Rarely has the threat of disease occupied so much of our thinking. For weeks, almost every newspaper has stories about the coronavirus pandemic on its front page; radio and TV programmes have back-to-back coverage on the latest death tolls; and depending on who you follow, social media platforms are filled with frightening statistics.
There is no playbook for COVID-19. There is no guideline that explains how isolation should be done or how hospitals should be prepared. Much of what we are doing is unscripted, unknowable, and uncertain. This is creating a great deal of anxiety, fear, and even depression for Batswana. Every phone call brings trepidation because every call is, inevitably, about the coronavirus. Often, it is a call for help – someone needs a hospital bed, or the hospital has run out of vital drugs or worse yet, hasn’t received the vaccine. But increasingly, it is news about losing somebody you know. This constant bombardment can result in heightened anxiety, with immediate effects on our mental health. Fear of death or death anxiety is present in all human beings, however, it becomes more prominent in mortality salient situations. The present pandemic has not only created uncertainty, confusion, and chaos in our lives but has also put us in an indefinite period of mortality salient, where no one is sure about their wellbeing and safety.
Anxiety about death and dying in unnatural circumstances without access to family and friends is one of the primary psychological issues to emerge in this pandemic. The news of shortages of hospital beds, oxygen and medicines on social and traditional media are continuously feeding a growing reservoir of dread. It is the most basic form of existential anxiety, the fear for one’s life.
Dr Poloko Ntswarang, senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana says, “Unlike cancer bereavement groups where individuals are often prepared for the inevitability of death, families and friends of COVID victims struggle to grapple with the suddenness of death, especially when so many others survive. Closure is something many bereaved families struggle with as lockdown restrictions mean they cannot attend funerals. Because of the risk of infection, funerals are now a hurried affair, sparsely attended by family—if at all. Others become numb to tragedy, unable to react. We cannot reach out to console each other anymore. People live with a sense of continual loss and foreboding. Given that coping is existentially difficult with so many daily losses, people enter into a dark place with an ever-increasing fear of the dark, from which there is no escape.”
That fear has become more palpable during the second wave, where a new variant of COVID-19 is believed to be manifesting in a far more infectious and deadly form of the disease. People who have had COVID-19 once are getting it again, those who have recovered from the disease are dying of cardiac arrests or strokes a few weeks later. The fear of death has evolved from the first to the second wave. The magnitude of loss is more pronounced as people fear the loss of their own lives, they also worry not only about their own death but equally of the threat to their families and friends. With the number of daily deaths going up in the second wave, that fear has only multiplied, with many families experiencing the sudden loss of multiple members, even of young people.
Clinical psychologist, Dr Sophie Moagi says, “The uncertainty about future outcomes has increased people’s levels of stress and feelings of vulnerability. This compromises their sense of security and makes them feel out of control of the situations of their lives. Others worry if life will ever be the same again. Many are plagued by negative thoughts, insomnia, anxiety and lack of interest because they are unable to do things they once enjoyed and channelled their energy into. Living with the fear of losing lives, livelihoods and our sense of familiarity for a prolonged period of time can be extremely distressing. Signs of anxiety overlap with those of Covid-19, making people more uneasy. In some people, such anxieties manifest in symptoms like a lump in the throat and difficulty breathing which makes them think they have COVID,