COVID-19 has wrought havoc upon the world. The thousands of deaths that the Novel Coronavirus has caused is beyond belief, and this virus will surely be seen as the deadliest disease since the Spanish Flu in 1918-1919.
Globally, we have seen countries acting in different ways, yet it is clear that the decisions taken by many governments will define their politics for the next couple of decades. Meanwhile, in South Africa, the decisive leadership of Cyril Ramaphosa has been incredible. We’re yet to see the results of his actions, but the hope is that he acted quickly enough to contain the spread and ‘flatten the curve’ — a phrase has entered our collective vocabulary, much the same as ‘social distancing’.
But COVID-19 is not just a physical disease. It is now something that has massive social repercussions. The first factor is definitely the economic issues that the virus has brought upon global financial systems. Stock exchanges have tumbled, emerging markets’ currencies are in tatters (besides for China), and unemployment is rising in almost every country as isolation and quarantine have led to retrenchments. Not only this, but businesses, cultural institutions, and restaurants which rely on peoples’ physical presence are being run into the ground.
But the economic toll is not the only effect of social isolation. Isolation can have severe repercussions on emotional health for individuals (which can lead to physical issues), domestic abuse and gender-based violence, and household relationships.
For those who do not have partners or people who live in the same house as them, isolation can be traumatic. People are normally surrounded by people in their everyday lives; the gym, shops, work, religious, and social gatherings are obviously all people-based. And those who are mostly affected by isolation are those whose immune systems are most compromised. Older adults, people with disabilities and those with preexisting health complications are going to be hit with a breakdown in social contact. In an article on Vox.com, Eric Klinenberg, a New York University sociologist, was quoted as saying “we’ve entered a new period of social pain”. He goes on to say that we have not yet discussed the cost that the pandemic will have on social suffering. And although we have new technologies that allow us to have ‘facetime’ with our loved ones, physical contact is crucial to a healthy emotional and mental state.
The physical toll that those who lack routine social contact is staggering. Researchers for the National Academies of Sciences reported that “Social isolation has been associated with a significantly increased risk of premature mortality from all causes,” including: a “50 percent increased risk of developing dementia”; a “29 percent increased risk of incident coronary heart disease”; a “25 percent increased risk for cancer mortality”; a “59 percent increased risk of functional decline”; and a “32 percent increased risk of stroke.” However, the lockdown and isolation does not only mean individuals with pre-existing mental or physical issues are affected. Those who are in abusive relationships will also suffer greatly.
Women and children are in greater danger during the lockdown then they were before it. Escaping one’s home is one way of avoiding abuse. Children can go to school and women to work, among other safe places. However, in this time of a complete lockdown, these vulnerable people are trapped with their abusers 24/7. Last year I wrote about femicide and the absurd figure of abuse against women in South Africa — research shows that a woman is murdered in South Africa every three hours. That is the norm in South Africa. However, the lockdown is a new norm. How many women will now be abused and murdered at the hands of their partners? How many children will be mentally, emotionally and physically scarred at the end of the 21-day period? Thankfully there are call centres set up for those who are victims of gender-based violence, but how successful will they be?
There is one last issue that needs to be addressed: the toll that the lockdown and isolation will have on couples and their relationships. I am lucky enough to be married to an incredible woman and mother; I cannot imagine going through this without her. Gabi and I have been working hard and parenting even harder — it’s been tough not having school for Jessica and not having things for Livi to do. But it has shown me that our relationship is strong; this pandemic will not affect our marriage. However, it is much more difficult for those whose relationships are fragile.
When it comes to disasters, people in relationships will either come together or split apart. Financial and logistical tensions of dread and uncertainty can lead couples to either work with or against each other. However, the pandemic has caused even more uncertainty — how much more can the economy tank?; how will the country deal with the rise in COVID-19 patients?; will there be enough hospital beds?; what is going to happen politically in the country? Jennifer Senior, writing in the New York Times, spoke to Esther Perel, a noted therapist and podcast celebrity. Perel described several differences a couple may take on key questions that are relevant. These include: how one approaches information at a time of crisis; how consumed one is by an emergency; and how one moves through the world when disaster strikes. One person might be more open and engaged, thorough in research and up to speed, while the other person wants to block out the ‘noise’ and not discuss what is happening to avoid feeling fatalistic and resigned to the worst possible outcome. Couples have to navigate these waters carefully and try to understand one other by being sensitive, caring and loving.
As I write this column, we have been in lockdown for one week. There are 1 505 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with seven confirmed deaths. The government has been amazing with communication and I feel at ease, knowing that they are in control — for the most part. But this pandemic will not just be about numbers. It will be about how humans acted in the face of adversity. It’s about what we did to help those in need, how much time we spent with our family in a positive way, and how we created a nurturing environment for those who may not have the opportunity to have one. This pandemic is a test of our humanity. I hope that we will keep showing that we can come together and face this challenge united and strong.
Keep safe and stay strong.
By Craig Nudelman
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