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Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Losing sight of the finish line: The emotional stresses of a second wave

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One year of physical distancing, quarantining, PCR swabs, mask wearing, and frequent hand-washing. One year of isolation, remote work, Zoom meetings, and telemedicine. One year of uncertainty. 

Covid-19 has been, and continues to be difficult on everyone globally, and has undoubtedly taken a toll on our mental health. In 2020, during the early months of the pandemic, over 60% of Americans reporting feeling anxious. However, there was always that hope that things would eventually return to normal, even if it took some time. 

So much has changed since then. Even with the much-anticipated arrival of the vaccines, access remains to be an issue for most and the number of daily Covid-19 cases remains to be high. New variants have also changed the global trajectory of the pandemic, and uncertainty around the effectiveness of the vaccines against these new strains is still being studied. Masks, it seems, will continue to be a part of our foreseeable future.

Read also: Vaccine Hesitancy: Why ‘anti-vaxxers’ refuse to get vaccinated against Covid-19

As such, unsurprisingly, people are feeling more and more fed up with wearing masks, social distancing, isolation and all these restrictions that come with this “new normal”. Experts are naming this feeling of Covid-19 associated burnout, “Covid-19 fatigue”, and warn that it could lead to careless behaviours that, in turn, lead to an increase in cases.

COVID-19 fatigue is different than just feeling tired, it is both mental and physical. For many of us, our bodies are tired from not getting enough rest because of our anxious thoughts, with “coronasomnia” affecting up to one in four. 

Symptoms of Covid-19 fatigue may include:

  • Feeling of exhaustion
  • Increased irritability
  • Physical and mental fatigue
  • Lack of energy
  • Isolation
  • Inability to complete daily tasks and reduced level of performance

Results from a recent poll by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) revealed that 43% of adults reported that the pandemic had a serious effect on their mental health, up from 37% in the year 2020. Additionally, younger adults seemed to be more prone to serious mental health effects than older adults.

The pandemic has also disproportionally affected minority populations. While overall suicide rates have remained steady, or even decreased overall, data from US states such as Maryland and Connecticut suggest that the number of African Americans dying from suicide has, in fact, increased. The poll also revealed that Hispanic/Latinx individuals, and African American individuals were significantly more anxious about Covid-19 than White people.  

In the UK, one in five adults reported having experienced depressive symptoms in 2021, showing numbers have more than doubled when compared to pre-pandemic levels. Similar to the case of the US, data from the office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests that younger adults were more likely to feel depressed during the second COVID-19 wave, and women more likely than men. 

Read also: I thought I had recovered, then came ‘Long Covid’

Another study published in JAMA Network Open last month showed that overall psychological wellbeing for school-aged children has worsened since the suspension of in-person instruction, emphasising the worsening impact on children.

Qatar recently hit its second wave and several restrictions were re-imposed prior to the holy month of Ramadan including the suspension of in-person instruction at schools and universities across the country.

While more research is needed to assess the extent of the effect of this second wave on the mental health of the residents of Qatar, and the effect on children and younger adults in particular, it is likely that the Covid-19 fatigue trends are similar across all countries going through or emerging out of a second or third wave.  

What you can do about it 

There are a few, simple things that can help us cope with Covid-19 fatigue, however, if feelings of fatigue become overwhelming, it is important to seek professional help. 

  • Opening up either to friends, family or a professional about the things that make you anxious or frustrated. Sharing feelings and experiences is a great way to get things off your chest.
  • Exercising either outdoors or if that isn’t possible, following a workout video from your home. Exercise releases endorphins which help boost our levels of pleasure and relieve us from stress.
  • Schedule some daily “me time” whether it is to watch your favourite TV show, or to read that book that you started months ago and haven’t yet had the chance to finish. Make a conscious effort to disconnect from the stresses of life for at least half an hour.
  • Don’t be too harsh on yourself. Let’s not forget the magnitude of the global crisis we are experiencing that no one prepared us for. Remember that it is normal to not always have a plan or know what to do. These are unprecedented times, and we should be more forgiving towards ourselves and others.
  • Take things day by day and avoid planning too far in advance as this could lead to disappointment given the uncertainty of the current circumstances.
  • Talk to your children about Covid-19 in an age-appropriate way. Explain what social distancing is and why it is important. Allow their questions to guide the conversation and correct misinformation. 
  • Try and focus on the positives like that extra hour in bed that isn’t wasted commuting to work or spending more quality time with the family at home. Counting blessings, small and large, and practicing gratitude is a great way to help us cope with daily stresses.
  • Remind yourself of the bigger picture and avoid getting more relaxed with precautionary measures. Every new day is a day closer to the end of the pandemic. Therefore,  it remains vital that we take the vaccine if it is made available to us, continue to wear our masks, wash our hands and maintain our distance, so that together we return to a familiar state of normal as soon as possible. 

Maha El Akoum, MPH, is a public health professional currently working as Head of Content at World Innovation Summit for Health [WISH]. 


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