A New Narrative, Old Demons

The Covid-19 pandemic, while encouraging desirable new norms and behaviors, is reviving old struggles that continue to ail the social sector – such as exclusion and stigma caused due to “social distancing” or exacerbation of mental health challenges with inadequate counselling force.

Authored by Siddhi Mankad, Catalyst Management Services

 

The Covid-19 pandemic is the harbinger of “the new”. We have a “new normal”, “new behaviors” and “new narratives”.  In fact, we even have a “new-new”, because before Covid-19, ‘new’ usually meant something surprising, something grand, something celebratory, something to look forward to. Now the new is born from a sense of fear and loss. New rules – wear a mask, wash hands, practice social distancing; new instructions – don’t venture out unless absolutely necessary; new behaviors – engage with family, friends and neighbors virtually; new barriers – don’t go to school, avoid restaurants!

 

So many ‘new’-s have together spawned off new narratives. Some of which are raising old demons or creating new problems. This was one of the talking points during an afternoon chat on ‘Building resilient families and children’ with Aketa Chanda of Child Fund, India, Drs. Nayreen Daruwalla and Rama Shyam of SNEHA, and Rebecca Chandy of ResilienceWorks – where this larger topic was explored in reference to children, adolescent girls, and women. The panelists covered two narratives that are creating new problems for the social and emotional well-being of these groups – first, on the “social distancing”, and second on specific mental health issues.

 

The concept of “Social Distancing” has created a web of blame game, often targeted against vulnerable groups. For example, migrants who have taken arduous journeys to reach back to their native lands find themselves between a rock and a hard place, being blamed for the spread of Covid-19. They are shunned, maligned and excluded by their very own communities. While ground-level social initiatives have endeavored to break social barriers, the pandemic has resurfaced our biases as only certain groups are shouldering the blame, groups usually discriminated against on the basis of their castes, income, profession, etc. They are being excluded either for no fault of their own, or because of stereotypes emerging out of  the behaviors of a few.  The term ‘social distancing’ takes on a very different meaning for these people.  The panelists could not stress enough the need to replace this narrative of “Social Distancing” with “Physical Distancing” to communicate that inclusion of all – more so during these trying times – is imperative, as long as the physical distance is adequately maintained.

 

The difference between “social distancing” and “physical distancing” can be felt in how we are affected psychologically. In fact, physical distance alone could be psychologically challenging in more than one way. The  pandemic has shone a spotlight on mental health issues. Now, more than ever, people are cognizant of mental health issues, talking about it and accessing support. This change is resulting in lowering of the associated stigma. Yet, this new narrative has also led to two challenges. First, for some specific disorders like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – people with compulsive hand washing, behaviors who needed to be supported to reduce handwashing. Now, the message that frequent handwashing is a must is creating dissonance for these individuals, their counsellors and caregivers. Secondly, while there is a greater openness to accessing counselling for mental health, there is a dearth of qualified professionals to provide guidance and care. Earlier it wasn’t viewed as a primary medical discipline, so there is a gap between the demand and supply of qualified service providers.

 

Covid-19 has offered an opportunity to build back better. But not if the new narratives and perspectives foster inequalities for vulnerable communities, which, already stark, would only get more pronounced. More pronounced also would be mental health issues, if the opportunities presented by Covid-19 related to the relatively greater acceptance of mental health aren’t seized and availability of services spruced up. In the face of these narratives and perspectives, we revive the demons of the past that will cast shadows on the future wellbeing of all vulnerable communities in general, and of children, adolescent girls and women in particular.

 

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