It has been a roller-coaster year. The coronavirus continues to rage on and the Government has resorted to a State of Emergency to brace the tsunami of positive cases. Up to May 20, a staggering 341 COVID-related deaths were tragically reported and the positive active cases continue to spiral out of control.
The pandemic is infecting the physical, mental, economic and social systems of our society. This quadruple threat requires a quadruple diagnosis and treatment.
Physically, the death toll nationally is skewed towards people with pre-existing comorbidities. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 78 per cent of COVID-19 patients in ICUs had underlying conditions. Italy reported that 98.5 per cent of patients who died due to COVID-19 also had a pre-existing condition and the UK reported a slightly lower figure of 90 per cent had at least one pre-existing condition.
The OECD has embraced a four-pronged approach to strengthening the frontline through comprehensive and preventive primary and community health care which is worth considering in Trinidad and Tobago.
This includes enhanced home-based care for all patients including non-COVID patients with pre-existing conditions, using community pharmacists to extend prescriptions and prescribe chronic disease medication, using e-Health and telemedicine to treat patients remotely, and introducing add-on payments for primary health care workers conducting teleconsultations or home visits for hygiene and safety measures and risk and workload factors.
Mentally, a 2021 study found that four out of ten adults in the US reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic as compared to one out of ten adults before the pandemic. A recent UWI RAPICO Research Study of roughly 1,000 adults assessed the psychological effects of the pandemic and revealed that 17 per cent of respondents experienced depression symptoms requiring professional help and 26.7 per cent experienced anxiety requiring clinical attention.
UNICEF also polled 8,444 adolescents and young people in the Latin America and Caribbean region in September 2020, of which 27 per cent reported feeling anxiety and 15 per cent depression in seven days prior to the poll. UNICEF also reported 46 per cent of adolescents and young people having less motivation to do activities they usually enjoyed, and 43 per cent of females and 31 per cent of males feeling pessimistic about the future.
The WHO recommends several tips for coping with the mental health challenges caused by the coronavirus including maintaining a routine of eating healthily and exercising, reducing newsfeeds and screen times, keeping social contacts open, avoiding substance abuse, and helping others including health workers.
A comprehensive mental health strategy is also required as a national response to these unsafe trends. As a first step, the Government should continue to invest in active research on mental health among adults and young people caused by the pandemic through the universities and tertiary education institutions, and in collaboration with the Ministry of Health. This must be supported by universal screenings, anti-stigma education campaigns and reliable and quality access to mental health care services, particularly among high-risk populations.
Economically, temporary business closures, lockdowns, a State of Emergency and the need to isolate, quarantine and social distance have decimated SMEs and directly impacted hundreds of thousands of workers. The food and beverage, entertainment, tourism, travel, cosmetology, sporting, construction and education sectors, in particular, have faced the full financial brunt of the pandemic with no assurances of a return to normalcy soon.
The focus on livelihoods is equally imperative as job losses correlate to mental health concerns. The US introduced a package of disaster financial assistance measures for workers and small businesses such as COVID-19 Unemployment Benefits, COVID-19 Stimulus Checks for Individuals, and COVID-19 Small Business Loans.
The PNM Government has relaxed its previous posture of no financial support to workers during the second wave of the virus. The Salary Relief Grant was promised to displaced workers but is stymied by inefficiencies after a year of trying to get it right. There is no sense of urgency to restore the livelihoods of employers and workers, and the Government should take its own advice of doing more with less.
Socially, face-to-face schooling, places of worship, and sporting and cultural activities have been circumscribed. Students without devices or connectivity have lost invaluable time. Worshippers are growing disconnected. Athletes and fitness fans are losing their zeal.
The Government should uplift the morale and spirits of the nation instead of continuously projecting blame unto citizens. The barrage of insults, obscene language and wild accusations are counter-intuitive to the national psyche and only serve short-sighted political interests.
Through an integrated approach of physical, mental, economic and social development, T&T can defy the odds and overcome the pandemic. However, authentic leadership is the key enabler to achieve this strategy.
Mr Fazal Karim
Fomer minister of tertiary education and former MP for Chaguanas East