South Africa is just starting to enter a dramatic upwards curve of the Covid-19 pandemic, with infection rates that are increasing rapidly with every passing day, and with the peak of infections predicted to be in August or September 2020. While it is obviously vital to save lives, it might behoove a person to consider the psychological sequelae that a pandemic of this size and consequence may bring in the months and years to come. Not only do people have concerns about being infected and many have to mourn the passing of a loved one, but the disruption of our normal lives, social isolation, and financial difficulties are bound to exacerbate distress, anxiety and even depression. People with pre-existing mental health difficulties may be especially vulnerable to the exacerbation of their symptoms.
Children in South Africa are vulnerable at the best of times, and never more so than during this epidemic, which included strict lockdown regulations. Estimates are that domestic violence has increase with 500%! Children are also exposed to television news and statistics indicating daily infections and deaths as well as to their parents’ discussion of the pandemic. They are witnesses to their parents’ stress, anxiety and feelings of helplessness. Many children are cut off from the one meal that they get a day (at school) during the lockdown, so that even their most basic physical needs are not being met, not to mention their emotional needs.
Children in more privileged circumstances also seem to be negatively impacted, to which the sheer volume of calls that I have had to field since the start of the endemic, attest. Interestingly enough, the calls were from children, and not their parents. Heightened anxiety, obsessive behaviour, feelings of helplessness, anger and depression are amongst the symptoms that seemed to have been exacerbated during this time. Additionally, many children need the structure of the school day to feel more in control. Parents are complaining about children that are not doing the normal hygiene tasks, such as bathing and brushing teeth, some are lethargic and have difficulty concentrating or has given up activities that usually brings them joy. If history can teach us anything, then it is to keep a keen eye on our children’s mental health, as many psychological consequences lingered after various disasters, such as the Spanish Flu epidemic.
Resilience-training may help off-set some of the negative sequelae of these times. Additionally, making sure that your child has a set structure during the work week, with ample but controlled breaks in between. Structures give children a sense of organization and help to make their day more predictable, which in turn helps to lessen anxiety. Consider the nature of news material on television and also the manner in which adults in your child’s environment discuss the pandemic. Make sure that you are available to name and discuss your child’s feelings with him/her. Answer questions regarding the pandemic honestly, but with due consideration of your child’s age and what he/she is able to handle emotionally.