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Pandemic divisions set to widen as vaccines rolled out

Protesters scuffle with anti riot policemen during an unauthorised demonstration against COVID-19 restrictive measures in Brussels, Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021. (AP)
Protesters scuffle with anti riot policemen during an unauthorised demonstration against COVID-19 restrictive measures in Brussels, Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021. (AP)
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01 Feb 2021 02:02:15 GMT9
01 Feb 2021 02:02:15 GMT9

The coronavirus pandemic is creating separation anxiety. There have been reports that the distribution of vaccines will improve during 2021, but there is also the possibility — not 100 percent confirmed yet — that the vaccine may have to be administered annually because of mutations in the general population. Regardless, the longer the pandemic continues, mutations, vaccine varieties and all will continue to divide societies. The short-term impact on global politics and economics and what it will mean for those who are/are not vaccinated is a major policy issue. We are moving toward a new type of divided, bipolar world.

A dreadful driver in this global contagion is economic inequality, with the division between rich and poor all too prevalent. Those on lower incomes are more likely to have key worker jobs (which are generally much lower paid) and therefore come into contact with infected people more than those in richer areas, who are to work from home. They are also less likely to have fast internet and be able to afford online food deliveries. But, most importantly, the population density in poorer areas is much higher than richer areas, so the risk of coming into contact with infected people in their daily lives is much higher too.

The mental impact of lockdowns, curfews and the requirement to stay at home is now really taking hold. Having to deal with the anxiety caused by the current toxic mix of geopolitics and disease is still a completely abnormal environment for many. Emotions are beginning to fray across the sociocultural fractures that have occurred during the COVID-19 epidemic. Now, one year into the contagion — and with more than a year to go — the report card is dismal. Some sources are indicating that contact tracing for COVID-19 will occur for many years. Some societies may be able to withstand the pathogen’s spread over the course of this decade; others not so much.

We are seeing the impact of lockdown on mental health in many cities around the world. Rioters refuse to stay home, while others comply, splitting societies. Mental wellness may even be applied to those who froth at the mouth across the political spectrum. Meanwhile, the political ramifications of these “pathogen times” are obvious, especially after the US Capitol insurrection of Jan. 6. Those involved suffered from a type of bloodlust due to the opportunity to seize the moment. With Donald Trump’s impeachment trial upcoming, the division driven by the pathogen’s augmentation of politics exemplifies the Tower of Babel effect, whereby people are seemingly speaking in tongues, adding to the mental pressure and potential physical side-effects in other contested cities around the world.

The mental impact of lockdowns, curfews and the requirement to stay at home is now really taking hold.

Dr. Theodore Karasik

As analysts have argued, the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn are negatively affecting many people’s mental health, while also creating new barriers for people already suffering from mental illness and substance abuse disorders. As the pandemic continues through this year, it is likely the mental health burden will increase, with the measures taken to slow the spread of the virus — such as social distancing, business and school closures, and shelter-in-place orders — leading to even greater isolation and potential financial distress.

One year in, this situation is tearing at some people with explosive results. After anxiety comes rage: A rage that is beginning to turn discussions into more violent confrontations. For the US, the psychological damage is creating a toxic narrative that affects both mental and physical health. The Biden administration is hoping to reverse this trend and results are expected in the first 100 days. But the long-term damage already exists.

Later this year, the division will become more apparent. The people who have been vaccinated — let’s call them “VC” (vaccinated for COVID-19) — are going to be able to move freely throughout society. Transportation will be open to these VCs. But for non-VCs, the story will be different. Without the appropriate credentials, they will be unable to get back to normal life, including moving about within their communities. Those who fail to become VC are going to be in a desperate situation if and when they realize how small their world is becoming. Then there are those who, from herd immunity or immunity in general, do not require a vaccine.

The pandemic’s ability to create divisions in society — especially with a potential VC and non-VC outcome — is likely to have both long and short-term implications for mental health and substance use, as lockdowns and violence occur. Those with existing disorders and those who are newly affected will all probably require an expansion of mental health and substance abuse services in the coming years. Domestic violence is another factor that is increasing dramatically because of the pathogen and its impact on societies. COVID-19 and domestic violence are effectively creating a double pandemic. Suicide is also a major and increasingly troublesome issue. Importantly, suicide prevention services could be subject to burnout and, given the pandemic’s longevity and viciousness, COVID-19 magnifies many of these challenges and is taxing any new resources that become available.

  • Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, DC. He is a former RAND Corporation senior political scientist who lived in the UAE for 10 years, focusing on security issues. Twitter: @tkarasik
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