Imagine a new disease called X. Disease X is airborne, contagious and deadly. Every year, X will have 28 lakh cases in India alone, and cause around 4.35 lakh deaths. That translates to almost 1,200 deaths a day, or 50 deaths every hour round the year. Imagine this death score at the corner of your TV screen at all times.
What would this do to you? Make you anxious? Panic? Freak out?
Well, X is not a new disease. It is tuberculosis (TB), and the numbers above are for this disease. TV doesn’t show the death or new cases data. You don’t get a dozen WhatsApp forwards on it daily. No lockdowns ever happened due to it. But the disease is real. TB is one of the top 10 causes of death in India every year.
However, TB does not evoke the same fear as ‘Disease X’. The unfamiliar and unpredictable scares us more. The ‘novel’ coronavirus is the same. The novelty of it is a big reason for the anxiety it has created worldwide.
‘But TB has a cure’, you might say (though drug resistant TB exists, it takes lakhs of lives annually). ‘There is a vaccine for it’ is the other argument. Well, that might be true, but the numbers are still deadly. If it were so non-threatening, why would more than a thousand people die from it every day in India alone?
Another reason we fear TB less is because we feel ‘people like us don’t get it’. TB is a disease associated with poor people. It comes where there is squalor and poverty. Hence, affluent and middle class Indians don’t fear it.
Covid-19, however, is a different beast. White guys, world leaders and rich international travellers are getting it. Therefore the implication – anyone can get it. You and i can get it! TB only happens to a certain kind of people, right?
This universality or ‘it could happen to me’ is why some news stories get enormous media attention, while others barely make a blip. Take the Aarushi murder case, which captured national attention for months. Movies and documentaries were made on it. At the same time, imagine a girl abducted in a tribal village. Will that have had the same news impact?
No. The reason – universality. If Aarushi – an upper class child – wasn’t safe, no Indian child was safe. Similarly, if Boris Johnson and lakhs of Americans can get Covid-19, any Indian in any class can get Covid-19. This has enabled Covid-19 to get media coverage like no other disease in the past, which obviously leads to higher anxiety levels.
Covid-19 has also come at a time where nearly everyone has access to a reasonably fast internet connection. News travels fast, daily case scores are updated like cricket scores in a Test match, videos of all kinds are pushed and watched all over the world.
During the last SARS epidemic, people did not have smartphones. I happened to be living in Hong Kong, epicentre of the SARS epidemic, at that time. Even though people were scared, the maximum precautions were facemasks and washing of hands. There were no lockdowns. We just didn’t have the data, connectivity and digital tools for it. Quite frankly, we are enacting such measures with Covid-19 because, for the first time in human history, we actually can.
The uncertainty created by the novelty of the virus, the universality of it and the high levels of data connectivity means Covid-19 pandemic has acquired epic proportions in the minds of people around the world. Anxiety levels have shot up. Staying constantly in a stressed state is taking a toll.
Now with all the shutdowns, another whole new set of anxieties is emerging – what will happen to business, economy and jobs? According to CMIE, unemployment rate tripled to 23% from less than 7% in the last two weeks alone. All this anxiety cannot be good for humanity. At best, it will sink morale and motivation. At worst, it could lead to serious mental health issues in a significant chunk of the population.
As we go through this, here are some tips for individuals to deal with corona anxiety: One, do not watch the news or read articles on corona constantly. You are already taking extreme steps by being in a lockdown and observing social distancing. What more could you do, even if you found out that cases doubled? Will you tie yourself up in chains next?
If you are already at your maximum in terms of precautions, there’s no point consuming and getting so affected by the surfeit of information. It’s only harming you. Two, realise that the virus will pass. In several countries, the new case growth has peaked and is now falling over time.
Three, focus on what you can do to be productive in the lockdown days, and think about what you plan to do when things become normal – which they will. Fourth and last, after taking all precautions to the best of your ability – have some faith (not blind faith, but faith after taking all precautions.) Trust God, accept his will and hope for the best.
Whatever happens will happen. There’s nothing to gain from being anxious. The Bhagwad Gita cites abhaya or fearlessness as one of the top qualities of a divine soul. Keep some of that fearlessness in you and faith in the divine.
Here’s wishing you not only an anxiety free lockdown but also an anxiety free life.