People across the world are facing unprecedented times. The novel coronavirus Covid-19 has been designated as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation. We all are affected, whether directly by the illness (ourselves or someone we know), or by policies and guidance being enacted by the government; or very possibly both.
Psychologists for Social Change’s previous briefing paper on austerity notes five key ways that mental health can be impacted by public policy. We believe these also come into play at times of huge social uncertainty such as during the current pandemic:
1. Being trapped and powerless
It is no understatement to say that the uncertainty around what will happen feels overwhelming at times. High levels of uncertainty can lead to more physiological stress than a known negative outcome. So the sense of powerlessness that many people are feeling in the face of the virus has led to increased levels of anxiety and distress. Some people who have been most detrimentally affected by austerity and cuts will struggle even more.
2. Fear and distrust
It is understandable that there is a very high level of fear for those of us with health conditions or loved ones who are more vulnerable. The UK government has warned that we should expect loved ones tol die, and death rates are mounting around the world each day. There is also heightened fear around how the NHS and other services will cope. This has been exacerbated by many years of cuts to health services, and a social care system which remains woefully underfunded even without the context of the current Covid-19 crisis. With beds requisitioned from the private sector, there are still question marks over who will profit from the current crisis. At times like these, distrust of those in power is likely to mount, especially for people who already feel let down by the government. There needs to be scrutiny around the new coronavirus bill to ensure that it does not undermine human rights.
3. Humiliation and shame
As humans we are naturally concerned about our status relative to others. The growing inequality gap across the UK is thought to have increased our risk to ‘social anxiety’ as a nation. This is said to be partly responsible for the breakdown in cohesion across communities and society. As the rich get richer the spread of wealth becomes polarised. This causes greater distancing between groups and a breakdown in ‘bridging relationships’ which support people to access resources beyond their immediate social position.
When under threat like this, our defenses come up, cohesion breaks down and it is easy to blame or stigmatise others. Rising inequality over at least the last decade has eroded our social ties causing division which has contributed to a rise in populist nationalism. Against this backdrop we have already seen a rise in racially aggravated incidents as people come to terms with the virus. The out-of-our-control nature of the unfolding situation can fly in the face of some of our deeply-held values as people who want to help or support others. Sitting with these values whilst feeling powerless may make us feel torn about what to do. We could feel shameful because the right answer isn’t going to always be clear.