Covid-19: Physical & mental health key to resilience during the pandemic

Statement to the press by Dr Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe on 26 March 2020, Copenhagen, Denmark. Unprecedented measures to slow and interrupt transmission of COVID-19 are buying us time and reducing pressure on our health systems, but at a significant social and economic cost. Physical distancing and isolation measures, the closure of schools and workplaces, are particularly challenging us – as they affect what we love to do, where we want to be, and who we want to be with.

It is absolutely natural for each of us to feel stress, anxiety, fear and loneliness during this time. At WHO, we consider the consequences of COVID-19 on our mental health and psychological well-being  to be very important. That’s why this topic will be at the heart of our discussion today.

But before that, allow me to provide you with an overview of the current situation on COVID-19 in the WHO European Region.

Epidemiological situation across the WHO European Region

Since we last broadcast over a week ago, the number cases and deaths of COVID-19 in our Region have tripled. The rate of increase has been particularly marked in 4 of the 5 countries with the highest number of cases (Spain, France, Germany and Switzerland).

The WHO European Region has reported over 220,000 cases, and 11,987 deaths associated with COVID-19. This means that globally, roughly 6 out of every 10 cases, and 7 out of every 10 deaths are reported from our Region. As we speak, the global number of cases across the world has surpassed the 400,000 mark.

From available reports, we also know that 1 out of 10 infections are in health care workers and many more are in quarantine, itself affecting the ability of our health services to respond. This is particularly concerning to all of us.  As of yesterday, Italy reported 6,200 infected health care workers. We must all take action to protect these courageous individuals as best we can. They are responding tirelessly to protect and care for you. We can only imagine their increased levels of stress during these times, yet, they are making great sacrifices for the benefit of the broader community.

While the situation remains very serious, we are starting to see some encouraging signs. Italy, which has the highest number of cases in the Region, has just seen a slightly lower rate of increase, though it is still too early to say that the pandemic is peaking in that country. Soon we will be able to determine the degree to which the measures put in place in many countries are having an impact.

In this situation, we need to remain optimistic, and physically and mentally healthy, as this will be key to our psychological resilience in overcoming this challenge united.

The role we can play

Each and every one of us is part of a community. It is our human nature to care for one another, as we, in turn, seek the social and emotional support of others. The disruptive effects of COVID-19 provide us all with an opportunity. An opportunity to check on each other, to call and video-chat, to be mindful and sensitive to the unique mental health needs of those we care for. Our anxiety and fears should be acknowledged and not be ignored, but better understood and addressed by individuals, communities, and governments.

It is essential that we address the public mental health challenges over the coming weeks and months in Europe and beyond:

  • By distributing timely, understandable and reliable information from the youngest to the older members of our society;
  • By providing psychological support to front-line workers and bereaved families;
  • By continuing care and treatment of people with cognitive, mental and psychosocial disabilities; and
  • By protecting human rights, especially of those whose rights are often overlooked or violated, including migrants and refugees, prisoners, residents in other closed settings such as mental hospitals or social care institutions, and people with disabilities.

WHO and its partners have prepared a set of COVID-specific materials to inform and guide countries and the public in relation to these levels of mental health and psychosocial support, including briefings and accompanying infographics on social stigma as well as needs for the general population, health workers, those in long-term care and others. These materials are now being translated and distributed in many countries of the Region.  Further materials under development by WHO and its partners include the production of a story-book for 4-10 year-olds and versions of WHO tools such as ‘Psychological First Aid’ and ‘Problem Management Plus’ that can be delivered remotely via digital platforms.

The issue facing each and every one of us is how we manage and react to stressful situations unfolding so rapidly in our lives and communities. Here we can draw on the remarkable powers of strength, resilience and cooperation that we as humans fortunately possess.

Personally, I am trying to stick to what has worked for me in the past when I want to be calm. For example, learning and practicing simple relaxation techniques (like breathing exercises, muscle relaxation, mindfulness meditation) can all be very helpful in alleviating bodily and mental distress. I also try and acknowledge upsetting thoughts when they occur and discuss them with people around me. They are likely to have them too and we may be better able to find solutions collectively. Try to stay positive.

I have realized that as a husband, father, colleague and leader, it is now that I most need to display empathy, solidarity, emotional intelligence and to walk-the-talk to leave no-one behind.

Ultimately there is only one solution: act with kindness, act with love, but with physical distancing.

Thank you very much.

Photo: akedesign / shutterstock.com

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