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Dawn Editorial 20 April 2020

Mental health & Covid-19

HOWEVER high the numbers of coronavirus patients, the pandemic is exacting a mental toll on far more people, and its effects will linger for much longer. Most individuals, to some extent or the other, thrive on social interaction; enforced seclusion is not conducive to emotional health. Compounding the feelings of loneliness is the anxiety over lost livelihoods and the prospect of financial ruin, the fear of infection (asymptomatic spreaders causing the most panic) and of losing loved ones, and, above all, the bleak open-endedness of it. Judging by the figures, Covid-19 has not even come close to peaking in Pakistan. For all the back and forth in official quarters about relaxing the lockdowns or tightening them further, none can predict when this state of siege will be over. There is the pandemic in the present, and ahead of us, a void.
It is a situation that would test the strongest among us, let alone those more vulnerable to depression, paranoia and suicidal tendencies. Indeed, the very real psychological fallout of the pandemic has been recognised, in a manner of speaking, by the Ministry of Human Rights. On Friday, it issued guidelines for people to care for the mental health of others in this historic time. Some of these suggestions include avoiding the association of any race, ethnicity or religion with the virus, not spreading misinformation or stigmatising those who contract Covid-19, and refraining from creating panic. The guidelines include a helpline number that can be called by anyone that suspects someone they know is suffering from any form of abuse or mental illness. These guidelines may be well-intentioned, premised as they are on the understanding that everyone has a right to mental health. However, there should also be an official communiqué, preferably in the form of awareness-raising campaigns about how individuals themselves can nurture their mental health in this stressful period. How do they prevent themselves and their families from sinking into a pit of despair, where they cannot see light at the end of the tunnel?
One of the coping strategies often put forth is avoiding excessive exposure to news of the pandemic — the objective is to be informed, not relentlessly track the spread of the contagion. Moreover, it is advisable to access limited, trusted sources of information. Maintaining social networks through technological tools is critical to sustain the sense of being connected, or ‘in it together’. The government must also underscore its commitment to protecting women and children in violent households, who are all the more at risk when confined with their abusers in a situation replete with multiple triggers. Several people have stepped forward with free counselling, workshops, etc for those finding it difficult to navigate the psychological challenges thrown up by the pandemic. Putting one’s skills to the benefit of others is possibly the best self-therapy for mental health.


A divided region

THE news stories about the never-ending Pakistan-India conflict add a surreal touch to the events dominated by the frightening coronavirus pandemic. The picture of a young child, a life brutally extinguished along the LoC by enemy fire, flashes through the Covid-19 gloom to remind everyone of the other kind of fatal epidemics that human beings themselves are prone to unleashing. The LoC sadly remains a source of bad news at a time when the focus of everyone ought to have been on finding ways to thwart the most dangerous virus in living memory. The pandemic is enough reason for the countries of South Asia to come together. However, formal regional groupings such as Saarc have been left too weak by years of wilful neglect to react positively to any emergency calls for unity. There have in recent times been overtures made for reviving the South Asian alliance and then gradually increasing the tempo of its work to a meaningful level. But for the time being the region appears too divided, with member nations looking outward for international patrons at the cost of nearby friends and essential ties.
That’s a grave mistake. The spread of the virus indicates just how important and interdependent the basic rules of coexistence are, especially in times of trouble and grief. And these principles don’t change even when they are overwhelmed by concepts of domination and an overriding desire for progress at the sheer expense of others. Alliances with others are essential and these alliances must begin locally before they are expanded to outer circles. Closer to home, the regional circle of cooperation cannot be completed unless ties between the two largest countries in the region, Pakistan and India, are somehow— miraculously— mended. The sabre-rattling on this front these days mocks all sane calls for shifting one’s priorities to fighting the real threats to mankind. Skirmishes on the frontiers go on. India-held Kashmir continues to suffer under the oppressor’s thumb and no reasonable debate on it is allowed. Both countries have jailed a large number of people, among them many fishermen, for violation of international borders. Their plight has once again been highlighted by the Pakistan-India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy. An order for their release now and a pledge for a humane approach to these accidental border crossings in future would amount to a commitment to fighting afflictions with deadly consequences of their own.


The eternal outsiders

ON Friday, officials in Myanmar announced the release of nearly 25,000 prisoners to the applause and relief of their family members. President Win Myint said the purpose behind the largest release of prisoners in the country was “to bring delight to the citizens of Myanmar” on their traditional new year. Just one day earlier, however, 382 Rohingya refugees were rescued by the coast guard of Bangladesh, as they were making their way towards Malaysia. Of which land were they citizens of? Adrift in a tempestuous sea for nearly two months, more than two dozen of them tragically perished on the overcrowded boat, while the remaining survivors were found emaciated. Surely, they too had families who were worried sick for their safety, anxious to hear of some news, perhaps of their freedom? Unfortunately, despite originally hailing from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the Rohingya Muslims have been denied citizenship for decades, and suffer in confinements and camps that have been described over and over again as ‘open air prisons’. They are dehumanised, the target of racial and religious prejudice, and cannot travel freely in their own country of birth, which considers them to be foreigners in their own place of birth.
Since 2017, thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been brutally killed in an army crackdown, while hundreds of thousands fled to other countries, traversing hostile land and water routes to reach their destinations, only to be indefinitely stranded in refugee camps. Last year, officials from Myanmar visited Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh to encourage refugees to begin returning ‘home’ voluntarily — without assuring them of citizenship or making any adjustments to the discriminatory laws that have made their lives unbearable. Not surprisingly, not a single Rohingya Muslim enlisted for the repatriation programme. Myanmar must grant citizenship to its Rohingya population as a first step towards according them basic human rights, dignity and security. And the international community must continue to put pressure on the country to do so.
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