Collective trauma in the wake of Covid-19

The physical and financial impact of the pandemic has been discussed extensively. But how can people deal with the emotional toll of the virus that has claimed thousands of lives?

Three weeks ago, my head was spinning. Standing in my local grocery store, I was overcome by a sudden urge to purchase every available toilet roll. As if caught in a tug of war between the cerebral and animalistic parts of my brain, I was in a state of suspended animation. I compelled myself to buy just what I needed, to smile at the cashier, to pretend that everything was normal, that there was no need to deviate from my routine.

Now, as I acclimatise to a lockdown some experts are suggesting could be as long as six months, I recoil before breakfast each day as the global death count from Covid-19 rises exponentially. For the first time in my life, I am conscious of how much toilet paper and cans of beans I own as phrases like “underlying health issues” and “social distancing” have become part of my everyday lexicon. I can’t help but feel a small pang of doubt and apprehension swell in the recess of my mind. At least I can take solace in the knowledge that I am not alone.

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“The levels of post-traumatic stress that we are going to find as a direct consequence of this moment will far exceed many other moments in history,” says Garth Stevens, president of the Psychological Society of South Africa and the dean of the humanities faculty at Wits University. “There will be increased levels of depression, anxiety disorders, heightened moments of panic, escalated emotional tensions and conflict. People’s nerves get frayed under these circumstances. We cannot underplay the emotional and psychological significance of what we’re experiencing.”

We are living in unprecedented times. But it is still comforting to feel some semblance of familiarity, even if it isn’t our own, so it is useful to look for parallels in the past. In the United Kingdom and Europe, resilience shown in the wake of the so-called Spanish flu and the two World Wars have been weaved into the Covid-19 narrative. In South Africa, the fight against apartheid has been used to draw links with this contemporary struggle.

Putting the pieces back together

In this period of introspection and reflection, which the South African artist Candice Breitz has termed “The Great Pause” on her social media platforms, let us consider the impact that collective trauma has on a group of people. How does collective healing take place? How are the pieces put back together?

“We are certainly dealing with something that will be considered collective trauma,” explains Nomfundo Mogapi, executive director of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), a Johannesburg-based organisation that works with communities and individuals who are the victims of violence and conflict.

“It is sudden and unexpected and has entered mainstream discourse while impacting across social strata. Of course, those who are already vulnerable will be hardest hit. But everyone is impacted in some way. Collective trauma becomes part of a shared identity.”

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Such events, as Mogapi says, can lead to what the Turkish-American psychiatrist Vamik Volkan termed “chosen trauma”. This is the result of a tumultuous occurrence preoccupying a group’s psyche so that an inordinate amount of significance is placed on that historical moment.

“This is a specific trauma that has never properly been dealt with or adequately grieved, so it finds a negative expression,” Mogapi says. “There is an empty, painful feeling that justice has not been served or that wounds have not healed.”

But such occurrences also provide an opportunity for positive change. This is called post-traumatic growth. The current global crisis is shifting the way we think about governments, the integrity of national health services, class divides and privilege.

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The coronavirus is shifting the needle on just about every gauge we use to measure the world around us. Much will depend on how we respond to this moment, how we internalise and absorb the economic and social ramifications that continue to unravel.

“It is important that the collective trauma itself doesn’t spread like a contagion,” Stevens says. “The contagion of fear can do more long-term harm than the virus. It is in these moments of panic when people second-guess themselves and lose trust in their own judgement. The sight of empty shelves at the supermarket can make us believe that our attributions in the world are inaccurate, that we’ve got it wrong. It is then that the contagion becomes a moment of social resonance.”

Dealing with the paranoia

This helps to explain why panic buying and hoarding takes place. Like a spooked herd of zebras, it takes just one member of the group to tip over the edge before a pandemic of paranoia sweeps across a community.

It is in these moments that social cohesion is most needed. Historical traumas of the past have had a galvanising effect on communities once there came a chance to analyse their anguish. This is why seismic events such as genocides, wars or natural disasters become ingrained in a collective identity. They can bring people together through a common source of pain.

The unique parameters of the coronavirus mean a disconnect of social activity is paramount to beating it. We may all be staying away from each other to work together, but the fact remains we are fighting this battle in as small a group as possible. Some of us are completely alone.

“What is good is that this is happening in the context of the digital age and the fourth revolution,” Mogapi says. “But connecting with the use of technology is obviously not something everyone can do. This is just one of the many ways in which the most vulnerable communities will be hit hardest.”

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Both Mogapi and Stevens point out that communities already fragmented and disempowered because of historical trauma – apartheid, a failure of trickle-down economic models, xenophobia – lack the required protection needed to safely navigate through the storm.

We have already seen police officers and South African National Defence Force soldiers enforce brutal measures in order to maintain the lockdown in the country. Unsurprisingly, the videos doing the rounds on social media show black bodies treated with overt aggression, while domestic workers have been subjected to degrading lessons on how to wash their hands.

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South Africa’s leadership, though, has emerged with some credibility. President Cyril Ramaphosa has received praise from political allies and opponents alike for his measured, decisive response. In the United States, meanwhile, President Donald Trump has been more concerned with his TV ratings than the fact that his nation has been ill-equipped to deal with the virus.

“The type of leadership a community has can be the most important factor in dealing with collective trauma,” Mogapi says. “We see this when we work with children who have undergone trauma. If the parent is calm and has handled their own trauma, they help make the child’s experience more bearable. This is a theory called ‘wounded leadership’. Competency and compassion from above can help with social cohesion, a vital step in responding to a crisis.”

Communities with high degrees of social efficacy are more likely to experience post-traumatic growth as opposed to internalising its suffering as chosen trauma. The need for social distancing creates a barrier in this regard, of course, but there are small measures we can do for the greater good.

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Resisting the desire to stockpile, remaining conscious of those whose dependency on social grants limit when they can shop, offering to help a vulnerable neighbour, calling a friend or relative to check up on them – even in self-isolation we can make a difference.

“One of the things about managing anxiety is that it is so internally focused,” says Stevens. “We try to manage it ourselves. It is crucial then to divert attention and energy outward. This is not altruistic. In doing so we are part of the galvanising process. We help ourselves by helping others.”

“This will help flatten the curve of the mental health effects,” adds Mogapi. “Our research shows that when you help others, it increases your own levels of mental wellness. Those who have experienced a traumatic event heal together. Our sense of meaning is elevated when this occurs.”

Finding meaning in the pandemic

In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor and Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl posits that life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most traumatic ones. Our goal is to find that meaning. Once we do, we can begin to heal.

Mogapi warns against wholeheartedly ascribing to Frankl’s position, especially in the South African context where a desire to find meaning in suffering has, in part, created an environment in which certain members of society have not taken responsibility for the traumas of the past. But the concept resonates with her on an individual level.

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“We learn about our elasticity in these moments,” she says. “We are able to stretch to places we didn’t know we could reach. The fact that we are all needing to stretch in some way might lead to positive change.”

Stevens warns that any positive effects will only materialise after things get worse. Businesses great and small are teetering. We are weeks away from realising the results of social distancing. Many more will die before we are able to take stock of the damage.

But hope endures. Nothing unites disparaging factions like a common enemy. We’re all asking the same question now: what will we be when it’s over? That depends on how we respond right now.

If you need advice or someone to talk to, visit and, or call the CSVR on 071 241 1831.

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