By Shahnaz Bano, Program Manager for Freedom Fund partner MSEMVS.
India has been hit hard by the covid-19 pandemic, particularly during the second wave from April to June this year. Increased fatalities, lack of adequate healthcare resources and a feeling of helplessness took their toll on both men’s and women’s mental health in the northern India hotspot of Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
“My husband and I were down with covid for two weeks, but no one came near us, even to help with our basic need of food and medicine. We felt so lonely and excluded, which has made us rethink family and social relations.” – Sunita*
Sunita shared her story with Women Meet, a quarterly get-together of female staff from the Freedom Fund’s northern India hotspot partner organizations. The fatigue of grueling work-from-home shifts amid ongoing fears of a third wave has left many, especially women, distressed. The burdens and expectations on women from other family members have also increased because women were present at home and their office work was not taken seriously by their husbands and families.
“I could not function well in April and May. I was torn between office and home, and I felt bad that I was not able to give one hundred percent to anything.” – Kalpana*
As the second wave ravaged rural India and overwhelmed healthcare systems, communities were forced to battle against a toxic mixture of fear, misinformation and despair. In our working community and our neighbourhoods, many people experienced grief, anger, hopelessness, anxiety, depression and panic attacks. Though present in this space for long, most social workers had never handled a crisis of this scale before. They were not familiar with its physical and emotional demands, forcing them to develop coping mechanisms on the spot.
During March 2021 as the crisis intensified and the virus spreading rapidly in northern India, many of our working community members were anxious and scared. In particular, women and adolescent girls were terrified of a repeat of the previous lockdown situation, where there was uncertainty and a lack of provisions along with a complete restriction of movement.
The northern India program of the Freedom Fund worked closely with survivors of slavery and vulnerable communities to build their resilience and bring systemic change. I still remember the pervasive sense of powerlessness about covid-19 in the mind of the girls while distributing hygiene kits as part of the Freedom Fund’s Emergency Relief Fund during lockdown. I spent several hours talking with them, and I realized that having no one to share their fears with due to lockdown isolation was driving that helplessness.
I used the distributions to create a much-needed space for them to talk openly. The issues they shared were varied, ranging from menstruation worries to anxiety around never going back to school or feeling overburdened by household chores. Even small things that they might have coped with previously became magnified and affected their mental well-being because they didn’t have an outlet to talk about it due to the lockdown. One girl told me how her parents had fixed her marriage during lockdown, and she was under tremendous stress as she did not feel she was ready. Being able to articulate her distress out loud proved helpful for her. Similarly, at our hotspot Women’s Meet for staff in June, a flood gate of emotions was opened. Each of us had gone through the grief of losing a family member or friend to covid-19 or had been affected by the virus ourselves.
I also felt very stressed, but I didn’t know who I could share my problems with because everyone I knew was going through difficulties too and I didn’t want to bother them. But when my colleagues and I met together, we felt safe and comfortable sharing our concerns, and I realized I was not alone. Everyone was going through similar problems. That feeling was very liberating and helped calm me down.
Covid-19 is such an isolating disease, keeping near and dear ones apart, denting the close-knit Indian family. A brief session on understanding trauma and building trauma resilience was timely and needed. People were able to share their coping mechanisms during this stressful time. The most common were meditation, going off social media and TV, listening to music or learning something new. A motivational poem shared during Women Meet on the theme that this too shall pass gave a sense of hope and encouragement.
Indian children are not taught to deal with grief. We were shielded from it, so we never learned to face it, and much of our awkwardness around people who have lost someone comes from this factor. At Women Meet, Priti* summarised it well:
“I am not finding courage and words to reach out to my dear friend who lost her husband to post-covid complications.”
While our society is confronting disease and death on a greater scale than ever known in our history, lockdown and isolation have also taken away the shared cross-cultural traditions which usually help us to cope with loss. Simple things such as taking food to a bereaved person’s home, gathering to mourn and staying all night talking were no longer possible.
Slowly, people are beginning to confront the scars that the pandemic has left. Families are separated and friends are far away. Our world has shrunk, and we have accepted this shrinking as a condition for living. How do we grieve now that so many of us cannot move?
It is essential to find new appropriate ways to address the issues this pandemic has raised. Zoom fatigue and caregiving are causing burnout, something which needs to be recognized and acknowledged. Like Women Meet, we should have other spaces and networks in our workplace or family to extend support to each other in times of need. When the period of the pandemic has passed, we will need to work to restore the cultural foundation of India as one of strong community and shared lives.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.