In this uncertain and unprecedented times of a global pandemic spreading across the world, the fear, angst and disquietude regarding what awaits in the near future, can perhaps be largely attributed to the flood of news and information on coronavirus, both true and made-up, that we are assimilating every day, and freely sharing with our family, friends and acquaintances. There are insecurities all around about the impact of the novel coronavirus on people at large, on people who are laid-off, on vulnerable sections like daily wage earners, on the overburdened health systems, and on countries facing unprecedented economic setbacks. Perhaps it’s time to pause and ponder, if it would be beneficial now to put a halt to the incessant flow of messages and communications, some alarming and others sorrowful.
Today, I want to talk about a particular perspective in this whole situation, one that we, as common people, are not privy to or do not often think about. I am talking about the situation of the front liners who are working to combat COVID-19.
The initiative by the Global Pandemic Response Forum (GPRF), to start a Mental Health Helpline called DHARA, for our warriors from the medical, para-medical and, law and order fraternity to discuss and deliberate upon the emotional and mental stress as well as their concerns in the coming days, has opened up a number of issues. While the discussions were facilitated by Dharitri Nath from GPRF, Dr Rijusmita Sarma, counselling psychologist, Dispur Polyclinic Hospital and Sabiha Siddique, counselling psychologist, Kendriya Vidyalaya, Air Force Station, Dibrugarh, invaluable and insightful viewpoints were shared by Mythili Hazarika, associate professor of Clinical Psychology, GMCH, Dr Sushil Agarwal, consultant psychiatrist, Apollo Hospitals, Bhaswatee Kalita, registered nursing personnel, and a senior police officer on their key concerns and on ways to cope with the underlying tensions in the present scenario.
Many nurses are increasingly feeling stressed to go to work due to their families’ reactions and qualms about them working in such high-risk environments. Some people have started avoiding the health workers and there is genuine apprehension that, with the rise in the number of people affected by the virus and hospitals being flooded with COVID-19 patients, many nurses and other health workers who live in rented houses or in PGs, would be faced with threats to vacate their homes, as was seen in some unfortunate instances in our national capital a few days ago.
Amidst the uncertainties about how the virus spreads, whether by physical touch or if it is air-borne, there is added fear and anxiety for nurses as they have to work closely with patients and there is always the niggling worry whether they have developed any symptoms themselves. In extreme cases, the health personnel could also have to deal with insomnia and other critical conditions due to emotional and mental strain. There is also the immediate factor of bodily discomfort and uneasiness, as they have to don the PPEs and other protective gear for 8 to 12 hours at a stretch, which is suffocating when there is no central air-conditioning in most government hospitals and this takes a toll on their physical wellbeing as well. That aside, there is another apprehension amongst many nursing personnel and students as other health professionals which is what if they are faced with a situation of shortage of PPEs and how they would cope with such eventuality.
Though police personnel are trained to handle pressure, the present situation is quite unprecedented and has brought about many concerns for the fraternity. There have been instances where officials have started feeling alienated due to continued social distancing by family members. They also face the same stigma faced by doctors and nurses. Besides being on duty for 12 to 14 hours in these distressing times, they have the added burden of providing for their families. As PPEs are not freely available, they are rightly, of course, prioritized for use by health professionals directly handling patients. However, this also creates a feeling of being neglected by the system, among police personnel, when they too are at the forefront of battling the pandemic. Most of the personnel on the ground are constables, who themselves are not aware and trained in self-care, creating anxieties about actual or potential exposure to the virus. To top it all, when people continue to flout the directives issued with regard to the lockdown, sometimes the men in khaki have to resort to lathi-charge too, as a last resort. When orders are callously flouted by citizens, police personnel may face a sense of loss of purpose in their very work. To top it all, if the action of lathi-charge or other forms of physical curtailment is brought to question as not being justified, the police also have to face the penal consequences of their action. The police may be the protector here but they too need protection from untoward aggravations.
The concerns people are facing generally, from the fear of the unknown to the more tangible concerns of financial worries and availability of food and other essential items, are all valid and justified. But harping on them can lead to no constructive outcomes. Overthinking about syndromes and symptoms will not help us in any way. On the contrary, it brings in a lot of unnecessary stress for the person concerned as well as the care-giver. As discussed by Hazarika, some helpful tips would be to be able to discern what we can control and what we cannot. There is no use of overly magnifying issues which are beyond our control. The best that we can do is to be aware, stay optimistic and be ready to deal with situations as they unfold. It is important for all to consciously practise relaxation techniques for the body and mind, do breathing exercises now and then and be self-aware to understand feelings of extreme sadness and fear. If any unexplained headaches or stomach aches persistently continue for more than 2 weeks, one should definitely seek professional help.
A lot of responsibility rests on the shoulders of the front liners now. We have immense respect for and are indebted to their selfless commitment, to lead this fight from the front on our behalf. On our part, let us take this as an opportunity to stand by them, doing what needs to be done, being responsible, alert, aware, and responsive to the needs of the time.
(Amvalika Senapati is the Deputy Director, Advocacy at Shishu Sarothi. Views expressed are personal)