In times of global health crisis, such as the one we are experiencing now, mental health is deemed a secondary status. Even worse, it could fail to claim a space of its own at all since the physical or corporeal existence and health of the human body is overtly prioritised over our mental or emotional well being. The Coronavirus pandemic among other things, such as the lack of empathy for all, in an individualist capitalist society like ours, brought to surface many other prejudices about how we conceptualise health.
Despite the growing discussions over making mental well-being an issue as salient as physical health, medical practitioners and the state machinery have refused to address cases of anxiety, hypochondria, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder or OCD etc., which possibly could have been either mitigated by circulating relevant information in place of new jungles of statistics everyday or by increasing the number of testing centres available for the masses to assure them of the presence/absence of the infection.
In this age of global risk society, which coincides with the information or knowledge society, the “state of collective panic” is the new reality. With globalisation and neo-liberalism, not only health risks like the Coronavirus travel from one corner of the world to another through human agency, but information around its effects on human life too tours across geographical as well as socio-political and cultural borders. The global as well as local or regional media play a crucial role in disseminating an overwhelming amount of information, with constant updates.
This creates a state of panic, encouraged by the capitalist model of mass information flow that would ultimately hegemonise your attention towards a dominant issue at hand. While such an induction of panic by limiting movement and disrupting everyday life activities, socio-physical interaction and intimacy is bound to affect us all, however, the degree of influence of such a panic-stricken world would certainly differ from person to person.
In our modern world, where we have language(s) and discourses to express and thereby prioritise mental health issues, we still have failed to bridge the gap(s) between theory and praxis, even before we had a pandemic to obsess about. People all across the world, even before the Coronavirus outbreak were struggling to cope with mental health issues and emotional illnesses. Sometimes, they had elaborate medical terminologies to explain their state of being, say in the case of OCD, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and at other times, their inexplicable dis-ease remained latent due to the lack of overt semantics.
At a time like ours, to survive an already existing mental health issue and then being continuously exposed and triggered by new information of health risks could be challenging on multiple, intersectional levels. Even positive information circulated by the media and the state regarding the to-dos and not-to-dos could prompt people to have intense periods of paranoia and stimulate negative curiosity with a constant feeling of a need to keep themselves up to date.
In India, as of the 24th of March, there have been 64 designated centres have been set up to test the presence of the Coronavirus infection. A few conversations here and there revealed to me that most of the people who wish to be tested are being refused, since they are failing to tick the majority of the boxes that would qualify them to be checked for the presence/absence of the virus. You must have international travel history, extreme manifestations of the symptoms (cough, fever) or socio-cultural capital like networks with private hospitals and powerful people in order to be ‘meritorious’ enough to get yourself a test.
While it is understandable that government hospital centres do have a lack of proper infrastructure and resources, and are experiencing a rush of patients due to its relatively affordable services, the need for employing mental health practitioners in these test centres is key to help people to cope with the increased state of anxiety.
A friend of mine, who is diagnosed as a hypochondriac and was experiencing a cough was not only refused to get a test, but was also asked whether her cough is prohibiting her from speaking. If not, she was told that there was no reason for her to panic or demand a test. The hierarchy of health systems and discourses was defined right there. An inevitable state of panic given birth by state authorities and mass media still makes her feel panic stricken by the overwhelming confrontation with information, but at the same time, she believes that the lack of such information could be worse to combat the Coronavirus health risk.
Irrespective of whether the person is infected with the virus or the anxiety around the pandemic, good health and well-being is inescapably inadequate and unsatisfactory today. Hence, whether you are sick because a virus has entered your respiratory system, or you are sick of the constant anxiety instilled by heightened information in the form of data, figures, instructions, news, documentation etc., your health, both mental and physical, is necessarily up for contention.
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The mental and physical health conditions of an individual or a community is co-dependent on each other. This means that if you have a physical illness, your mental health could be at risk of falling ill too, and vice versa. Mental health issues, increased paranoia and anxiety could also have other real-life implications such as economic crisis and resource crunch due to panic hoarding techniques, which will undeniably affect the underprivileged the most. For Zizek,
“…panic is not a proper way to confront a real threat. When we react in a panic, we do not take the threat too seriously; we, on the contrary, trivialize it. Just think of how ridiculous the excessive buying of toilet paper rolls is: as if having enough toilet paper would matter in the midst of a deadly epidemic…”
In a highly alienated society, new state orders of isolation and social distancing, as Zizek drawing from Agamben, points out, “serves to justify and legitimize measures of control and regulation of the people”. In such cases, solely to emphasize on physical symptoms and completely betray mental health, however dire the situation is, necessarily will lead to the aggravation of the already poor conditions of life and lifestyle. Care work and emotional support, though highly gendered, becomes crucial at such points of anomie.
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And such measures should be put into place by the government, state or civil society bodies rather than making them an individual endeavour of creating peer groups over social media. The government has to be vigilant now more than ever, starting from taking mental health issues seriously as well as reviewing every information that is disseminated, especially in times of fake news through WhatsApp forwards. Collective state of panic has to be equally approached, just as seriously as the virus.
Featured Image source: News 18