“When we see young people dying, we are compelled to embrace existential thinking. What happens if I die?

David D. White, Counsellor (Psychological) & Business Psychologist

This changes the focus on time, on relationships and even with God”

* ‘Now with this new wave is hitting us with so many casualties, there is a need for un ‘sursaut national’… a joint effort, something BIG at national level that can bring back the humaneness’

* ‘We live longer due to some forms of improved lifestyle and medical care, and it takes a virus to bring us back to reality’

David E. D. White is a Pastor, Counsellor, Business Psychologist, Business Coach, and Trainer. As Learning and Development Strategist he combines astute strategic business skills with 25+ years track record in People Development. He holds advanced qualifications in Theology, Counselling and Business Psychology. He has studied in France, the US and completes a doctorate with the Acts Academy in Bangalore.

In this interview he shares his views on the responses to the Covid pandemic by the authorities, the frontliners and the population at large, noting the lack of consistency and the changed narratives as the situation evolved. However, he ends on a note of optimism, firmly convinced that faith and hope will generate the resilience we need to overcome.

* What’s your reading of how Mauritius is living through these pandemic times and coping with the coronavirus?

The pandemic times started nearly two years ago. At first, amidst fear of the unknown, as a nation we behaved with a lot of ‘ménagement’. This initial fear led us to care a lot for people in general, and for our immediate neighbours. We showed great humaneness and we acted as our brothers’ keeper.

We have experienced a roller-coaster of unpleasant emotions starting with fear, shifting to a mix of fear and, with the emergence of vaccines, doubt also crept in; and as we witnessed the divide in the medical community worldwide and as we listened to conspiracy theories, we moved from fear and doubt to confusion. We eventually embraced some reassurance with vaccination and now we are dismayed as variants seem to be able to resist vaccines. We are back into fear, doubt and anger.

There is a feeling of ambivalence about the situation and vis-à-vis the authorities. Each time a breakthrough is reached, we are back to square one. The learning curve is steep, tedious and the whole nation is stressed. Facing this new wave, many have understood the importance of strict observance of sanitary measures. To many others, it is business as usual acting carelessly and recklessly.

*The Covid-19 pandemic is coming in waves, and it’s probable that the stress that most of us are experiencing may deepen. One may learn to cope with it, but are there any signs which indicate things may be getting out of hand and help is required?

In spite of all actions taken to mitigate an outbreak of Covid contamination in the country, we have been unsuccessful for various reasons. Time is not for shame and blame. We all have a share of responsibility in the current predicament. In times of war, we do not shoot the generals.

We are at war against an invisible enemy and the number of casualties is growing from week to week. There is a pervasive bleak mood at large. Our forecast and calculations have been taken down. The medical people, frontliners, are on the verge of mental and emotional exhaustion. Burnout is palpable and getting help is paramount. We have never experienced such a health debacle and tragedy thus far.

We need leaders with compassion, comprehension and a spirit of conciliation.

*Frontliners are the ones who are bearing the brunt of the Covid burden during these difficult times; they are said to be both physically and emotionally drained. Would you have any suggestions, for them on how to face the situation?

As a concerned citizen and onlooker, I can only react to what I hear and read. What we hear and read is appalling; we hear about the conditions in which people are dying; we read about the way in which their closest kin are treated by medical and other staff. The question we may ask is Why are we losing our basic humaneness is such times?

I have worked in emergency rooms at the Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta in the US, and when we had major tragedies like serial gun shootings or accidents, stress on medical staff was phenomenal, and in order to cope with the multiple pressures impacting them, they chose to suspend empathy to be able to perform reflexively.

It is far too easy to point fingers at the medical staff. They must be emotionally stretched to their extreme limits. Let’s not forget that we are in times of war against an invisible enemy. They (the medical staff) are also losing members of their families, colleagues and friends: they also need care. How are we caring for them? Who is helping them debrief?

Many of them will soon suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Help is urgently required for our frontliners. Who will heal their wounds? Many of them are toying with shock, confusion, guilt, fear, anger, depression and we need to help them claim their pride and self-confidence back.

*It also seems that more people will have died this year, more than any time before due to the coronavirus, and doctors must surely be facing more than ever before the dilemma of deciding ‘who can be saved’ in light of limited resources available…

Thus far, we have no indication whether this is the case currently. We are short of resources for sure and the ratio doctor and nurse to number of patients may be unsuitable.

Let’s remember that doctors are trained to save lives. but in times of war when casualties and emergencies skyrocket and resources are lacking, doctors come to face the ultimate paradox of their profession. Who can/should be saved and can’t? It becomes an ethical, moral and religious decision. Snap decisions must be made, and doctors should be guided by their conscience and humaneness.

In ‘normal’ conditions, many doctors have to make this decision on a regular basis with those who are terminally ill. The conditions allow other support systems to come in and take over. In a war situation, support systems do not exist, and decisions are unfortunately cold-blooded. Let’s hope that everything is being done to spare patients from this callousness.

* Most of us do not get to see first-hand the state of distress of all those who have lost their close ones in recent weeks, so we do not know how they are really doing. But do you think the Mauritian generally has an inborn resilience?

There is a legendary belief called the Mauritian resilience. We have bounced back from setbacks at different times. However, it appears that it is the first time that, as a nation, we are experiencing such a tragedy affecting numerous families over such a long span of time. This is unprecedented and cannot even be even compared to the Wakashio event or to other tragedies we’ve had to face in recent history.

Covid is touching the life of every single Mauritian… just as it is impacting lives across the globe. There will not be any “magical wand” that can make things better. Last year we saw many people who had lost their jobs, reinventing themselves, setting up small businesses; these people have shown resilience in the sense that they intentionally embraced a collective energy to find solutions, to do something. This year, since the second lockdown, I’m observing a certain tiredness and disillusionment which have crept in, and people are now like worn out.

Now that this new wave is hitting us with so many casualties, there is a need for un ‘sursaut national’… a joint effort, something BIG at national level that can bring back the humaneness. Resilience is fuelled by the energy of Hope. What can we do as a nation, that can bring back HOPE?

* Where do we draw that resilience from?

Resilience comes from hardships. It’s something we learn through life. We bounce back from setbacks and impediments. Think of our forebears who sprang back from the blights and afflictions of colonialism. Some people find Hope in their religious belief and Faith, others by a strong desire to fulfil the dream of someone they lost, some others from other sources and motivations. We look for it as it is a pulse for life.

Resilience is not taught. It is learnt. However, in our culture of hedonism and self-gratification, our current generations are conditioned to believe that life is a never-ending party. Utopia is craftily engineered through all kinds of mediums, and we weaken resilience in people as we train them on a daily basis to become complainers, whiners and victims of what, who and when. The excess of artificial needs for daily dopamine is enslaving the world and our nation.

* With so many falling victims to the disease, many people – not only the ones directly involved – may have started questioning their relationship with death and with the living as well – their relationships, time, challenges, and possibly even with God. Do you think this could be the case?

Last week, I spent some time with someone who has recovered from the infection, and he had been quite severely attacked by the virus. Thanks to superior on time medical care, he recovered miraculously. He shared with me how his whole frame of mind changed when his oximeter reading dropped from 95 to 93. Yes, he saw death coming and all his priorities changed, his focus changed.

Before the advent of HIV, we had been thinking that there is a cure for every infection. We are talking more and more of prolonged longevity. Someone born at the end of the 20th century can survive the whole 21st century and pass away in the 22nd century. There are more than over 17% of centennials per 100,000 inhabitants in many countries like France, Japan, the US and many other countries. We live longer due to some forms of improved lifestyle and medical care, and it takes a virus to bring us back to reality: We are mere mortals denying death as we believe that we are immortal.

Research tells us that we start to think seriously about death in our fifties and, as we age, we think often of death and of dying. Currently, we see young people passing away to the virus; we are compelled to embrace existential thinking. What happens if I die? This changes the focus on time, on relationships and even with God. We ask: Where are you, Lord?

* You are also a pastor of the Presbyterian Church, a man of religion. Have you had to counsel your parishioners about how to deal with the uncertainty and fear that have suddenly been thrust upon us by the pandemic? Do you have any experience to share about how — besides the science — faith can bring solace?

I do not have parish responsibilities currently. I’m involved in pastoral education, i.e., in the practical training and development of our newly ordained ministers and ministers to be.

For more than three decades I have been involved and, more so lately, in grief care and counselling of individuals and families, parishioners as well as people from all faiths and walks of life. Counselling is not about advice giving. Its primary aim in grief counselling or therapy is to allow people unwind and release their deepest emotions, accept the ambivalence they are going through, accept their anger, their feelings of despair, name everything that gets through their mind and with which they grapple.

The biggest challenge is the anger people have at God and the unfinished business they may have with the deceased. The role of the pastor is not to justify anything, but to offer a presence and listening ears and be non-judgemental. Helping one to unleash and unpack is cathartic. People connect or reconnect with The Supreme as they free themselves from the pent-up emotions they withhold. Some see the suffering God even on their death bed.

The fear and uncertainty of this pandemic is propelling us to experience more rapidly our finitude and boundedness. The pandemic has led us to experience the world as distressing, threatening and unsafe, fuelling our neuroticism. Faith on the other hand leads us to find stillness in the midst of agitation and in the words of the psalmist we are taught, “Be Still, and Know I am God”.

Faith is the opposite of fear, and this faith needs to be proactive. Stillness is not exempting us from observing sanitary conditions. God works through Science and scientists. His Spirit is at work. All knowledge comes from God. When we selfishly make knowledge ours, we fail God and humankind. Stillness calls us to trust more in the One who controls History and who makes things new.

Faith does not override responsibility. Faith calls for responsibility, for compassion, for understanding, for Hope. Faith allows us to stand and sing, “We shall overcome!” We should allow God to search our hearts for when God searches the heart, God can see the “why” behind our thoughts and choices. Scripture tells us that God judges the intents of the hearts.

*The general perception as the pandemic rolled on towards the second half of this year is that the authorities have somewhere along the way faltered in handling events unfolding. The element of trust seems to have suffered a big blow? Do you share that perception and how can hindsight guide future action?

Communication between the authorities and the population started well. As things became more uncertain and ambiguous with the evolution of the pandemic, the emergence of vaccines, etc., we have witnessed the superficiality of information and inability of communicating in times of major crisis. Needless to say, the medical community worldwide is divided on many issues pertaining to the pandemic – and this has also led to a lot of confusion. This is the new Babel.

In times of crisis, one has to speak the language of the heart while stating facts. What we have been witnessing is an over emphasis on statistics resembling more spin doctoring than genuine communication even though the figures may have been factual. Truth is first and foremost facts, but truth has a meta dimension called emotion. People catch the vibes of anyone who communicates because the electromagnetic field (EMF) of the heart is 5,000 times more powerful than the EMF of the brain.

People know when truth is stated or not — whether in person, or behind a screen. There has been too much of wrapping of the stark truth and it is regrettable that people hardly trust the official figures and communiqués.

Additionally, in any pandemic what gets reported is the tip of the iceberg. The same occurred with HIV. The situation in many parts of the world was underreported because many cases went undetected. With Covid and the new variants, the transmission is different. Contamination is exponential. The silent killer is an invisible rodent.

It seems also that we have tried to be over reassuring, like authorising people not to wear masks in open spaces. Many have seen in this the licence to throw off their masks and flout sanitary protocol. We have to be consistent in reminding people of behavioural requirements of self-protection.

People need to observe strict sanitary conditions and behave as their “brothers’ keeper”.

* Mauritius, like most countries, is also an unequal society, and people from different backgrounds are living the pandemic differently. There is so much that government can do to help the weaker sections of society. Do you find the private sector, who were shouting loud for the reopening of our borders, and civil society doing their part?

I happen to have worked in Government agencies, Parastatal bodies and the Private Sector. Each sector has a specific mission to fulfil. The private sector is the cow producing the milk and it is concerned with economic growth and job creation. The major stress of any boss in the private sector is to know if s/he will have enough cash flow to pay salaries at the end of each month. They always have to juggle between the economic and the social/societal, as they know more than anyone else, the narrow correlation that exists between those two variables.

They are relentless risk-takers. They are also responsible risk-takers. They won’t jeopardise the health of their people. They have an entrepreneurial mindset which has built the resilience of Mauritius shortly after independence when our former colonisers thought: “Mauritius has no future!”. I have confidence in their resilience and their ability to find solutions. They are not perfect, but they try, they stretch their potential to innovate.

While we witness a sharp lack of agility in other sectors because people are conditioned to be processors and not enablers, the private sector mantra appears to be one of ‘enablement’ in contrast with the ‘immobility’ that exists in some other sectors. In fact, the biggest danger is the lack of thinking and leadership agility resulting in leadership paralysis seeping through the inner walls of several institutions.

*The pandemic aside – it will run its course – are you optimistic about the future generally? Or do you foresee apocalyptic times ahead?

Indeed, we shall experience some more rough times. Losing lives is tragic and losing them in such circumstances is cruel, to say the least. A new day will show itself and we have to be optimistic against all odds. We shall overcome!

* Published in print edition on 30 November 2021

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