/ 12 May 2020

The psychological impact of Covid-19 and lockdown

Korb Chambers
Dr Frans Korb and Cassey Chambers


This Mail & Guardian webinar was hosted by Dr. Reddy’s in association with SADAG

So far, the focus has been on the physical aspects of Covid-19, but the psychological impact is likely to be with us even after we have found a vaccine.

It is clear that the crisis is causing major stress for everybody, especially those with existing psychological problems. All the psychiatric illnesses are triggered by stress, so we need to learn how to cope with it.

The causes of the lockdown stress include:

  1. its duration, which creates insecurity: will I have a job, will I have food, etc? Any lockdown that lasts longer than 10 days will cause insecurity.
  2.  The fear of infection: will I get the virus? Will I get over it? People who are overweight or have diabetes are particularly fearful. One nurse who felt that she infected people in the hospital she worked committed suicide because she felt guilty. How will township people dwellers be able to prevent spreading Covid-19 to their loved ones?
  3. Frustration and boredom: that’s why there is a lot being published now on the internet about how to keep busy, for instance by playing games.
  4. Inadequate supplies of food: this is despite the fact that the government has assured everybody that the supermarkets will stay open. Many have fears that they will not get food parcels.
  5. The information overload: every second social media post is about the virus, so people must limit these, and try to obtain the correct information if they can.

The young and old are especially affected. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) has suggested that people filter how much social media watch every day. There does seem to be a link between social media and suicide, as people lose real contact with other people. Contact people: phone them, speak to them, Skype them, Zoom them.

People want to know: how do I know if my loved one is not handling the stress? We have to watch out that they are not becoming too withdrawn, and if you are worried, make contact with the relevant emergency services. Ensure that you and your loved ones are taking your medications if you are on them. Don’t stay in bed the whole day! Get up, get dressed, even if you have no work, and do things you have always wanted to do but never had time to.

Lockdown has evoked a range of emotions in South Africans, almost like grieving, including anger and denial. It’s important to share what you are feeling, and to have go-to activities that keep you grounded.

If you have a predisposition to depression or anxiety, please be cautious, as this is a stressful time. Make an effort to stay active and positive, eat well and exercise. Try to stay clear of negative feelings, as they can easily overwhelm your psyche. Acknowledge your emotions, but try to move on if they are negative. Try to live a balanced lifestyle; get some fresh air, go to the shop and buy something. Keep on your medication, don’t change the dosage and plan ahead so it doesn’t run out. Phone your doctor, Sadag or a hotline if you need to. There are resources available.

This is not a “normal” time: we are working and schooling our kids from home, in what is a definite crisis. This must be explained to our children. Screen time should be limited for them, and the content must be good quality. Try to engage children in family activities and games; involve them in cleaning and cooking.

The two main issues after the lockdown are financial stresses, and the issue of stigma: people may be blamed for spreading the virus, for example. There are some relief and social packages, but they are short term. The world is going to be a different place after Covid-19, and we have to stay positive and not give up. Do something positive; help others, as this helps to improve our own self-esteem.

Anxiety about testing positive is common. It’s best to get all the information that you can, from reliable sources, such as the government website, to avoid stigma and unnecessary fear. If you do test positive, learn how to deal with the virus and how to avoid infecting others; counselling is a good option. Remember that the Covid-19 disease is something that is over soon for most people, as it usually only lasts for two weeks — it won’t affect you forever.