Dealing with other attendant ‘pandemics’

Medics testing Kenya Ports Authority staff for Covid-19 in Mombasa on April 19, 2020.

Photo credit: Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Governments across the world made serious efforts to ameliorate the effects of these first consequences of the pandemic.
  • The fourth ‘pandemic’ we predicted, which is now well on its way, was the impact of Covid-19 and the control measures on our mental health.

When the Covid-19 pandemic began its march across the globe early this year, we predicted it would carry with it a wave of other ‘pandemics’ that were not necessarily borne by infectious agents in the traditional sense.

Firstly, we indicated our physical health would suffer significantly unless we could miraculously develop a cure or a vaccine against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Secondly, we foresaw the economic damage the virus and the control measures would cause, and counselled measures be taken to protect those living on the economic margins of our society.

Thirdly, we indicated that, due to the disruption to the health system by movement restrictions and reduced physical activity, we would see a surge in uncontrolled chronic physical diseases like hypertension, diabetes and even cancer. We advised that measures be put in place to ensure people with pre-existing illnesses could continue to access care, even if technology had to be deployed to enable this.

Governments across the world made serious efforts to ameliorate the effects of these first consequences of the pandemic. Best practices included giving tax waivers and other economic soft landings for those at risk, and deploying tele-medicine and home-based care for those that had difficulty accessing care in hospitals.

While our economy has significantly contracted during the pandemic, it is possible that things might have been worse for individual citizens without the attempts the government made to cushion its impact.

Mental health

The fourth ‘pandemic’ we predicted, which is now well on its way, was the impact of Covid-19 and the control measures on our mental health. We first identified the risk of people living with mental illnesses not being able to access appropriate care during the pandemic.

Today, many are unable to access sorely needed services at public mental health facilities, and they have to spend inordinate amounts of money seeking care at private facilities.

The second risk we identified is that those directly and indirectly affected by the disease would be vulnerable to trauma and stress-related mental illnesses. Every disaster spawns a hike in mental illnesses, and Covid-19 is the most consequential disaster of our time.

Today, more people are reporting posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms, depression, anxiety and hazardous substance use.

Health consequence

The third mental health consequence of this pandemic we expected would arise from the economic deprivation as a result of restrictions related to Covid-19 control. Mental illnesses are associated with sudden changes in socio-economic status, and certain mental illnesses have been found to cluster in economically deprived areas.

As more people are driven into penury by job losses and pay cuts, we expect more distress that may rise to the level of mental illness.

It is with this knowledge in mind that we ramped up our mental health advocacy efforts, running special campaigns and encouraging everyone to take better care of their mental health. It is gratifying that the government at the highest level also took this issue seriously, and we are seeing concrete efforts to change the mental health landscape.

As we build back better in the face of this pandemic, may we remember this year as the turning point in our collective approach to mental health in Kenya!

lukoye@gmail.com