Keeping calm and coping with curfew: A month on

By B. Mohan

As Sri Lanka announces its reopening after completing a month under lockdown, sentiments on this decision are vast and varied.

While some opine that it is too early to be lifting curfew as the number of new cases of COVID-19 infections have not seen a significant reduction, with continued reports of new infections going into the double digits as of late, others see it as a wise move that would help recover not only our economy but also our mental state after being cooped up indoors for weeks.

We are all affected by this pandemic of never-before-seen proportions, with many comparing its ramifications on a global scale to that of World War II. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has estimated a 3% shrinkage of the global economy, while approximately one-third – 2.6 billion – of the world’s population is under some form of lockdown or quarantine.

To say that the last month has been difficult for most is an understatement. Those of us in the bigger metropolitan cities with access to essentials and who have retained our livelihood have it better than some others who are taking life one day – sometimes even one meal – at a time.

People back on the streets in Ampara when the curfew was relaxed on Monday (20/4/2020) Picture by Farook Sihan

While some may deem it irresponsible or insensitive when those more privileged resort to complaining about what may seem like lack of access to or unavailability of things nonessential to survival, we need to remember that first and foremost, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned everyone’s world upside down – and that some may be better at facing the consequences more than others. The bottom line is, we are all overcoming obstacles that affect us in different ways in this unusual time.

What are people going through?

While reports of protests in the US by citizens citing the Government’s attempts at containing the spread of Covid-19 a violation of their right to freedom, residents in Italy performing on their balconies as a means of social interaction, to more than 26,000 curfew violators being arrested in Sri Lanka, and many more, filling the media, it is clear that the effects of this pandemic are varied. However there lies one fundamental similarity in most cases – the effects on mental health. The World Economic Forum (WEF) has termed this period of lockdown the “world’s biggest psychological experiment” for which we will “pay the price”. Dr. Elke Van Hoof, professor of health psychology and primary care psychology at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, cited a review of 24 studies documenting the effects of quarantine published in late February this year by The Lancet.

The review concludes that people who are quarantined are likely to develop a wide range of psychological stress and disorder symptoms including, “insomnia, stress, anxiety, anger, emotional exhaustion, depression, post-traumatic stress symptoms, low mood, and irritability”. The latter two are the most common, the review stated.

“I think its important that people know what others are going through during a time like this,” shared Yugadeep Jeevaratnam, a resident of Dehiwela, speaking to Colombo Gazette.

Amongst on-the-surface complaints of boredom and lack of socialization are also more deeper implications of being in isolation for a prolonged period of time and a change in the way of life as we know it.

Yugadeep shared that just the other night, one of his neighbors had “started to cry out loud in the middle of the night saying he can’t be locked up like this and needs to get out right now”. His neighbor’s family had a hard time calming his neighbor down.

Yugadeep also shared that personally, the third week of lockdown was rather difficult. “I started worrying and got quite anxious about the uncertainty of life while seeing thousands die in a day across the globe; anxiety led to insomnia for a couple of days.”

Police try to control a long queue at a wine store in Ampara when the curfew was relaxed on Monday (20/4/2020) Picture by Farook Sihan

Why do we feel this way?

Sri Lanka Ministry of Health consultant psychiatrist Dr. Venura Palihawadana said that the inability to engage in the usual activities calls for certain skills many of us do not possess – i.e. to self-soothe. “Us engaging in our jobs, socializing, and other activities, settles us. We live in what I like to call a hyper-stimulated environment where you are constantly bombarded with news, events, political drama, disputes, etc. But now all these things have stopped, and people are just left with their own thoughts and feelings of uncertainty,” shared Dr. Palihawadana, speaking to Colombo Gazette.

He explained that two factors determine levels of stress – namely, unpredictability and uncontrollability, which are both very high in this COVID-19 pandemic situation. “Although, to some extent, we can control our exposure to the coronavirus by adopting the preventive measures and taking the precautions recommended to us by the authorities, we cannot control what is happening in our surroundings. In addition, we also do not know how this is going to pan out,” he shared, citing that as such, stress levels are very high at this time.

Colombo Gazette spoke to Dhineli Gunaratne, a mother of twin boys who lives in Rajagiriya, to find out how she was coping with her young children being stuck at home for over a month. “It’s been challenging because the kids were used to a certain routine – school, swimming, visiting their grandparents, etc., and this lockdown has taken all that away,” she shared.

However, she stated that she remedies this by coming up with activities for her boys in order to keep them busy and entertained, but tending to the chores at home at the same time is a challenge.

Asked about the effect the month-long lockdown has had on her mental health, she shared: “Honestly, I haven’t had a minute to sit down and think about it because we are very busy at home! If I’m not cooking and cleaning, then I’m playing pretend kitchen with the boys.”

Confirming that Dhineli is on the right track while handling her boys, Dr. Palihawadana shared that It is important for parents to realize that their children are also dealing with the same situation they are, and stressed on the importance of empathizing with their kids.

However, while some may be better prepared at handling their children, others are not. UNICEF has stated that stigma attached to Covid-19 has left some children more vulnerable to violence and psychological distress, while warning that millions of children around the world are likely to face threats to their safety and wellbeing. Added to this, domestic violence cases have also seen an uptick, with even reports and calls for action in Sri Lanka making the rounds in the past weeks.

Working from home

With Sri Lanka imposing the “work from home” period since 16 March, many seem to be taking time to adjust to the situation, citing inefficiencies and employers piling on more work, taking advantage of the situation as they know their employees are stuck at home. However, one may see having a job in itself in this climate as lady luck being on their side as the past weeks have also seen many reports of employees being laid off or their salaries slashed, thus being left with no source of income.

Asked about how to cope in a situation where stress is high due to working from home as a result of the merging of the work and home environments, Dr. Palihawadana shared: “You need to maintain some boundaries. Make sure you work within the times you would have worked if you were at office – do not think you have the entire day to work just because you are at home. And at the same time, inform your family that you will be unavailable to them during that time.”

Some other tips he shared in this respect are below:

  • If possible, designate a separate place to work so you are completely cut off from the rest in the house during work time. Do not sit in the common area with your family; this will distract you and you may end up spending more time doing a task, which will increase inefficiency and affect the quality of your work
  • Once you are done with work for the day, ensure you shut off completely. Do not sync your emails to your phone. Do not tend to e-mails late in the night. You can always respond in the morning, similar to how you would if you were physically going to work
  • Do not work while eating meals. Similar to how you take your lunch and tea breaks at work, do the same when working from home

How are some of us coping?

Amidst these dark and worrying times are also those who are rising to the occasion and giving us hope and something to look forward to.

Many international and local musicians have taken to streaming live performances to entertain their audiences, while many fora on the economy are being conducted via live streams. Fitness gurus are seen motivating their followers to engage in exercise via Instagram Live and mental health professionals are sharing their advice as well.

While those with enough influence to make a difference are trying their best to make this period more bearable for the rest of us, the least we can do is try and manage our personal distress the best we can – we owe it to ourselves.

Dr. Palihawadana shared that this is the perfect time for self-reflection and the evaluation of our life goals and the decisions we have been taking to that end thus far. “Think of the things you would want to discard or change once life gets back to normal. This is the ideal time for you to reassess your priorities.”

Tips

He also shared more tips on how to manage your time at home:

  • Structure your day. Even if you do not have any work to do, structuring your day by planning how much time you will spend doing certain things will really help you feel more in control and will thereby alleviate stress
  • Ensure you include in your schedule an activity that will give you a feeling of accomplishment. It doesn’t have to be anything major, and would be better if it is aligned with your work, personal development, or something you’re passionate about
  • Use this time to get to know your loved ones. Many families really do not know each other very well. Learn your partner’s or children’s likes, dislikes, what would hurt them and please them, their way of thinking, their priorities, etc.
  • Pay attention to your eating habits. Do not engage in compulsive eating. This is a form of escapism people use to run away from negative feelings. Although you may feel slightly good while eating, immediately afterwards you will feel more negative emotions, which can lead to compulsive cycles
  • Similarly, do not drink alcohol or smoke if that is also being used as a form of escapism
  • Self-regulate. If you successfully self-regulate your behaviors (e.g. compulsive eating), you will be able to successfully help the people around you cope better
  • Don’t see your family as a burden or nuisance and don’t shut them off
  • Whatever action you do, do with intent, irrespective of how mundane it is. Avoid doing things in autopilot mode, which is something that can happen in a time like this. If you go into this mode, you will feel like your actions are pointless; in which case, you will feel a sense of hopelessness which is bad for your mental health
  • Engage in at least 30-40 minutes of exercise daily. Ensure that you have a set program of sorts that you can follow, or even a YouTube video. Avoid exercising without a plan on what to do, as this would lead to a higher probability of slacking. You could exercise with your family as a group, which will result in a collective boost in morale and also peer pressure, which will push you to follow through with your exercise routine
  • Practice gratitude. Although it may be a difficult time to feel grateful, it is the very reason we must try to do so. When we cultivate this habit even in times of distress, our brains get rewired and thus leads to a reduction of stress. Simply think of three things you are grateful for every morning before getting out of bed
  • Help others. The moment you decide to help someone, you automatically step out of that self-pitying/sad mode, as you shift your focus to making someone else feel better
  • Remember that it is okay not to be okay. Give yourself permission to feel bad. It is important to realize that this is not a normal situation we are facing, and that we cannot be expected to handle it well. If you tell yourself that you shouldn’t be stressed out, you are only adding to your distress as you are now feeling guilty for being stressed out

While the President’s Media Division announced on Sunday (19) that the curfew will be relaxed in most parts of the island this week, with the exception of a few police divisions regarded as high-risk areas and some districts, life will not go back to normalcy.

Curfew is being lifted for a limited time every day, with companies/institutions being instructed on how to manage their workforce. The Government has also issued guidelines on Covid-19 preparedness in the workplace (available on the Epidemiology Unit website of the Ministry of Health) which we have to adopt.

While this would mean that some of us are allowed to leave our homes, we also need to realize that things will not get back to the normal we knew pre COVID-19. As such, it is advisable to minimize travel outside to just commuting to and from work and purchasing essentials.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that even after lockdowns are lifted, we need to “change our behaviors for the foreseeable future”, and that is what we must do in order to overcome this crisis. (Colombo Gazette)

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