from fake medical information to speculation about government responses. The blend of half-truths and nonsense in these posts makes it hard for social media firms to filter them out.

Business has a major role here. Messages about what businesses are doing for their employees and in their communities are important. Some companies are helping schoolchildren from vulnerable families who can no longer get a school meal; others are providing public health messages about effective handwashing. Even CEOs can show they are working from home and self-isolating, while still being effective in their leadership including taking care of their employees. Such positive messages help in maintaining the sanity we all need.

The secret to managing during this COVID 19 pandemic is to maintain connections even during social distancing. We have seen our PM doing it so effectively. He knows it’s important to keep the morale of a nation high during trying times and this will inspire people and give them hope. Ultimately both a cure and a vaccine will be found. That is the promise of medical science. Till then our resolve must be kept up. There is little doubt that COVID 19 will shape the future with social distancing being the next normal, along with use of masks in public places, hygiene levels enhanced, working remotely and focusing on acquiring new skills and learnings which shall reshape manufacturing/ shop floor practices to avoid physical proximity. All of this will help us in tackling new viruses that may surface from god knows where – otherness in proximity but togetherness in finding a cure is the way forward.

The writer is former Secretary, Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs-[2009-11] and Ex-Secretary General, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry [FICCI] –[2012-17

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