September 23, 2020

Are You a COVID Snob?

Guest Opinion
By Amy Kerr Hardin | Aug. 1, 2020

 

It can be satisfying to judge other people. It gives us a sense of control. We don’t feel so helpless when we have the power to point fingers, blame someone.

Over the past several months we’ve seen a wave of reactionary pandemic-shaming of those not following the “rules.” One of those favored rules is placing COVID-19 precautions above all other health considerations. It’s understandable that people gain a fleeting sense of power in an impossible situation through policing others on proper conduct. The media have capitalized on this shaming bandwagon.

Epidemiologist Julia Marcus, of Harvard Medical School, is disturbed by the absolutist “moralistic undertones” of public shaming, saying it actually increases risky behavior. Unfortunately, shaming has the opposite of its intended effect and actually increases the bad behavior. She reminds us that the highest threat for transmission is found in places like prisons and nursing homes. She warns that public shaming of people for “having fun” (i.e., walking in Traverse City's downtown, mask-free) during a pandemic is counter-productive.

It’s time to step back and rethink our communal reaction.  

The pandemic has some very critical symptoms that are not being addressed — symptoms that many find too unpleasant to discuss and prefer to ignore as insignificant. 

Mental health issues related to the virus and its disruption of our lives are not mere collateral damage; they should be central to every aspect of our collective response.

Placing physical health above mental well-being is an act of cruel ignorance. It’s primitive thinking.  

Grief, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, domestic abuse issues, extreme anxiety, and agoraphobia are but a few of the very serious long-term mental health conditions that need to be at the top of the list of factors considered when making public-policy decisions related to this rolling crisis. To ignore them invites decades of trouble.

The nonprofit Families for Depression Awareness encourages people to help those suffering from a mood disorder. They advise that “social distancing does not have to mean emotional distancing.” However, just the use of the term “social distancing” can feel very isolating to those suffering from mental health issues. Early on in the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) strongly discouraged the use of the term in favor of “physical distancing.”

For those not experiencing emotional illness within their circle of family and friends, this might seem like semantics. Ignorance of mind health can lead to obtuse and hurtful opinions. 

It's time to acknowledge and treat the mental health aspects of the pandemic. They are real. They are dangerous. And people are dying.

In defiance of the Trump Administration’s effort to thwart WHO in a pathetic bid to distract the public from what is possibly the most monumental presidential blunder in American history, the global organization recognized the dire mental health consequences. WHO has been out front on this topic, promoting a number of coping mechanisms, including having regular social contact while observing reasonable precautions.

Another nonprofit, The Global Healthy Living Foundation, reminds us that those who are immunocompromised, or at high risk from the virus in general, may be experiencing heightened levels of loneliness and anxiety that are new to their already complicated healthcare landscape.

Friends and relatives may think steering clear of these individuals is doing them a service, but social isolation in a time of high anxiety can be detrimental. The foundation offers an online service for care and counseling. The Centers for Disease Control, among other organizations, are similarly offering hotlines for those experiencing acute anxiety and suicidal thoughts, but that is simply a Band-Aid approach to the looming mental health crisis.

The publication Healthline found that it has become increasingly problematic to identify mental health issues because of the isolation that distancing begets. Yet, it reports the number of people currently suffering “is well above historical norms.” Certain demographics are considerably more vulnerable: women, minorities, people with compromised health, healthcare workers, and millennials. Financial stress, domestic violence, and the utter uncertainty about what the future holds are taking their toll on coping mechanisms. 

National Public Radio (NPR) reports that children are experiencing increasing mental health problems due to social isolation — a problem made worse for those dealing with underlying emotional health issues. Human interaction is a key component to healthy development and lifelong mental balance.

The American Psychological Association cautions of the dangers of social distancing, citing that many have developed a people phobia, leading them to make poor choices, like avoiding critical medical care. They warn that intimate partner violence and child abuse are on the rise, and that gun sales are also up. Guns in the home, by the way, are linked to increased suicide rates. 

Dr. Mark Reger, chief of psychology services at Puget Sound Health Care, refers to the pending suicide risk as the “perfect storm.” His concern is warranted. Suicide is already the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. — and that’s pre-pandemic.

NPR refers to the problem as a “silent threat.” That characterization is fitting. The new norms expect us to remain mute about the emotional devastation COVID-19 has had on our collective and individual psyches, or at least make sure it takes a backseat to the physical impacts of the pandemic.

This disease is an equal opportunity killer. COVID-19 death certificates list multiple primary causes of death — stroke, cardiac arrest, COPD, suicide, among others.

Death is death. 

COVID-19 does not play favorites based on the presumed virtue of a false moral high ground. 

Amy Kerr Hardin is a retired banker, regionally known artist, and public-policy wonk. You can hear and learn more about the state of Michigan politics on her podcast, www.MichiganPolicast.com.

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