No one expected the epidemic to last so long
No one expected the epidemic to last so long. No one expected so many to fall ill or die. Everyone wants it to end, but there is no end in sight.
Over here, the focus is on the economic fallout. The mental health factor is rarely mentioned, perhaps because society’s ability to maintain sanity levels below the red line in an essentially chaotic, psychotic society (if outraged by that statement, simply watch two parties arguing about even a minor traffic accident, when the latest psychosis manifests itself) is taken for granted.
Indeed, Sri Lankans are relatively sane given the overwhelming daily probabilities for disaster. In the US, a far more law-abiding society any given day, the exception to the rule is provided by psychotic and psychopathic characters who regularly gun down schoolchildren, shoppers or their fellow office workers, and by elected politicians unwilling to change absurd gun laws for fear of antagonising an almighty political weapon that is the bulwark of any democracy – the vote.
Officially, no one has done a study of the mental health levels of people since the pandemic. This is a country where the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Syndrome (PTDS) doesn’t officially exist
Why deviate so far from the ravages of the pandemic? The gunmen have taken a break, and the epidemic has overwhelmed the first prototype strongman tycoon to hold power at the White House, possibly destroying his political career.
Elsewhere, though, the strongmen (and women) keep getting stronger because of the pandemic. Sri Lanka is one of those swing-to-the right countries where so-called democratic rule has always been a centre-right monopoly. There has never been a left-wing government in power. Whenever there has been a centre-left coalition, as in 1970-77, the left only succeeded in incomprehensible right wing moves (such as giving up the country’s secular status and declaring Buddhism to be the state religion, done by Dr. Colvin R. De Silva) which destroyed any claims it had to being left wing.
All this is important because the mental health of a country’s citizens depends on that country’s politics. This is true of both the left and right, as witnessed in totalitarian regimes from Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union, or in contemporary cases such as China, Zimbabwe and North Korea. Aoologies to Beijing for classing the new economic superpower alongside these two basket cases. But, if you give your citizens the freedom to travel anywhere but not the freedom to speak out their minds, then you end up being an intellectual basket case despite all the shining material achievements.
Trying to break the ice, I went for a short cab ride with him. The usually voluble man didn’t say a word till I got down, and looked indifferent when I paid him a little over the regular fare
In this country, the freedom to speak out your mind has always been taken for granted. Since the 1980s, a number of people have paid for this freedom with their lives. But the general public have come to view such ‘borderline’ cases as no more than traffic accidents and drawings – sometimes tragic, but the whole thing may well be the victim’s fault.
Officially, no one has done a study of the mental health levels of people since the pandemic. This is a country where the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Syndrome (PTDS) doesn’t officially exist. When an international organization offered assistance to treat PTDS in the military ranks as the civil war was concluded, it was informed by the then military hierarchy that PTSD is non-existent within army ranks as they are Buddhists.
No neat solutions
In a country where such simple-minded explanations are acceptable to most people, it’s hardly surprising that religion is the panacea for all troubles. But religion has so far offered no neat solutions to the epidemic which has us floored. The usual religious zeal which gushes up like oil from a newly drilled well just isn’t there. Our usual immunity to chaos won’t help us here, because people are worried about jobs and how to feed themselves and their families.
The president was recently featured in the news, trying to promote cloves (or cardamoms, I can’t remember which) as the country’s main export, which shows how desperate things are. If tens of thousands are suffering from mental stresses equal to PTSD, that would be hardly be surprising. Instead of bombs and shells, they are hit daily by the vast uncertainties of facing the future. In the UK, stress levels have reached alarming heights.
According to Cruse Bereavement Care, a charity providing free conselling and support, said the stress many bereaved people felt during the pandemic was similar to that experienced by people after traumatic events such terrorist attacks. Why should that be any different for us?
When I see many familiar faces – in the work place, in my neighbourhood, or elsewhere – I feel dread. They are not the people I knew. Executives have lost jobs, office workers and others are on half pay or less. The self-employed are struggling. Of course, the needle fluctuates wildly between tragedy and farce. One garment industry executive complained that his phone allowance has been cut to Rs. 1500 at a time when the country’s biggest bus owner, the Sri Lanka Transport Board, said it may have trouble paying salaries in the near future.
But the person that comes most to my mind as a symbol of these bleak times is a three wheeler driver I see every day. He is a good example of the schizophrenic new voter who swings wildly within the political pendulum. In 2015, he voted for the opposition (Yahapalanaya) and quickly became disillusioned as the economy slumped.
This time, he voted again for change. But change also produces anxiety, and he sounded me out before last year’s presidential election. I told him he could vote for anyone he liked and I have no opinions on the matter as I had decided somewhere along to stop voting, finally convinced of the truth of the saying ‘there is no fool like an old fool.’
Paradox of poor people
This only heightened his anxiety, and he distanced himself from me, though I had helped him financially in the recent past. I didn’t sight him during the two months of curfew. When he finally reappeared, he looked devastated. I gave him a few provisions, but it was obvious that things were getting so hard I would not able to help any further.
Besides, it’s the politicians who must help him. They have the necessary resources and the wherewithal, not me. That’s why they are voted in by people like him. The paradox of poor people like him who vote into power politicians who are richer by the time they are voted out is not uniquely Sri Lankan, but it has an aroma and flavor that is our own. I wish we had counseling services and charities here like In the UK to help people like him. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
Now he sits there, clearly depressed, in the three wheeler park. The average driver earns less than a thousand rupees a day, and everyone looks petty average these days. He has lost his usual carefree chatter and liveliness, and has his ears plugged and eyes focused on his phone, avoiding eye contact with me.
Trying to break the ice, I went for a short cab ride with him. The usually voluble man didn’t say a word till I got down, and looked indifferent when I paid him a little over the regular fare. The next day, however, as I passed him at the three wheeler stand, he managed a glance and a nod.
I can see why he’s so glum. Coronavirus has devastated the future he voted for, because the new messiah he helped to elect has been stymied by the epidemic, or so the popular reasoning goes. I don’t want to know for whom he’s going to vote in August.
All I know is that he’s severely depressed. He has a family to feed and has trouble doing so. Worse, I fear he’s beginning to resent me. I still look middle class to him, though statistically I no longer belong there. His dream of climbing up to where I was has been shattered.
It’s not my fault, and I don’t give two hoots about to which class I belong. But it’s not a rational world that we live in, and finding scapegoats is always a good escape valve when you are in deep trouble.