A pall of fear has descended over India as we live through the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. As of May 26, 311,388 people have died in the country and, by some accounts, that is a gross underestimation. The second wave has seen death and illness stalk our homes and cities with increased ferocity. Nearly half of those the pandemic has claimed so far died in the past two months. Very few of us have been left untouched by grief, having lost either family members or friends or colleagues. Many of those who succumbed to Covid were perfectly healthy people, cut down in the prime of their lives.
Our minds have struggled to process the rapidity or the sheer number of deaths. It has triggered the most basic form of existential anxiety—the fear of dying. This long shadow of fear and anxiety has turned out to be the hidden side of the pandemic. So many questions have bothered us: ‘Will I contract the virus?’, ‘Will I be seriously afflicted?’, ‘Will I end up infecting my close family, particularly the older people at home?’, ‘Will I lose my job’ or ‘How will I cope with my reduced income?’ Doubts like these have not only added to the misery of those prone to stress-related disorders but enveloped newer groups of people. Noted Mumbai-based psychiatrist Dr Harish Shetty calls this crisis a ‘fearodemic’.
India Today Magazine June 7, 2021 cover, ‘The Age of Fear’
The loneliness and isolation brought about by social distancing and lockdowns — undoubtedly vital to contain the spread of Covid — have heightened our stress and anxiety. The paranoia about infection has made us see others as potential carriers of the invisible virus. And unlike most other diseases, Covid-19 patients are treated in seclusion away from family and friends. Bereavement too is to be endured in isolation. Take the case of the grieving Covid-positive man who couldn’t be by his wife’s side when she died of Covid. In many such cases, people didn’t get closure when their loved ones passed away. Adding to the sense of helplessness was the palpable fear among citizens that they had to fend for themselves, as the State struggled to cope with the crisis.
Children too are hit. Social isolation, disrupted routines and restricted access to recreational activity have profoundly impacted their psychosocial well-being. Unicef said in March this year that at least one in seven children, or 332 million globally, have lived under extended lockdown and been left vulnerable to mental health issues. This would put further stress on the parents. It’s a well-established medical fact that stress lowers immunity, which opens one to the ferocious virality of Covid-19. It becomes a vicious circle.
A study published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal in April observed “neurological and psychiatric morbidity in the six months after Covid-19 infection” among more than 230,000 patients in the US. We don’t know yet how the numbers in India stack up, but they couldn’t be very different. What we do know is that we are woefully ill-equipped to handle this pandemic. The 2021-22 Union Budget had just Rs 40 crore for mental health in the Rs 2.23 lakh crore allocation for healthcare. India has just two psychiatrists and one psychologist per 400,000 people whereas the global median is at least nine mental health workers per 100,000 people.
Our cover story, ‘The Age of Fear’, put together by Senior Editor Suhani Singh with inputs from bureaus, looks at this worrying new fallout of the pandemic. The answer to reducing fear and anxiety, of course, is to take care of yourself. Don’t bottle up your emotions and find ways to connect with friends and family, safely. Exercise to reduce fatigue, eat healthy and sleep well. Deputy Editor Kaushik Deka’s accompanying piece looks at how children are increasingly stressed because schools and social lives have moved online.
I was infected with Covid about a month ago. With home isolation and online home care, I have recovered. Fortunately, it was a mild attack probably because I was double vaccinated, but I did suffer some emotional trauma. Now, for cold comfort, I have been watching on Netflix the very well-produced series Greatest Events of WWII. It reminded me of the kind of hell people went through, with bombs raining down and killing all and sundry, millions of soldiers marching to their death for the glory of their country, and the deprivation people lived through during those six ghastly years. The suffering was monumental. During that war, 75 million people died, of whom 40 million were civilians. The world lived through that terrible ordeal but when it was over, people picked themselves up and went about rebuilding their lives. As former US President Franklin Roosevelt said at the height of the Great Depression, in his first inaugural speech in 1933: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” So, let’s take that to heart as this nightmare will pass too.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for the cover story, ‘The Age of Fear’, for June 7, 2021)