The impact of technology on mental health during COVID-19

Authors: Mustapha Dumbuya, Johnson Mayamba & Foromo Frédéric Loua

As the world continues to battle the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, which by 14 May 2020 had recorded more than 4 million confirmed cases globally and  claiming more than 300,000 lives. One can be tempted to say that the fight might still be far from ending. Even as researchers work tooth and nail to find a vaccine, with Madagascar claiming to have found a herbal cure, some have described such efforts as more of a marathon than a sprint. In fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that people may have to learn how to live with Covid-19 because it ‘may never go away.’

When the cases were fast-rising, governments around the world adopted various measures to contain the spread of COVID-19. On 26 March 2020, South Africa went into a 21-day total nationwide lockdown amid increasing cases of the pandemic. Other measures announced included wearing face masks and other forms of movement restrictions. The lockdown was later extended but it has since been eased since the beginning of May 2020 to ameliorate economic meltdown not only in South Africa but globally.

Apart from having a disastrous impact on economies, these measures come with a plethora of other challenges. The current social distancing policies have had a major impact on people’s lives and wellbeing, especially for those living alone or away from family and loved ones. COVID-19 related social and physical distancing could lead to a feeling of increased loneliness and depression.

The  South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) have recorded an increase in the number of people calling them to express fear and worries over COVID-19 related issues since the Government declared a lockdown. For instance, before the lockdown, 59% of the people who approached SADAG were reported to be much stressed. These figures have since risen to 65% in less than two months.

The Lancet has also released a review of 24 studies documenting the psychological impact of quarantines and isolations. The research offers a quick look into what is likely to happen at the end of these lockdowns amid continuous spread of distorted information. The review says in China, cases of mental health effects such as insomnia, anger, stress, anxiety, depression, emotional exhaustion, and post-traumatic stress symptoms are already being reported in the first research papers about the lockdown. The research also points out low mood and irritability as some of the effects that stand out.

These effects are sometimes caused by information overload — people becoming inundated by depressing information on the pandemic which has now affected every continent. Both mainstream and social media are saturated with information on COVID-19, creating overload and fatigue on some people. During such a period, it can be extremely challenging to separate factual information from fiction. This is because one is being bombarded with information coming from every direction especially on social networking platforms and messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook where people belong to work, friendship and family groups, among many others that deliver COVID-19 related information directly to them. So, if one escapes the news on TV and radio, it still comes to them via such connections on social media. The information varies, but mostly focuses on the origin of the virus, prevention and treatment of the virus, and statistics of confirmed cases—deaths and recoveries. With more distorted information spread across social media platforms, research indicates that such information, if not well managed, can have far reaching negative impact on individuals as earlier stated.

The fact that COVID-19 is caused by a new type of coronavirus, leaves many people desperate for information about a virus that even experts and policymakers are grappling with the mutation dynamics of the virus and keep discovering new information. So, while some of this information may be helpful, people are also vulnerable to misinformation that causes fear, panic and mistrust. There has been a lot of misinformation and conspiracy theories since the outbreak of the pandemic. This has prompted the United Nations to warn about what it calls an ‘infodemic’. The World Health Organisation has also come out to debunk some of the myths on COVID-19.

When the pandemic was initially reported in China and Europe, it was trivialised in many African countries where some people believed that black people were immune to the virus because of the perceived strong immune system and hot weather conditions on most parts of the continent. This disbelief continued until black people started contracting the virus and others dying from it. Other people have shared misinformation about alcohol and other herbal concoctions that claim to cure COVID-19, albeit with little or no scientific evidence.

However, all is not gloom. While technology fosters viral spread of misinformation which poses a direct threat to mental health and the fight against the pandemic, it has enabled easy access to information, helping people connect with loved ones with just a click on an internet-enabled device. Information about COVID-19 can be found and shared across all platforms and with all networks. Through this, people have been made aware about the pandemic, its effects on the world and what is being done by institutions, and what individuals can do to contain it.

Globally, technology is enhancing companies and organisations to stay open and provide services to clients as employees work remotely from their homes. These companies, governments and organisations have used internet-based applications to hold meetings and conduct business. The same has been taken up by education institutions to continue administering classes to students. It is reported that Zoom alone has seen its users rise from 10 million users to 200 million around the globe. Particularly, at University of Pretoria’s Centre for Human Rights, graduate students who come from different parts of the African continent have since continued with the normal running of classes online as opposed to sending them back to their countries during this period.

Whereas this is a good step in closing the gaps when it comes to continuity of activities through use of technology, there are concerns of limited access to internet; 4 billion people in the world lack access to the internet. 90% of this figure comes from developing countries. , according to United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). In Africa, such small access to the internet is met with high costs of data with 1GB ranging between $37.92 and $75.20. Other countries like Uganda have daily social media tax which also affects internet access, particularly, impacting persons in lower income brackets and other disadvantaged groups.

In joining the UN and WHO to address concerns of ‘infodemic’ around COVID-19, different governments have come up with measures to counter it. Such measures include having in place official websites dedicated to the pandemic for example in the case of South Africa. Other governments have asked the media to allocate special time and space to give the public information about COVID-19. In extreme measures, some governments have warned, issued orders and gone ahead to arrest, detain and charge those suspected of spreading misinformation as seen in countries such as Ethiopia, Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, Somalia and Zimbabwe, which in the end has a chilling impact on freedom of expression and access to information at such a critical time.

In conclusion, based on the fact that technology plays a great role in helping people stay in touch, during these times, governments must make the services available. One way to do this is through the reduction of tariffs and taxes and the increase of bandwidth and coverage so more people can have access to internet. This will help to bridge the gap for people who are currently unable to stay in touch with their loved ones due to expensive and poor network. Also, governments and all other stakeholders such as the World Health Organisation should continue availing credible information across all their platforms and in all languages in a timely manner to enable the masses remain informed, calm and sane. Media personnel must be guided, protected and provided with credible information to remain playing their role of informing and educating the masses. Individuals also play a critical role of verifying with credible sources the kind of information they have before sharing it with the rest of the public. Finally, while pandemics like Covid-19 can be stressful, there are things to do to cope with it. Foremost, government and development partners should provide call centres for online counselling services. On an individual level, the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that reaching out to family and loved ones helps you and them cope with Covid-19 related stress. The CDC further suggests that taking breaks from following the news on the pandemic, including on social media is helpful for your mental health and wellbeing.

About the Authors

Mustapha Dumbuya is a Sierra Leonean Journalist and Senior Journalism Trainer with Journalists for Human Rights (JHR). He is currently pursuing an MPhil in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa at the Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria in South Africa.

Johnson Mayamba is a journalist at Daily Monitor in Uganda. He is also currently a student of MPhil in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria.

Foromo Frédéric Loua is a Guinean Attorney and founding president and the senior trial lawyer of Mêmes Droits pour Tous (MDT), one of the leading Guinean non-governmental human rights organisations, which provides legal assistance to prisoners throughout the country. Attorney Loua’s work focuses towards reducing the prevalent use of torture during police investigations in Guinea.

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