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After its discovery in China late last year and since affecting nearly every country in the world, the novel coronavirus has upended the world as we knew it. Other than the serious health risk it poses to those infected and bringing about lifestyle changes among others such as wearing facemasks and lockdowns, the virus has severely affected the mental well-being of the general population as well.

Staying home in literal isolation for months, being cut off from the outside world, or losing loved ones in these times and being unable to be with them in their last days or follow customary burial practices are issues not easy to come to terms with.

Recently, Lahore resident Ather Nawaz lost a friend of over 50 years due to Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, in Islamabad and was unable to attend his funeral. “Not a single day passes that I don’t think of him and can’t believe that he is no longer alive. I never thought I’ll have to bid farewell to him without seeing his face for the last time,” he explained while grieving his childhood friend.

Globally, health practitioners believe that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) will become the second pandemic if people’s mental health is not taken into account in treatment strategies. A doctor at a private hospital in Lahore said, “Adults and children are dealing with numerous issues including financial instability, social pressure, fear of losing a loved one and personal loss. In a country like ours where mental health is considered a non-issue, this will lead to worse and lasting effects. Many people feel guilty and blame themselves for not taking enough precautions to prevent the illness in case of a loss of a loved one and thus go into denial.”

Tooba Fatima, a foreign-educated psychotherapist, stressed the importance of human touch after losing a loved one. “The pandemic has created overlapping layers of stressors. The stipulated social distancing and sterile environment means that we are cut off from our natural ways of seeking comfort in grief — touch, togetherness, and community. Our body feels frozen in incomplete actions: standing with a grieving friend yet unable to bridge distance and hug them. We may be sad and grieving, but cannot be held. We may not be able to say farewell to a family member. The most challenging perhaps is the reality of this distress: without human touch, we may lose one of our strongest sources of comfort.”

The only hope right now is a vaccine, which experts say will take a couple of years to be available for the general public worldwide. Till then, Fatima Ali Haider, founder of The Grief Directory, suggests that we can learn to cope from similar, tragic examples of unexpected loss such as plane crashes.

“As far as reaching out to those grieving is concerned, the rule of thumb is the ‘ring theory’ where you offer support to those closer to the deceased than yourself and share your own grief within your circle of friends or those distant than you in terms of the relationship to the deceased. If you can’t visit the aggrieved person, a text or a call to check up is important. Try to stay in touch regularly and ask how you can help. Dropping some groceries is always welcome, or if you are close to a family member like a young child or a teenager, a video call may entertain them and give the parents a break to attend to other matters,” shared Haider.

These are unprecedented and exceedingly testing times and as a society we need to understand that apart from the government, citizens must also play their part to help those in need, and not just physically. It is time we break the taboo surrounding mental health in Pakistan — that is the only way we will be able to deal with the after-effects of this pandemic.

 

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