Covid-19 taking toll on the poor, elderly and front-line health workers

08 April 2020 - 07:00 By Nonkululeko Njilo
A health worker teaches children how to wash their hands during door-to-door testing in Umlazi, near Durban, on April 4. Health workers, children, parents and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to the psychological impact of the pandemic and the lockdown.
A health worker teaches children how to wash their hands during door-to-door testing in Umlazi, near Durban, on April 4. Health workers, children, parents and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to the psychological impact of the pandemic and the lockdown.
Image: REUTERS/Rogan Ward

Sleeplessness, concentration difficulties, loss of hope and suicidal thoughts – these are some of the psychological effects the coronavirus pandemic has had on many South Africans.

This is according to Abdurahmaan Kenny, mental health portfolio manager at Pharma Dynamics, who says levels of distress are likely to increase as more South Africans become infected, lose their incomes and are forced to isolate.

The pandemic is taking a toll on the mental health of everyone - particularly the poor, elderly, children, parents and front-line health-care workers, said Kenny.

On Tuesday, health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize confirmed that the country had suffered its 13th death from Covid-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. He said there were now 1,749 confirmed cases across SA.

“Vulnerable populations - such as the elderly, those with mental health conditions and pre-existing health concerns - are likely to experience higher levels of psychological distress due to the major threat that the outbreak poses to their own personal health,” said Kenny.

“Another high-distress category is likely to include the poor, who rely on odd jobs to make a living. Staying at home means they cannot provide for themselves or their families.”

He said doctors and nurses, particularly those at the front-line of the crisis, may experience secondary traumatic stress (STS) reactions – a by-product of working in a traumatic environment.

The pandemic was also taking its toll on the health of parents who have had to take up more childcare responsibilities during school closures and work-from-home obligations. 

“Stress during the outbreak can include fear and concern about one’s own health and the health of loved ones, which is completely normal. More detrimental changes to watch out for include sleeplessness, difficulty concentrating, feelings of hopelessness, suicidal thoughts and worsening of chronic health problems,” said Kenny.

Parents are urged to arm themselves with the real facts about Covid-19 and remain calm and provide reassurance to children, who will follow their lead.

“However, teens are likely to be exposed to more communication from friends and social media, which may lead to excessive worry or sadness, unhealthy eating or sleeping habits or acting out,” said Kenny.

“Keep the lines of communication open between you and your children. Answer questions they may have around Covid-19 based on facts provided by credible organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) or the government.”

Front-line health-care workers are urged to remain focused and take care of their own health as dealing with people with Covid-19 places an extraordinary burden on them both physically and mentally. 

“It is vital that they remain focused by taking care of their own health in order to continue to respond to the outbreak,” said Kenny.

“Take regular breaks, eat right, practise deep breathing and relaxation techniques, get enough sleep and work in teams to help ease the burden. Also ensure that childcare, household and pet care responsibilities are in hand while you’re on duty - and communicate with loved ones, even if it’s just once during a shift.”

Those in quarantine have also been advised to remain calm and stay in contact with their loved ones. 

“It can also be traumatic being separated from loved ones after testing positive for Covid-19. Remain in contact as much as you can via phone or video-calling to provide patients with the love and support they need.”

Kenny said responding effectively to mental health challenges would place people in a better position to stay mentally focused while caring for their loved ones.

“For now, we need to embrace the new rhythm of life and the chance it gives us to connect with others in different ways,” he added.

Georgina Barrick, leadership expert and managing director at Network Contracting Solutions, said the pandemic had made the world uncertain.

“There’s no doubt that we’re living through one of the most uncertain and unnerving periods in recent history,” she said.

Barrick said the key to getting through this tough time was to reframe one’s thinking, keep anxiety under control and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

She said it was important for people to use the uncertainty wisely and for the long haul.

“It is therefore important to strive to make clear, thoughtful decisions, with the emphasis on long-term strategy - to regroup, reprioritise, recharge and innovate.”


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