coronavirus and the trauma of captivity

We’d be forgiven for describing 2020 as a Biblical year. It’s only March and we have already seen among other disasters unprecedented apocalyptic bushfire in Australia, vicious storms and wide scale flooding in Europe and plagues of locusts across East Africa, and now a very nasty coronavirus causing Covid 19, a virus at least 2.5 times more contagious than influenza and 30 times more deadly, according to the experts.

Back in February it was Wuhan, China, which went into total lockdown as the reality of a horrendous viral pneumonia began to bite. Up went field hospitals and a rising death toll. The West watched, curious perhaps, but largely indifferent. Then, thanks to our love affair with travel and our international interconnectedness, the virus spread. In a few weeks, it had entered just about every country in the world. The West has been slow to act, not heeding China’s warning, not wanting to take drastic action. Everyone could see what such action in Wuhan was doing to the global economy. Distressed pleas of Westerners trapped in the lockdown filtered in and dramatic plans to evacuate took place, including the quarantining of returnees to Australia in the Christmas Island detention centre. That all feels like ancient history.

Very soon it became apparent the West was not equipped to cope. As  the situation in Italy unfolded, panic took hold and shoppers went nuts. First it was toilet roll and hand sanitiser. Then it was tinned goods. Now fresh produce and meat. Whole aisles have been stripped of food regardless of pleas for shoppers to stop the behaviour and think of those less fortunate, those without cars, those without the ready cash, those with sick children, so many people who cannot hoard.

Reactions to the virus are mixed. There are those who couldn’t care less about it and think it is all a big hype. There are those who believe the virus is a conspiracy to exterminate vast swathes of humanity. There are those not that fussed if they get the virus or not because they are young and healthy. There are those only worried about their jobs, their mortgage repayments, their rent. Then, there are those genuinely worried, anxious and scared. Mature-aged teachers forced to work knowing any day they could get infected. Health care workers knowing they will almost certainly succumb to the disease. The elderly, wondering how they can avoid catching it.

Suddenly, the world is on a war footing, against a virus. Governments are petrified of the damage to national economies, while realising there is such a thing as the social contract and they have a responsibility to honour that. Governments not knowing what to do next.

Society is cleaving into two main groups: those who are required to stay at home in almost total isolation for most likely half a year at least, and those required to go to work to fulfil key roles and keep the wheels turning. Truck drivers, supermarkets and other food outlet employees, garbage collectors, all those working in telecommunications, utilities, farmers, so many services and all those people need get to go out to work, come into direct contact with as few people as possible, and then go home to join the rest of society in isolation. It is hard to decide which group is worse off, the stay-at-homers or the workers who at least enjoy some freedom of movement, although at varying degrees of risk. Many of those workers return home to families, further complicating the situation. This is why in Wuhan everything stopped.

Rumours abound and everyone is after the truth. How long can the virus live on x,y,z surfaces? Can I catch the virus passing an infected person in the street? How long before infected people are contagious? When will there be a vaccine?

Hyper-vigilance and the Covid 19 Threat

There is a heavy psychological burden to all of this and we are still in the very early stages of the pandemic. Imposed captivity to avoid inhaling a microscopic organism is one of those classic set ups of a horror novel/movie. Straight away, our primal instinct of fight/flight is heightened. We are on edge, nervous, alert, hyper-vigilant. There are new habits we need to form, if not for ourselves then for others. Never have we needed to be so clean. Even bringing in the day’s mail from the letterbox involves a lot of care and hand washing. The virus, it turns out, can live on paper for up to 9 days, apparently. If we do go out we need to avoid touching door handles, hand rails, petrol nozzles, our faces, especially our faces. Drink loads of warm water and hot drinks. Nothing cold.

How far do we take this? Who handled that carton of eggs in the supermarket before me? What about all the packaging of all the groceries? It’s enough to make a rational person paranoid. For those already traumatised, those who suffer anxiety or depression, those a bit claustrophobic, those prone to going stir crazy, extroverts unaccustomed to being home alone, those with anger management issues and those doing the isolation stint alone this period of human history is extreme. The effects of this version of captivity will be subtle and slow to bite, and there is no telling the lasting effects it may have on the most sensitive. Anxiety levels are elevated in all of us, especially as the news is everywhere and instant, making it very hard to switch off.

Trauma and Captivity

Of concern to me are those slipping into a trauma response to the crisis. In her groundbreaking work on PTSD Trauma and Recovery, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry Judith Herman writes, “Prolonged captivity undermines or destroys the ordinary sense of a relatively safe sphere of initiative, in which there is some tolerance for trial and error…For the chronically traumatised person, any action has potentially dire consequences.” p91

During the Covid 19 pandemic, we have been reduced to one goal, our own survival. Even going up the street for groceries could have dire consequences.

In order to survive in this strange form of captivity our lives are constricted. “This narrowing applies to every aspect of life – to relationships, activities, thoughts, memories, emotions, and even sensations.” p87 While Herman is writing of concentration camps and hostages and trapped battered wives and children, this same tendency to constrict applies to some degree in situations of prolonged self isolation. As the days turn into weeks and weeks to months, this narrowing becomes our default. Herman’s research found that prolonged captivity profoundly alters the victim’s relational world. I imagine this will all be much worse for those with pre-existing traumas and those trapped in other countries unable to make it home.

There’s another form of captivity which is not physical but existential and applies to health workers and first responders. They are trapped by circumstances with no end likely for a year, the length of time a vaccine is predicted to be widely available. Until then, the trauma many are and will suffer as a consequence of dealing with this pandemic will have its consequences, even among the most resilient.

The captor, Covid 19, is of course a virus. But the effects will be similar to other forms of captivity. After all this is over, people are likely to be more fearful of risk-taking behaviour. Some may avoid touching doorknobs forevermore. There will be many cases of protracted depression, apathy and helplessness. It might take a while for a lot of us to loosen our restricted lives. We will be changed collectively, too, especially if the restrictions endure for months and months. Not all of us, but the majority. Just as humanity was changed by the Second World War. Rationing and making do became so ingrained it is evident in those today in their seventies and eighties, the war babies. At the very least, I imagine health and disease will no longer be taken for granted, and I suspect the effects will be deeper and more enduring than just that.

How Should We Respond?

All we can do is ameliorate the worst of the situation. While panic buying is a fight/flight response, it is selfish and inappropriate. Right now we all need to pull together as a whole and not fragment and descend into a survival of the fittest mentality. Such responses are retrograde. Instead, we must respond with kindness. We must endeavour to keep our spirits up. We must be vigilant and responsible, and also resourceful and creative. Sing on balconies. Support each other at a distance. Reach out. Care. Self care. And remember, resilience is not a given and there will be those who buckle. Those for whom home prison is intolerable, for whom the next gurney wheeling out a corpse is just about the last straw. Let’s care above all for them. And let this be a wake up call to shake off the cavalier, pleasure-seeking, self-centredness endemic in the West.

Humanity, especially in the West, is being tested. Maybe not by an Old Testament God, but tested nonetheless. The sense that we are all in this together must be strong. As we journey through the months ahead, let’s be mindful of our collective responsibility for the physical and mental health and wellbeing of us all.

Isobel Blackthorn is an award-winning author of mysteries, dark psychological thrillers and historical and literary fiction. She holds a PhD in Western Esotericism for her groundbreaking study of the teachings of mother of the New Age Alice Bailey. She is the author of The Unlikely Occultist: A biographical novel of Alice A. Bailey and Alice A.Bailey: Life and Legacy.