Mental health is also a vital issue in this pandemic

05 July 2020 - 00:00 By WILLIAM GUMEDE
The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic will take its toll, mentally, on the population. Stock photo.
The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic will take its toll, mentally, on the population. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/DMITRII SHIRONOSOV

SA urgently needs to put in place mechanisms to deal with the devastating social impact of Covid-19, of the trauma, the economic fallout, the loss of lives and the effect of cabin fever in the lockdown.

Record numbers of people will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, the combination of stress, anxiety and depression that develops in some people who have experienced a terrifying event.

It is likely that suicides will jump, in a country with already high suicide rates. SA has the eighth-highest rate of suicides in the world, with about 8,000 people committing suicide every year, meaning it is the third-biggest cause of unnatural death after homicide and unintentional reasons.

Mental illness is likely to increase because of the financial stress, anxiety and self-isolation. The reality of possible illness or death surrounding us - and the possibility of becoming a victim - can cause profound anxiety, depression and unease.

The last World Health Organisation mental health survey of SA estimated that 30% of South Africans will suffer from a mental disorder over the course of their lifetimes. It is likely that Covid-19 will increase these figures.

Many South Africans with other illnesses are either not seeking medical help, or not getting attention, as hospitals are turned into Covid-19 treatment centres. This means that many South Africans may die from non-Covid-19 causes.

Unless the government gets food to the needy and to school children, large numbers may die from starvation, malnutrition and related illnesses.

There has been a terrifying rise in domestic violence and abuse against women and children. There will be a rise in marriage breakdowns. Drug and alcohol abuse will soar. Crime levels are likely to increase.

The prolonged lockdown, with many young people in townships and informal settlements being idle, may lead to an increase in teenage pregnancies, not unlike the spike seen in the 1980s states of emergency.

Gangsterism is already on the rise. In the despair caused by a lack of income, lack of food, and government failure, ganglords in many townships are providing food, money and help to the needy.

The government, business and individuals must behave honestly during this crisis and beyond

If the state fails to deliver an effective Covid-19 strategy, there will be a rise in violent social protests. Populism will rise as opportunists try to exploit hardships. There will likely be a rise in tribalism as people seek refuge from a failing state's inability to deal with their hardships.

There will likely be a rise in blaming outsiders. This means we will see a rise in xenophobia too. Racial tension may rise, and with it incidents of racism and accusations of racism too.

The government urgently needs an integrated Covid-19 response that must include plans to overcome the potentially devastating multiple social impact of Covid-19.

Covid-19 business, unemployment and basic income grants must reach the needy in time.

The Covid-19 social grant should be extended beyond the Covid-19 period. Social grants could be linked to training, civic work in critical areas, such as crime prevention, supporting vulnerable families and children, and community cleaning.

The army may have to remain in the townships for some time beyond the Covid-19 pandemic to tackle crime, violence and social breakdown.

The government, business and individuals must behave honestly during this crisis and beyond.

All South Africans must support individuals, not based on racial solidarity but on honesty, values and competence.

We need new levels of civic solidarity that span race, class and political party. Individuals will have to reach out to vulnerable neighbours, friends and family, to provide support, connection and companionship.

Schools, religious and community organisations must reach out to vulnerable members, individuals and groups.

Those who can should prioritise self-wellness, self-care and healthy living. Companies will have to invest in employee wellness as the fear, anxiety and powerlessness associated with Covid-19 and the lockdown cabin fever cause symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress syndrome in many, which could potentially undermine employee productivity.

Civil society will be crucial in softening the social impact of Covid-19.

No provision has been made in the government's Covid-19 emergency stimulus, or by the private sector solidarity funds, to support nonprofit civil society organisations, which include charities, community-based organisations and civil movements.

Civil society groups should help co-deliver public and basic services in communities - from tackling gangsterism, combating gender-based violence and fostering community-building programmes to keep crime down and supporting the vulnerable.

Gumede is associate professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand, and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg)

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