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The Psychology of COVID-19

By Reuben Abati,

Nigeria announced its first COVID-19 case on February 27 – an Italian who came into the country on February 24 and displayed symptoms of the disease while visiting Lafarge Cement Company in Ewekoro, Ogun State.

He has been treated and discharged. Since then Nigeria has recorded a total of 111 cases, as at the time of this writing, with two reported deaths. The Nigerian government has introduced a number of measures: monetary measures by the Central Bank of Nigeria, and fiscal measures by the Federal Ministry of Finance.

State governments and the private sector are also taking steps to contain the virus, treat the affected and prevent an escalation of the disease. But of all the measures taken so far, it seems to me that not enough attention is being paid to the psychological impact of COVID-19 and its effect on the mental health of Nigerians. Psychology is very important to our management of the pandemic.

I am beginning to observe very unusual behaviour among Nigerians. People are responding to the Corona Virus pandemic in very unusual manners that may have a worse effect than the pandemic itself, such that long after the disease may have receded, we could have a large population of damaged persons who may be struggling with the after-effects.

COVID-19 pandemic is probably the biggest scourge and uncertainty that the world has faced since the Spanish Flu of 1918 -1920 and the World Wars of 1914 and 1944. Uncertainties induce stress. People respond to change in unusual manners and coping mechanisms may be different and elastic. Nigerians don’t seem to be handling the psycho-social implications of COVID-19 too well.

With the two-week stay at home order that has now been announced by President Muhammadu Buhari in Lagos, Ogun, and the Federal Capital Territory, we may be dealing with something fatal. How will people cope? How can they be helped to cope while staying at home to prevent a community spread of the scourge?

I first noticed the psychological crisis that we face when immediately after the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and the Federal Ministry of Health announced that sanitizers, face masks and gloves can be used to protect oneself against COVID-19. Nigerians didn’t take chances.

They bombarded all the available shops and super markets. When President Donald Trump assumed the role of a scientist and further announced chloroquine as the clinical solution to COVID-19, many Nigerians bought up all the chloroquine tablets in the city of Lagos. Long before President Buhari announced a two-week lockdown of Lagos, Ogun and the FCT, Nigerians had also already begun to stockpile all kinds of items.

It was worse a day after the Presidential address. Even street corner shops had long queues of persons, buying things they may not need, or perishable items that they can do without. A week ago, I went to a confectionery, I saw people struggling to buy bread. One man bought 20 loaves of bread! When he was accused of greed and insensitivity, he told his accusers to shut up. After all, he was spending his money. At another super market, I saw a guy struggling with three trolley loads of toilet paper.

I saw him as he loaded the toilet paper into the trunk of his car. I was actually also going into the same supermarket to buy toilet paper. Afraid that the fellow may have emptied the entire store, I didn’t know when I blurted out:

“Oga, na wa for you oh. Wetin?”

“What have I done?”, he responded.

“Oga, look at all these packs of toilet paper. Na only you dey shit for Lagos?”

“Man, you can’t blame me. Have you not seen what is happening in London? People are stockpiling food and other essentials. I advise you to do the same. Buy whatever you can buy because we don’t quite understand how this Corona thing will turn out.”

When I got into the supermarket, I was confused. Entry was controlled, the managers having adopted what they called a “Q” system. Despite the fact that there was no crowd inside, the few persons allowed in at a time were busy buying every available item as if the world was about to end. I saw a lady with a trolley- load of eggs. I ended up observing other people. I really couldn’t buy as much as I wanted.

I felt as if I was surrounded by persons suffering from what psychiatrists call obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or better still, anxiety disorder. COVID-19 has turned so many persons into mental health cases. Fear has driven the people into all kinds of strange behavior. The fear of dying and suffering is probably at the root of man’s survival instinct.

My doctoral research in thanatos and thanatomimesis showed that the fear of dying is perhaps worse than death itself. See, for example: Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Illyich (1886); Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (1924), and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying (1969). In the face of COVID-19, many are dying silently out of fear, panic and anxiety. Who will save or help such persons?

Perhaps the biggest psychological indication that I have observed is the crisis of “over-confidence” fuelled by the illusion of control, dangerously complicated by ignorance of an African peculiarity. Over the weekend, I was in Ogun State. I was shocked to see the markets bustling with reckless energy and stupid community spirit. Nobody was observing social distancing.

I saw young men hugging each other, shaking hands and carrying on as if COVID-19 was a foreign tale told by idiots. At a point, I had to challenge a group of youths, huddled together, playing draughts (that is – checkers), excitedly, without a care in the world.

“Eyin boys, what you are doing is not right. Have you not heard of Corona? You should observe social distancing. This is not the time to play draught, back-slapping, sitting close to each other. Corona Virus kills,” I said.

“Baba Alaye, e gboju n be. Corona is a big man’s disease. It cannot do anything to us. It only affects corrupt people. Awa o je gbi, a o le ku gbi. We are not corrupt. Corona cannot touch us. Let the elite deal with their problem. Corona for where? Me sef, I be Corona. If Corona see me, we go look at each other Coro, Coro. Oju koro ki i pa oju koro je.”

I tried to offer some information. I didn’t want to antagonize them, so I put the blame on the Ogun State Government, not doing enough to sensitize and mobilize the people to see reason and respect Science. I talked about the supremacy of Science in these strange times… It didn’t work.

“Egbon, oro alakowe le n so yen o. We local people have a solution to it. I know the herbal concoction that will drive Corona Virus away, by the time I use herbs, with incisions and spiritual meal, Corona will pick race so fast, it will find itself back in China. Awon a ti tani. Egungun be careful.”

I was perplexed. Corona Virus is a matter of life and death. It does not respect geography. It does not distinguish between members of Nigeria’s political parties: it doesn’t know whether you belong to the Peoples Democratic Party or the All Progressives Congress. It is a contagion, a deadly, infectious disease.

The smartest scientists in the world are struggling to understand what it is. Some characters sit in Nigeria’s rural communities and insist that they have a herbal formula or a spiritual formula that can cure Corona Virus. If Corona Virus moves from Nigeria’s cities to the hinterland and rural areas, we should expect death on a ferocious, Italy-like scale.

I mentioned ignorance earlier. There are also some religious leaders going about telling the people that Corona Virus cannot touch Christians or Muslims. One popular Pastor even preached on Sunday that whoever goes for testing is likely to be infected and so, no Christian should go for testing because Corona Virus is a manifestation of the anti-Christ. In Katsina, one Muslim cleric insisted on holding Friday prayers in defiance of official directives.

The State Task Force on Corona Virus dispersed the crowd. What followed was that some of the members of the group stormed a police station and burnt down the vehicles in the compound. They said they were defending their right to pray and assemble. They are mad. Every Pastor or Imam who violates the rules on the containment of COVID-19 should be arrested and made to face the full wrath of the law.

Some Corona Virus lawyers have also been quoting the law and insisting that government does not have the right to shut down borders or states or ask people to stay at home. You see: the psychological aspect of Corona Virus should be addressed! Law is made for man, not the other way round. Corona Virus is a threat to human existence. No responsible lawyer should insist on those rights that can accelerate the extermination of the human race. Whoever is not happy should go to the courts and test the law: there are enough laws and precedents to sustain a counter-argument.

Along the spectrum of the psychotic disorder that COVID-19 has generated is the growing community of hypochondriacs and germaphobes. Have you met anyone like that in the last few weeks? I have. I am talking about the “don’t-touch-me” “don’t-come-near-me”, “maintain-social-distance” crowd. These are overnight scientists. When they step out every morning, it is as if they are approaching a war zone armed as they are with face masks, sanitizers, and sanitary wipes. One even sprayed me before I could say “good morning”.

They have become obsessed with COVID-19. They soak in every piece of information on social media, particularly WhatsApp where a unique type of psychosis is on display. Every minute you are likely to get a forwarded message saying one thing or the other about the disease. I can’t fully recall all that I have read – from conspiracy theories to jokes to treatment advisory: turmeric, ginger, lemon and all sorts.

Ordinarily, human beings are tactile. They like to relate with one another. We like to touch each other. All of a sudden, we are being told that we cannot touch, hug, kiss or do all the things we ordinarily do. Social distancing has disrupted our lives. I try to imagine what life would be like after Corona Virus.

We simply have to re-learn the habits that used to govern our lives. Even the way we speak has changed. Corona has affected human language and may find its way into the English Language dictionary. One famous phrase today is COVIDIOTS – persons who refuse to self-isolate or respect official health advisory on Corona Virus like the Pastor who says the disease is anti-Christian and the Imam whose followers attacked a police station in Katsina. You may also have heard of the word CORONIALS. These are children who may be born in the season of Corona Virus, products of love and passion in the time of COVID-19.

I recall meeting a lady the other day and somehow we started talking about Corona Virus, the key subject of the year. She told me:

“My biggest problem is that my husband is now always at home. He likes to watch football, but there is no football anymore on TV. All the European Leagues have been suspended. He has become restless and demanding. I don’t know how I will cope with him.”

“Madam”, I said as quietly as I could. “Don’t worry. You will be fine. The worst that can happen is that in nine months’ time, we will come for the naming ceremony of a CORONIAL baby.”

“Me? I reject that. I am done. What do you think I am? A baby-making machine?. You can’t sexualize me. I am a professional,” she thundered.

I didn’t push further but a big concern about the Corona Virus lock-down is that nine months from today, we may end up with a spike in Nigeria’s population. Husbands are being forced to stay at home with their wives. A week ago, commercial sex workers in Nigeria were already complaining that Corona Virus is not good for business.

The stock exchange in that sector has crashed, far worse than the spot price of crude oil, and the crisis in the foreign exchange market. All the customers are now at home. They are not allowed to keep roaming about, sowing wild oats.

In Germany, a state official committed suicide because of Corona Virus. SUICIDE! But perhaps we should also worry about substance abuse. Across Africa, people are abusing drugs, herbs and alcohol. I have seen young men in our local communities who insist that Corona Virus cannot survive in an alcoholic environment and so from sun up to sun down, they are busy taking alcoholic drinks to attack any virus that may find its way to their throats. To the best of my knowledge, the only link between alcohol and COVID-19 is the advisory that we must all use alcohol-based sanitizers.

I have also heard the tale being bandied around that Corona Virus is an evil spirit and that marijuana and cigarette will neutralize it. I don’t think that is true. But of course, the COVID-19 crisis has created a virtual and physical industry in myths, conspiracy theories and fake news. The way I see it, the world is going crazy and we need to deal with that.

Governments, in countries, where it is possible, should not just mobilize doctors and nurses, they should immediately mobilize psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health experts, and counsellors who can help stem the tide of global psychosis, before and after COVID-19. The latter is even more important because the pandemic is disrupting the equilibrium of households and livelihoods.

It has also made small scale entrepreneurs who are hiking prices for opportunistic reasons crazy. Unfortunately, the emerging poverty and hunger viruses may last longer than Corona Virus. We are certainly in a tight corner. Beyond social distancing, we should reach out to one another as a community and as friends, families and colleagues. The short and long term solution to this plague probably lies in collective strength, co-operation and good leadership at all levels.

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