This month we have seen a surge in Covid-19 related deaths, whether it’s family members, friends or people we know of, which has rendered us into an imminent state of gloom. How do we grieve, comfort our loved ones and find hope during these turbulent times?
By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
Image: Fernando Cferdo – unsplash
This is our fourth month since South Africa has been on lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic that brought the globe to a standstill and the global economy on its knees. Fear, anxiety and depression and a sense of hopelessness have permeated the air – our reality is perplexing.
Since the country moved to level 3 of the lockdown on 1 June – which has seen the government loosen some of the regulations and reopening the economy – the number of infections has skyrocketed. At the time of publishing, South Africa ranked fifth, globally, with an estimated 470 000 infections, 7400 deaths, and a 60% recovery rate.
The novel Covid-19 virus is no longer fiction or theory – it’s become our reality. The number of death notifications on our social media timelines has resulted in us living in a constant state of agitation. Our hope of ever reaching some-kind-of normalcy is starting to dwindle.
Clinical psychologist Anele Siswana (@anele_indigo) concurs that despair is enveloping us. “There is constant anxiety – which is crippling,” he tells Blacklight. “Anxiety means excessive worry and difficulty in managing and controlling one’s way of thinking. There is also a sense of despair, lack of hope and depression. (There is a rise in) Clinical depression, some of the symptoms include lack of sleep or difficulty in sleeping, fatigue – everything is work, even breathing is labour – in simple terms, depression is the deep-seated sense of sadness, despair, lack of hope etc.
“When the lockdown was first imposed there was a sense of hope – we were tackling this (COVID-19) head-on. But now, people are starting to feel defeated. People are depressed by the fact that some of their choices have been taken away. The choice of what they want to do with their (own) lives. Also, with the lockdown, it happened but we were not given the proper tools to deal with the COVID-19. We know that people are dying, but we don’t have the proper tools to deal with this kind of death, this kind of bereavement and grief.”
Death is not uncommon; in fact, it is a norm. However, with this pandemic, death has almost become imminent; it has become our daily narrative. A single household is either burying one; two or more loved ones in a short space of time, or comforting another family or friend who has experienced a loss.
The funeral regulations have also been deemed “a nightmare” and are making it hard for people to bid farewell to their loved ones or to offer a shoulder to families in need of support during their time of mourning. All of this is affecting our psyche, and as a result, many are starting to feel like they stuck in quicksand.
“Death in itself is something that is not easy to comprehend,” explains Anele. “As much as we are aware that people die, to us, it (still) feels like some kind of illusion. And when it strikes, it’s difficult to comprehend the illusion that comes with it. Now with Covid-19, it’s a whole different ball-game due to the regulations.
“The focus is now on the burial, not on the service – we don’t get to the nitty-gritty of the service. In this Covid-19 era, we also don’t get to focus on the grieving and mourning process. Because of the nature [of the virus] and the rate of deaths, there is no time for us to process and that affects our psyche. When people test positive they automatically think of death. Because of that, we are living in fear. Even those who are left behind after a loved one’s death, they worry about who is next?
“The worst part is also the stigma that comes with people knowing that someone died due to COVID-19. There is still a lot of prejudice and stereotypes that come with this virus. There are those whispers that say, ‘ufe ngalento (they died of this).
“In fact, your funeral exposes you and your entire family. Death in this era then becomes so unusual. It’s not the death per se – it’s the processes. That is what makes it hard for people to get closure.”
On top of the deaths, there are the looming retrenchments. The local treasury’s worst-case predictions have estimated about seven million job losses. This further aggravates the country’s economy, which was already in distress. In the first quarter of 2020, the unemployment rate stood at a shocking 30%, with about 59% of the youth unemployed. Anele says this period will be an even further blow for people “who already did not have a sense of purpose” even before the virus.
“Then there is the issue of resources – other people may not have access to the proper medical resources – the herbs, vitamin c etc. – to protect themselves from the virus. The fear of death will be further accelerated because our psychological state influences the way our bodies react.
“This could also be another way to die (commit suicide) for people who already felt like they had no sense of direction in life – whose sense of purpose has been diminished.”
This is concerning, especially considering that recent studies showed that South Africa displayed poor mental health, due to the lack of access to counselling facilities. According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), one in six South Africans suffer from anxiety, depression or substance abuse problems (excluding severe conditions, like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia).
“The thing about COVID-19 is that it needs a different strategy – a whole new way of looking at life,” says Anele about coping with mental health during this pandemic. “We need to have our (own) internal resource system for dealing with this pandemic. Even me, as a psychologist, I have been deeply affected by this pandemic and I have had moments of despair, anxiety and hopelessness.
“How does one beginning to cope with death and everything around this pandemic, when some people have to bury five family members in a period of a month? How does one beginning to mourn when there is so much loss – there is mourning as a result of losing someone; mourning due to retrenchments etc. People are beginning to think, “What’s the worst that can happen next?”’
The psychologist adds that many people are autopilot and have not gotten to a point of accepting the so-called new normal. “How do people get to the point of acceptance? Firstly, what are they accepting? How do we accept the death of the ones we love when we can’t even bury them (properly)? How do we accept the fact that most of us will lose our jobs?
“Our grief also becomes further accelerated by the stigma, stereotypes and some of the emotions, I already mentioned. Covid-19 then becomes something we can’t be angry at because it does not speak, it just kills. It also tests our faith in God or whichever Gods we pray to.”
With the country heading to our predicted “peak-season” and with months in self-quarantine and on lockdown, how do we re-ignite our sense of hope? How do we continue to put one foot in front of the other, when our tomorrow seems so foggy?
Anele advises people to use the resources at their disposal, information and support from friends and family. “We don’t need anything grand to find hope; we just need to use the resources that are around us – we must lean on our loved ones.
“We must empower ourselves with relevant information – education. Instead of reading about symptoms, perhaps we should read about ways of coping during this period – and luckily, information is available online. Also, if you are lucky enough to have the resources, seek professional care – therapy. It’s also important to note that we can’t replace empathy and presence with technology. You can’t replace physical proximity with virtual (apps).”
He adds: “We must not be delusional in our dealing with this pandemic and say we will accept things as they are – you can’t accept something abnormal, you can adjust to it and find creative ways of dealing with it. This moment is painful. It’s unbearable. But we need to work with each other and obey the regulations, so that we can get to the other side.”
Ordinary citizens are not just the only ones who have been hit hard by this pandemic, frontline workers (healthcare workers) are battling with their mental health on top of being vulnerable to the virus. They are taking a strain emotionally and physically, as thousands flood to hospitals to seek medical and psychological assistance during this time.
The medical workers have also had to witness many of their colleagues and patients lose their lives to the virus. As a result of the suffering, a new initiative, The HealthCare Workers Network, is one of the initiatives that have been launched to offer mental and emotional support to healthcare workers during this COVID-19 era.
Anele says it’s great that there are support groups and initiatives that have been launched to offer emotional support to those in the frontlines as they are human, too.
“People in the frontlines need to know that it is okay to also seek help or take a time-out because we also run out of emotional resources,” he adds.
“You can’t give people anything, if your cup is also running empty.”
HealthCare Workers Care Network
0800 21 21 21 or SMS 43001
SADAG Emergency Line:
For a suicidal Emergency contact us on 0800 567 567
24hr Helpline 0800 456 789
National counselling line: 0861-322-322.
Covid-19 Public Hotline
O800 123 456
Whatsapp: 0600 123 456