The COVID-19 lockdown: Our self-induced psychological experiment?

Science and Society

Arunita Banerjee

  In early March this year, when COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) had already infected people in more than 100 countries of the world, it was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. While some countries had already sealed their international borders and enforced domestic lockdowns, this declaration encouraged others to follow suit. Given the imperceptible nature and high transmission rate of this disease, and no availability of a cure or antidote at the moment, extensive lockdowns and quarantine measures were indeed the only solution to contain its spread. India with its high and dense population is leading the list in the size of these lockdowns, where it has been enforced upon 1.3 billion people.

  ‘Business Insider’ has estimated that one-third of the world population is currently facing this much required enforcement. While a lot is being said about the global economic downfall, it is time we ponder over the social aspects of this lockdown. Is this the biggest psychological experiment that the human race has induced upon itself?

  Humans have evolved as social beings and are not innately programmed to deal with complete isolation situations. It has been known to have disastrous effects on the stability of the human mind. Prof. Elke Van Hoof of Health Psychology and Primary Care Psychology from Vrije Universiteit Brussel, called this global lockdown to perhaps be the largest psychological experiment ever that humans have undergone.

  While the medical research community continued to drive themselves to exertion in search of a cure, the psychologists had roughly gauged the aftermath that this trend of lockdowns would have and that it would extend beyond mere unpleasantries. Shortly before COVID-19 being declared a pandemic, ‘The Lancet’ published a review of the psychological outcomes of quarantine. The impact was estimated to be negative, pervasive, long-lasting, and mostly consisting of post-traumatic stress disorders and other issues ensuing out of confusion and anger. The triggers involved were not just isolation, but an inter-linked web of all associated factors like boredom, frustration, loneliness and beyond – inadequate information and supplies, financial losses, fear of infection, stigma. Not just quarantine alone, but it’s duration also seemed to have a profound impact on the outcome.

  The review also suggested policy considerations like – extending lockdowns only till absolute necessity, providence of adequate supplies and information and other altruistic approaches, that governments across the world could take up in minimizing the psychological impact on their people. However, the havoc wreaking due to collateral damage of the lockdown in some countries, including ours, suggests otherwise.

  At individual levels, the stressors are gradually manifesting themselves. Due to absolute disruption of our daily schedules, most of us are experiencing massive changes in our circadian rhythms. The circadian rhythm is a behavioural cycle that is induced upon us through daylight and darkness transitions over the course of a day. It is controlled by a biological clock located within our brain. This clock runs a 24-hour cycle through each day and ensures our timely physiological urges like hunger and sleepiness. But the disruption of this cycle is known to cause various mood-disorders, insomnia, substance dependence, alongside other behavioural and psychological anomalies.

  Also, cases of domestic violence – especially on children and women, and hate crimes have risen, which can be traced to both the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown. The extended lockdown in India has caused a spike in complaints received by the Indian National Commission for Women, of women being trapped with their abusers. This has been negatively affecting the quality of life for all sections of the population. In India, there has been an upsurge in communal content on social media platforms amidst these unfortunate times, which could also be fuelling the rise in targeted violence. Now, mental illness is neither a necessary condition, nor sufficient to trigger violent activities. However, scientific studies have found strong correlations.

  Last week when the number of declared coronavirus infection cases crossed 2.5 million, the death toll rose to above 0.1 million, and countries around the world revised, relaxed, toughened lockdown policies, ‘Lancet Psychiatry’ published a position paper. It was a report on some exploration studies which the authors had conducted on the social, psychological and neuroscientific impacts of COVID-19. The paper discusses these impacts for different sections of the population – children, youth, older adults, frontline health-care workers, people with existing mental health issues, the differently-abled and other vulnerable and excluded sections like the homeless, refugees and prisoners.

  The paper calls for certain immediate actions and puts forward some long-term strategies, suggested by an interdisciplinary group of world-leading experts formed across the bio-psycho-socio spectrum, to minimise the negative impacts. These include various monitoring methods and introduction of novel interventions, to help people with coping mechanisms and avert maladaptations. The authors have also urged the scientific community for further studies in similar directions.

  The last pandemic which hit humans at a large scale was the Spanish Flu in 1918. A hundred years have passed since then. Although modern psychiatry began to take a preliminary shape in the early 20th century, through the works of Sigmund Freud and Pierre Janet, valuable insights into the field and psychiatry as a clinical practice started in the later half of the century. So, psychoanalysts haven't really had a chance to understand the psychological impact of a pandemic, or the neurological basis of this trauma.

  The Scottish Government has sanctioned extra funds towards mental health initiatives, especially for these unprecedented times. Scientists and clinicians across the world are providing information and resources over the internet to help us get through these difficult times. Dr Jai Ranjan Ram, senior consultant psychiatrist and co-founder of Mental Health Foundation, Kolkata, recently wrote an article in The Telegraph recommending physical distancing, but ‘social connectedness’ over virtual communication platforms. Also, The editorial of the April, 2020 issue of the scientific journal ‘Anxiety and Depression’ has provided a link to invaluable compilation of helpful resources from leading experts, for the benefit of all and dissemination. The website of Mental Health Foundation, UK consists of more such information. In India, the government has launched a helpline for reaching out, in collaboration with NIMHANS, Bangalore.

  The World Health Organization calls ‘Health’ to be a fundamental human right and defines it as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Hence, while we go through these unforeseen times, let’s ponder upon what the post-COVID times would be like. Will life as we know it, cease to exist? Will this lead to a paradigm shift in the dynamic history of the human race?

Arunita Banerjee is a research scholar at the Dog Lab IISER Kolkata and a freelance science communicator. She is also the chief editor of Cogito. Along with the written word, she has released a video of the same which can be found here.

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