COVID-19 takes psychological toll on Zim health care workers

By Nyaradzo Bakari

For all the years they have dedicated their lives to saving people’s lives through their job, 2020 has turned out to be the most devastating of their experiences and the greatest worry is the mental health effects that come with dealing with the deadly COVID -19 pandemic. Health front liners’ experiences during this pandemic are a narration of sad and tough experiences they have to endure saving lives and putting their own on the line.

Working as a General nurse and mid wife at a private hospital in Bulawayo, Sister Sibanda (not her real name)has come face to face with the devastating effects of COVID 19 on health front-liners. She is among the health care workers that have survived the virus and her worry is that the conditions in the country’s health system may have great mental health effects on health care workers if not addressed properly. She and other health care workers are now living a nightmare due to the overwhelming repercussion of the pandemic.   

“I want to testify that as a nurse this pandemic has affected me physically and psychologically. Being short staffed and working long hours has left me physically drained. As a mother there is a time I have to maintain social distancing from my children who are still very young to understand why I am not supposed to be in contact with them, this is emotionally shattering . I have so many fears, fear of infecting my children, my family, my friends and fear of being in contact with infected patients and end up being infected,” said sister Sibanda.

Sister Sibanda said in as much as the virus has affected people globally, it becomes worse for Zimbabwean healthcare workers who are forced to work in unfavourable environments with insufficient protective equipment.

“The truth is lack of protective equipment contributes to mental effects as it has brought a lot of fear and distress among many of us.  There are some who stay with parents and relatives with underlying infections such as diabetes and hypertension or the elderly people who are high risk, the thought of infecting them gives so much fear and anxiety. Sometimes we are forced to wear disposable gowns over and over again or wear a disposable mask over a whole 8 hour- shift and this puts us at risk of infection and reinfections.”  She said

“When I get home I have lot of questions running on my mind about my day at work. Sometimes I end up having sleepless nights as I ask myself weather I removed the protective equipment properly, If I really washed my hands thoroughly enough, and my chances of infection when I reused the equipment?” she  said  further.

Sister Sibanda said testing positive is one of the most saddening part  as this comes with  psychological impacts, without loved ones closer to give one psychological support due social distancing, the suffering we have to bear alone in isolation is a traumatic experience most healthcare workers will carry for a long time.

“I once tested positive for Covid-19 and had to be isolated, this was the most difficult period in my life. Without the strong support from my family and relatives I wouldn’t have survived.  There is also the stigma  that comes with testing positive or merely being a health worker in communities, its emotionally draining and one might even die from stress and depression due to lack of psycho-social support,” she said.

For Sister Sibanda one of the solutions to lessen mental health effects of corona virus on health care workers is to provide enough protective equipment and better allowances to give health care workers some form of security and relieve their stress.

“This is just a sad situation, if only our government would consider providing health workers with decent salaries so that they can afford to acquire various needs. We need to eat healthy food and our salaries are not enough . These are some of the things that add to our dire distress and depression.” She said.

Another nurse who spoke to Amakhosikazi media on condition of anonymity echoed the same sentiments saying Covid-19 is and will cause more psychological damage on health workers.

“The virus comes with psychological effects which no one seems to worry about. From my experience, I realised some workmates have developed some form of thought blocks (memory losses). I  also have been experiencing these although it has been a month after recovery; I tend to forget things that I know and this is something that many people may not have noticed. If health care workers do not get help after recovering it would be difficult for them to go back into the field and execute the same duties well.” She said

“The other thing that is making our lives difficult now is inadequate human resources. The work load is too much, we cannot cope with duties that we have and this has a lot of strains on the health worker’s mental wellness. People are leaving due to the low remuneration we are getting and the few left are bearing the burden.” she added

Donald Jamani, a Mental Health Professional at Pickled Inc and a systematic Counselling lecturer at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) said health workers are largely affected by anxiety, depression and psychological stress during pandemics like COVID-19 due to fear of personal infection, infecting family members and infecting other people.

He said the shortage of equipment instils a feeling of helplessness and being hopeless, leading to depression thus health care workers need support from the community.

“Lack of adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has also exacerbated the risk of infection. Lack of equipment, drugs and staff due to the strike also leads to helplessness and hopelessness. Health care workers are trained to save lives and if that is hampered by lack of essentials it leads to mental challenges for them. Most of frontline staffers i have engaged with have developed stress which results in sleeping disorders, loss of appetite and physical symptoms including headaches,” said Jamani.

“Health care workers, like anyone who has been affected need psychological support to help them cope and manage the infection. They have families, and support should be extended to the families as well because people deal with illnesses better where there are strong family support systems. Dealing with stigma is a reality as most people don’t really have enough information about Covid-19, therefore, it’s wise to manage whom you disclose to.” added Jamani.

Jamani urged health care workers who have recovered to share their experiences to educate and strengthen others on the effects of the pandemic.

Nompilo Gugulethu Ncube a counsellor and play therapist said health care workers are filled with fear and anger triggered by the risk of contracting the virus and economic depression.

She urged health care workers to take time out for themselves, talk to their families and friends about their worries and get counselling to be able to deal with mental effects the virus throws at them.

“Health care workers shouldn’t neglect their social circles. This will help them in times where they need to vent and let their worries out. Health care workers need counselling but most of them cannot afford counselling services which they very much need. I would advise that they make use of their social structures like churches, family and friends to talk about their struggles. They mustn’t bottle things inside; they need to speak to someone who can help them and counselling would be best,” said Ncube.

The spread of the novel corona virus (COVID-19) across the globe and its associated morbidity and mortality challenged many countries in several ways. However, the virus has undoubtedly had a devastating impact on Zimbabwe’s health sector, and the mental effects of the pandemic on health care workers is one unaddressed area. The number of recorded positive Covid-19 cases among medical staffers is constantly rising and this not only reflects the seriousness of the infections but also speaks to the greater distress, depression and burden on health workers hence the need for the government to ensure better working conditions for the health workers.