Mental health: COVID-19 claims millions of uninfected victims

'For days I could not work. I slept. Nothing else made sense.'

  • COVID-19 has infected 28 million directly but it has affected the lives and mental health of billions.
  • Depression, fear of the unknown, uncertainty, fear for family, fear of death, all play a part in the depression that can set in with almost no warning.
  • One survey in Colombia found that 40% of heads of households were worried or nervous, 22% felt sad and 19% had trouble sleeping.

COLOMBIA. There have been more than 28 million cases of COVID-19 around the world, a number that pales in comparison with the billions of victims of the virus. I am one of these billions of undiagnosed injured.

In a not altogether surprising side-effect, the six-month-old pandemic has affected the mental health of just about everybody in one way or another. The stress of lockdowns, fears of contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the uncertain future, worries about what happens if children or elderly family members are infected, the pressure to wear masks, the need to social distance, home schooling, working from home, lost jobs and the many other changes brought about by the novel coronavirus have left nobody unscathed.

“Fear, worry, and stress are normal responses to perceived or real threats, and at times when we are faced with uncertainty or the unknown. So it is normal and understandable that people are experiencing fear in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the World Health Organization said. “Added to the fear of contracting the virus in a pandemic such as COVID-19 are the significant changes to our daily lives as our movements are restricted in support of efforts to contain and slow down the spread of the virus.”

Marooned in Colombia

I live in Colombia, a country that has endured its share of challenges over the years, including mass kidnappings, bloody terrorist attacks, natural disasters like the earthquake that hit the coffee axis in 1999 or the avalanche that destroyed the town of Armero back in 1985 merely a week after a terrorist group attacked and burnt down the palace of justice killing dozens in the capital of Bogota.

On the other hand, Colombia has not had to worry much about large epidemics. Yes, there was cholera and the Spanish flu but both were long before my time. For most people alive today, pandemics were something that happened in other places, something to read in the news.

This pandemic has been different. Colombia reacted quickly with some of the strictest lockdowns in the world. Months of lockdowns have had a severe impact on the mental health of many.

With the support of UNICEF, the National Administrative Department of Statistics in Colombia (DANE) is closely monitoring the situation of the households during the pandemic, including mental health issues that are affecting the way that Colombians live.

According to the results of a phone survey of 10,000 participants done in August, 40.4% of heads of the households in the country felt worried or nervous during the seven days prior while 22.5% felt sadness, 19% had trouble sleeping and 18.7% felt tired.

Colombians faced one of the most severe lockdowns in the world, recording 160 days of mandatory confinement. At the beginning of the lockdowns, there were 30 exceptions for people working in basic services and the number of exceptions grew to 43 to limit the harm on the economy. Every one of the 1,122 mayors across the country was given the power to manage their own cities or towns.

In my town of Cajica, on the outskirts of Bogota, a rotation system based on national ID numbers allowed a person of each household to go out for four hours for supplies once a week, on Thursdays in my case, and for a maximum of four hours.

The length of this weekly outing was eventually expanded to 12 hours and, eventually, Saturday outings were also allowed. No shop would sell goods to me any other day. We also had to deal with curfews from 7:30 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Like many of my compatriots, my family and I became prisoners to a disease while we watched the economy crumble. It fell 15.7% in Q2. After all those months, the virus continues to gain ground. The number of people infected continues to rise. There is little gain to be seen from six months of home imprisonment.

The government eventually surrendered and understood that it was impossible to continue with the confinement as a strategy to fight COVID-19. President Ivan Duque made a single announcement that confinement orders would end September 1. When the restrictions were lifted, people flooded to the streets.

As 50 million Colombians cheered the end of the confinement, the virus remained as strong as ever. Lifting the restrictions did little to fight off the pandemic. Even on August 28, three days before the restrictions were lifted, a famous commercial area in downtown Bogota was so crowded that it looked like a scene from the popular Where’s Waldo books.

That same weekend, a photograph of a crowded bus rolling along the streets of Bogota went viral on social media along with pictures of family gatherings, pool parties, dinners and many other social events, all of which replaced pictures of the couches and Zoom parties on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

That’s when the virus hit me without ever infecting me.

Bad news, not good

I did not see the lifting of restrictions as good news, not with the virus still out there and Colombia ranking sixth in the world in terms of the number of COVID-19 cases. Rather, with the lifting of restrictions, I felt as if I was being pushed to the edge and there was no way back.

I survived peritoneal mesothelioma in 2007. I survived a pulmonary embolism in 2011. My blood type is A-positive (which could be relevant for COVID-19, but some say it isn´t) and I struggle with hypertension. I’m at risk if I get exposed to the coronavirus and there are several co-morbidities that could put me in an ICU or even a coffin. And I’m well aware of it.

I am also a husband and father of three. My oldest child is only seven years old. I want my kids to grow free but protected while attending a school and not a screen. I want my wife to go back to church (we are Catholic) without worrying about her bringing the disease back home.

And I also want to be here for them, a difficult balance in times of COVID-19.

On September 1, I went into a black hole. Without trying to sound melodramatic, I was hopeless and resigned to eventually die. The uncertainty of the future – a future in which schools are already preparing to reopen, a future with churches running at full strength, a future full of parties and people flooding the streets even as the virus continues its relentless advance their protocols to bring back the kids to the classrooms – was simply too much. What all this said to me was that Colombians are now resigned to live and die with the virus. And, by that point, death seemed like the more likely option.

For days I could not work. I slept. Nothing else made sense.

Some months ago, during the confinement, a friend texted me on WhatsApp. He was going to ask his psychiatrist to give him a shot, so that he could hibernate for six months at a mental clinic. He wasn’t joking. His physician did not agree but, instead, gave him some medication. He eventually overcame the depression triggered by confinement and uncertainty.

I was not so sure I would make it through. In fact, I was sure I would not.

“The virus has not left, it has not left Colombia, and it has not left any country in the world. The virus is circulating, you cannot lower your guard, we all have to be on alert,” Duque warned hours before releasing society away from the coronavirus lockdowns.

I’m not really sure what happened during the first week of the month. All I know is that on Friday, September 4, I woke up feeling better and out of the hole I was in. Those were, without question, the worst days in my life, at least when it comes to my mental health. I was depressed. Really depressed.

But now I’m back. I can once again recognize the beauty of my beautiful family and be grateful about my job. I love what I do, despite barely touching the streets for months on end.  I will fight as much as I can to avoid falling back into that depression, to never again be among the 40.4% who feel sad or have lost hope during the pandemic.

And I will continue to fight the virus, taking precautions, staying in my bubble, avoiding unnecessary travel and outings, wearing masks, washing my hands obsessively and doing whatever I can to make sure neither me nor my family become part of another exclusive group – the one percent of Colombians infected with this insidious virus.