By Uchechukwu Enem
Research has shown that the feeling of helplessness, loneliness and being socially excluded from loved ones, friends, peers, could lead to a higher number of mental health conditions which are usually common in any epidemic. Coronavirus affected many people in society but in this interview with Rev. Fr. Livinus Obianisi, we will focus on how it affected the most vulnerable in society (the Children and the Old). I hope you enjoy this piece.
May We Know you better?
I am Rev. Fr. (Dr) Livinus Chuks Obianisi. I am a Psychologist, Mental Health Counselor and a licensed Alcohol & Drug Abuse Counselor currently working as a Clinical Supervisor at Odyssey House: A mental health facility in New York City. Also, I am a Chaplain at Schievia Nursing Home and NYU Hospital, New York
As a Mental/ Psychological expert, can you briefly summarize the impacts of COVID-19 on the most vulnerable people (children/ people) in your community/ society?
You did well to include children in your concern because most media focus on the elderly people and pay little or no attention to the impact of COVID 19 on children. Introducing CoviKid, a project that tracks the effects of Covid-19 on children under age 20, revealed that children are under tested.
This means that even in America there is insufficient data on how this pandemic affects children. Granted that most elderly people are the most impacted by COVID-19, due to their pre-existing medical conditions, children on the other hand suffer huge psychological and emotional stress as a result of COVID-19 lockdown.
According to Laurence Chandy, the Director of UNICEF’s Office of Global Insight Policy, the closure of schools alone is affecting over 1.5 billion children, especially children that rely on schools for their daily meals.
My community in the US is heavily decimated by COVID-19 with close to 1.5 million cases and over 70000 deaths. Elderly people constitute more than 70% of these reported cases and deaths. In the Nursing Home where I work as a chaplain, over 70 people had died of COVID-19. Concerning my community at home, I mean my homeland, Nigeria and to be more precise, Anambra State, though we have a zero Coronavirus as of date, many people have been devastated by this virus situation. Again, children in my homeland community are heavily impacted by the Corona Virus lockdown.
The truth is that everyone is impacted by this deadly virus. You don’t have to test positive to feel the pinch of the Corona virus. Elderly people suffer more death from Corona virus, but the long term effects of COVID-19 may be more on other population, especially on the children, who have been out of school for a very long time, and who dread confinement the most.
COVID- 19 crisis: how has this affected the well-being and health of children and elderly people?
As already mentioned, the world has lost more than three million people to COVID-19 pandemic. Over 70% of the recorded deaths are among the elderly people. We are lucky in Anambra state that we do not have any case of COVID19, presently. However, the stress of the lockdown and the fear of the uncertainty surrounding the Coronavirus are evidently very overwhelming. Narrowing it down to the elderly and Children, the impact is enormous.
Children and the elderly compared to other populations are more traumatized by stressful situations, such as the present pandemic and global lockdown. Deteriorating mental/physical health status of the elderly people and the fragile mental status of children constitute to the vulnerability of these populations to COVID19
Lack of food, hunger from Coronavirus and prolonged lockdown: what effect will these have on the mental health of the elderly people in your parish?
Children and the elderly seem to react to hunger the same way. Because both populations are very dependent on other people for feeding, they feel neglected and unloved when their needs for food are not met. So, the impact of lack of food and hunger due to Corona virus on the elderly people is evident on their recent mortality rate.
At the base of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are physiological needs, which include air, water and food. It means that food is one of the most basic things we need to survive. So, when we are deprived of this basic need, the consequence is death. When the government tells people to stay at home without providing these basic needs, people will naturally be forced to violate the order not necessary because they want to disobey the government but because the unconscious drives and the instinct of self survival would not allow them to stay for a long period of time at the second stage of the hierarchy of needs –safety needs, without successfully navigating the first stage. Therefore it is the greatest height of hypocrisy to tell people to stay home and stay safe, without providing the basic needs of human survival for them.
The elderly people need good food to support their aging bodies. This pandemic has caused untold hardship and hunger on people, even in America. Over 30 million Americans recently filed for unemployment in America.
These unemployed people have some elderly people directly under their care. Not having enough food and seeing their providers jobless could be very depressing for the elderly people. In other words, many elderly people are likely to suffer depression and heightened anxiety during this period.
What can Parents, wards, friends, church etc, do to ease the mental stress that the pandemic has placed on people, especially the elderly?
Support and care are what the elderly people need most at this challenging time. As I mentioned earlier the elderly are as needy as children. As we grow older, our mental ability and coping skills generally decline, the reason most elderly people easily feel depressed when their needs are not met. Social distancing and other precautionary measures against the coronavirus disease may not make sense to them.
I recall the reactions of residents at the Nursing home, where I serve as a chaplain, when regular morning masses and other group activities were canceled due to Coronavirus. They cursed out at the management. Well and good, the management was following the government’s regulations but I felt that the residents were not properly educated on the nature of the virus and the benefits of social distancing.
So, I believe that proper education on the nature of this pandemic, care and empathic support to the elderly people by the family, the state, the church, friends and other care-givers, will be helpful to the elderly people in dealing with this stressful situation.
Records show that elderly people are the most affected by the Covid-19. Have you in any way lost some parishioners to this Pandemic?
As noted earlier, we have lost more than 70 residents in the nursing home where I work as a chaplain. It is a very terrible situation.
Some of these elderly people might have lost a loved one either as a relative or as an immediate family member.
To this, is there a risk that COVID- 19 can worsen their mental state, perhaps sparking previous trauma experiences?
Loss of a family member, especially loss of a child could be very devastating. The stress of corona virus alone is over whelming for all. So, losing a family member at this stressful period will be very traumatic for the elderly people, and indeed for everyone. Most of these elderly people depend on their family for sustenance and general support. Losing any of them will definitely aggravate the mental stress of Covid-19.
Given that the situation might not change anytime soon, what are some ways to maintain normalcy in the lives of people, especially children /elderly people
The truth is that nobody knows when this pandemic will be over. Some experts are saying that it will take up to 8 – 12 months for a dependable vaccine to emerge. Not until we have an evidence based and reliable vaccine for the corona virus, we may not make a valid projection about the end of the pandemic.
If we cannot change the situation, the question becomes, is there anything we can change? The answer is yes. At least we can change our attitudes and behaviors towards the situation. There are list of things we could do and encourage others especially children and the elderly people to be doing to maintain normalcy while the situation lasts. They include but are not limited to;
Avoiding unnecessary social media information, and focus on front line news, for reliable information on Coronavirus. On March 18th 2020, WHO Department of Mental Health and Substance Use advised that people should minimize watching news about Coronavirus that triggers anxiety
Avoiding myths and focusing on facts
Eradicating fear and taking it one day at a time
Boosting self-esteem and coping skills
Keeping busy. Lockdown is different from idleness
Cooperating with the government and the experts in maintaining social distancing, washing of hands, avoiding unnecessary travels/movements, wearing the face mask especially in public places and other preventative/protective measures against the COVID-19.
Thanks for your time and your response. It is well appreciated!