Counting the psychological cost of the lockdown

| April 10, 2020

‘Social distancing’, ‘wash your hands’, ‘avoid contact with others.’

These are just three of the many phrases that are the latest buzzwords, frequently cited by not only the Australian government, politicians and health authorities, but everyday citizens Australia-wide and worldwide.

The emergence of the COVID-19 crisis has given rise to an extreme education lesson in the importance of good hygiene, a hyper-awareness of germs and how a deadly virus can be transmitted.

Before the outbreak of COVID and the strict government policies and guidelines, understanding about proper hand washing was largely unknown amongst the population.

According to a study in 2013 by Michigan State University, it was found that 95% of people do not use the proper method of hand washing to kill harmful bacteria.

A further study conducted by YouGov in 2019 found that of 1000 people surveyed, a quarter responded that they didn’t believe they needed to wash their hands after using the bathroom.

As the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and dried using a clean towel or disposable paper, this knowledge is now ingrained as second nature into the minds of kindergarten children through to the elderly.

While regular washing or sanitising hands, wearing gloves, face masks and avoiding contact with others are integral elements of stopping the spread of the coronavirus, the question at large is what affect this may have in the future.

When the isolation and lockdown laws are abolished and the virus is no longer a threat, will the hyper vigilance about hygiene and germs, as well as an accustomization to a sterile environment be detrimental to our immune system and leave us more susceptible to other illnesses?

A study published in the journal Nature found that exposure to microbes and bacteria in early life can help to strengthen the immune system. This also supports something called the ‘hygiene hypothesis’.

This states that autoimmune diseases such as allergies and asthma are much more prevalent in countries that are developed nations, where children are less exposed to microbes due to the presence of antibacterials and antibiotics.

Social isolation and social distancing have already proven to have detrimental impacts on people who have been diagnosed with anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and other mental health illnesses before the emergence of COVID19.

The psychological impacts of physical distancing, social isolation and increased media scare-tactics can have significant effects on those already experiencing complex mental health conditions.

It is well documented and supported by mental health professionals that engaging in regular interactions and socialising with others is an integral element of maintaining optimal mental health and social wellbeing.

Whilst it is still possible to interact with others through means other than physical contact, such as Zoom, FaceTime or Skype, even though this may be an ideal short-term solution, it is largely unknown how this will fare in the long-term.

As time goes on and the prevalence of COVID-19 takes on a downward trend, it is assumed health authorities will give the all clear for lockdown laws to be abolished.

Upon this, we would expect the life we once knew as ‘normal’ would resume. However, it could be argued that COVID-19 and the consequent lockdown period that has been endured will create a ‘new normal’.

Will the hyper-awareness about germs create greater levels of OCD in individuals who did not previously experience it? Will people be afraid to have contact with others due to fear and anxiety about exposure to the unknown? Will the habit of social isolation be a difficult one to break for those who already have rigid habit forming tendencies?

Perhaps being aware of our susceptibility to developing anxiety and OCD related behaviours is a key factor in preventing any long term mental issues that may arise as a result of COVID-19.

Alternatively, looking at the flip side of the argument, will the forced lockdown and drastic changes to our lifestyle make us more appreciative and grateful?

Something as simple as sitting in a work meeting with colleagues may not be seen as such a burden, as we take a greater appreciation for the presence of others and the ability to physically interact.

While these are all hypothetical questions that will remain unanswered until due course, it is worth considering what the ‘new normal’ may be and how it might change us as humans.