It’s been over a year since the Covid-19 pandemic rattled the fragile framework of the world, and shook it to its very core. It has been a year which forced even the greatest healthcare systems of the world to its knees, leaving humanity helpless in the wake of its destruction. In an age where the advent of antibiotics and other advanced medical interventions have reduced mortality greatly, this pandemic has forced us to face the reality of our own mortality, and the terror which ensues should modern medicine fail to work. Due to this realization, death anxiety is now more prevalent than ever before.
Death anxiety is defined as ‘the fear of, anticipation and the awareness of death and dying.’ Previous literature suggests that the fear of death is the underlying root cause of many other psychiatric illnesses. Although fear of death is, to a certain extent, a normal emotional response towards the unknown, it becomes problematic when it starts interfering with your everyday life. Unfortunately, with the advent of this pandemic, what was once an underlying fear has now become a full fledged phobia amongst the population. As medical students, we have a far more intimate relationship with death than our non-medical peers. Not only do we deal with dying patients on a daily basis, our exposure to lethal infectious diseases is also bound to be greater. This means we are at a far greater risk of contracting such diseases. For example, according to Amnesty, 17,000 healthcare workers have died from COVID so far in the US alone. When the rest of the world has the option of isolating safely inside their homes, healthcare workers not only have to risk their lives in the war against their virus, they also risk the lives of their loved ones in the process.
So how do we, as medical students, learn to be brave in the face of an adversity that has the rest of the world shaking, and step forth to serve humanity?
1) Take necessary precautions
Whether it’s COVID-19 or an epidemic of TB, we must be fully equipped to protect ourselves. This includes having protective gear such as a surgical mask, an N-95 mask, a face shield, and PPE. This may sound like common sense but, unfortunately, not all healthcare workers avail this advice. I recently conducted a research amongst the doctors of my city, and the results were astonishing. They revealed that very few doctors practiced adequate levels of preventative practices. Remember, according to the CDC, double masks or tightly fitted single masks can reduce transmission by up to 96.4%. Even if you get infected, there is little chance of you passing it onto someone else!
2) Isolate yourself from family members
For most healthcare workers I’ve spoken to, the scariest part of being on the frontlines wasn’t the fear of getting infected themselves, but the fear of passing it on to elderly parents or other family members. If possible, shift to a separate floor from the rest of the family. If not, then at least a separate room. Keep your mask around them at all times if you’ve recently been exposed to a suspected COVID-19 patient, and reduce your interaction with them.
3) Get vaccinated ASAP
With the arrival of vaccines marking the beginning of the end, there is a glimmer of hope in the horizon. Depending on your country and the availability of the vaccine, make sure you get vaccinated as soon as it’s feasible. Vaccination is incredibly effective against this deadly disease. The United Kingdom serves as a great example of demonstrating vaccine efficacy as the number of new cases fell from 50,000 per day before the vaccination process began, to currently, a mere 2000 per day, as a huge chunk of the people have been vaccinated.
4) Understand the death statistics
According to data published by The Economist last month, your chances of dying from COVID if you are under 30 are less than 0.1%. To put that into perspective, your chances of dying in a car crash are 1 in 103 according to the National Safety Council of America (0.97%). Hence, you are almost 10 times more likely to die in a car crash than from a COVID infection. Most adults under 30 recover naturally, and only experience mild symptoms. So here is something to give you the strength to fight this, since you are tougher than you think!
5) Therapy is important
One of the major consequences of this pandemic is the emergence of various psychiatric illnesses, most notably Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A research conducted on nurses in China in 2019 revealed that the incidence of PTSD in nurses exposed to COVID-19 was 16.83%. As healthcare workers, we have to constantly endure high levels of stress. Top that with a deadly pandemic, and you have the perfect recipe for disastrous mental health. In order to spare yourself the agony of mental torture, seek professional help in this regard as doing so can drastically improve the quality of your life and help you better understand yourself and your surroundings.
6) Take out time for yourself
In the era of physical social distancing, it’s easy to fall prey to feelings of loneliness and desolation. However, this is also an ideal opportunity to get in touch with our own selves. Go back to your childhood hobbies. Start painting again, or finally start learning that new skill you’ve been wanting to for so long. In my case, I discovered journaling during the pandemic, and spent a lot of my time and energy on it. In hindsight, it was a great way to use up all that pent-up energy in a healthy and rejuvenating way. Even if it’s just once a week, start investing time (that would normally be spent moping) in a hobby.
7) Learn to cherish the present
Cliché, I know. However, as Norman Cousins once accurately said: “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside of us while we live.” If one good thing has come out of this pandemic, it is that it has forced us to be grateful for the things we take for granted: Dining out with a friend, a concert, a birthday party. Try to ground yourself in the present, as opposed to worrying incessantly about the unlikelihood of being amongst the minority of adults under 30 who are at risk of dying from COVID. If you’re living in an area where restrictions have lifted, then use this window to meet old friends again, and cherish their company. If you’re currently under a lockdown, cherish the free time you will probably never have again, and catch up on some long-lost sleep!
In conclusion, this pandemic has been a nerve-wrecking trip down a nightmarish spiral. However, the end is near, and we have to hold on just a little while longer. No pandemic in the history of the world has lasted forever, and this too shall pass. In the meanwhile, let’s cherish what we have instead of going haywire over what we may yet lose.