From denial to lockdown…

There are many lessons to draw from leaders around the globe and we trust they will not be lost on our leadership and authorities

By S. Callikan

Many years back during my management functions, I had the opportunity to acquaint myself briefly with Grief management, a topic familiar to psychologists and several other disciplines. The four personal stages or “sisters” that they more or less agree upon, are not faced by all of us or in the order below, and their separation is often blurred and fluid. But they may provide a slightly different perspective on the way countries, societies, populations and ourselves have coped with the heartbreaking issues and multi-fold damages the Covid-19 pandemic has been engineering across the world.

Denial is undoubtedly, they concur, the first sister.

The immediate reaction when confronted with disturbing personal loss and, inundated as we are by clips, videos and 24-hr news channels, we cannot have failed to observe the phenomenon of denial of Covid-19 or its impact at most levels of societies around the world. Many ordinary citizens across the developed world, tourists in Italy and elsewhere, have exhibited their illusory bravery or nonchalance throughout the explosive weeks of February-March: “we are young, healthy, brave, we have nothing to fear!” was a regular narrative.

Maybe they were just echoing their political top-brass who, for their own reasons, jumped squarely into the denial mode. Pandemics like SARS or Ebola in recent years had come and gone and life had pretty much resumed as usual. European or US political top-brass could not envisage that their health systems, their preparedness for pandemics, their strategic stockpiles of protective equipment, their supplies of essential drugs, their underfunded hospitals and medical personnel could be stretched to bursting point in a matter of weeks.

For some, notably in the USA, it was election year and Trump clung on to the denial phase far longer than most leaders. In similarly boisterous Boris Johnson’s UK, perhaps overconfident in its insularity, or in Mediterranean Europe, used to the gregarious outdoor lifestyles, denial was taking its toll. Meantime several other countries, mainly in South-East Asia, all more intimately familiar with SARS or the risks of high population densities with frail national health systems, had swung into emergency preventive strategies, varying from context to context. Today, it is painfully obvious that the USA and Europe generally are paying a heavy price for the prolonged denial phase.

For reasons of their own, with an incoming government and inexperienced ministers barely out of their electoral victory in November, the Mauritian authorities and the corridors of power clung on to the blissful narrative of denial, keeping the population, the country and its administrations in sleepwalking eeriness for several long weeks even though Opposition party leaders had rung the alarm bells as early as mid-January. Those calls were ignored, undoubtedly, at some cost to national preparedness and adequate planning for the tsunami that by mid-March had already engulfed the nation.

Anger is the second grieving sister that comes hard on the heels of denial.

Most of us will have gone through this stage, in one form or another, as we grappled with the unexpected and unbearable sorrows of life. Generally shorter-lived, we have seen it nonetheless exhibited on the international stage too as political personnel fired volleys and outbursts of uncontrolled wrath at this pandemic. Trump again heads that list, but in more sedate terms the ire was palpable elsewhere in Europe. And on our shores too, anger on the social front followed when the streets and townships, when those who were not internet-addicted were thrown to panic stations around the ides of march. Anger was aggravated by the nightly lockdown notice and by manifold dysfunctions at various key ministries: Agriculture, Commerce and even Health’s handling and management of quarantine centres.

The blame game therefore towards those laymen who had not been prepared for the mega-shift in narrative from denial to lockdown was a leaden stone. Though perhaps understandable from frontline police officers or overworked and overstretched highly competent medical specialists and personnel taking the brunt of the frontline risks for our collective safety, it was verging on the unacceptable from Ministers and advisers worth their salt.

Past studies on the psychological impact of outbreaks, such as Ebola, indicate that stress, panic and traumatic reactions are normal to uncertainty. The helplessness involved in the entire process and the realization of the inability to save one’s self and loved ones kicks in hard during such times. Pandemics therefore call for social psychologists to be heard, to guide the authorities, emergency teams and the country at large towards unity in a common resolve to fight the scourge while showing empathy and solidarity for the weak and those left out.

Resignation, the third sister, sets in only after some of the anger, frustration and venting out of emotional reactions have begun to ebb. As the emotional turmoil ebbs and the mental fog begins to clear, we either turn inwards or see how best to help fellow countrymen less fortunate.

Resignation is the prelude to the fourth sister, Acceptance, when we can only hope the authorities have got it right, have settled their messaging, have adequate plans and supplies for the sanitary and health spike stalking our near future.

That they are with some degree of competence starting to ready plans to ease the exit from the pains and sufferings that will have had major repercussions on the economy, on the employees, on the elderly and vulnerable, on ourselves and our pockets and on the business sectors that have been badly mauled by the tsunami. The population has yet to be convinced that such is indeed the case.

Leaders round the world recognize that such a desirable state could be hastened by various means. Restoring battered credibility is essential when narratives and dysfunctions have taken a toll. President Trump has stopped dishing blame and now acknowledged bluntly that hundreds of thousands of US citizens may die over the coming weeks. Recognizing painful consequences, humility and contrition are more palatable than communicative or political arrogance. PM Modi was epoch-making in his request for advance forgiveness for the inevitable coming difficulties. Finding ways to engage parties beyond the pale and narrow has been evidenced by both PM Modi’s personal calls to major Opposition leaders or Boris Johnson’s appeal to Opposition parties. There are many lessons to draw from leaders around the globe and we trust they will not be lost on our leadership and authorities.

* Published in print edition on 14 April 2020

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