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On the right to be sick: the psychological consequences of COVID-19

how the pandemic is highlighting some critical social issues

Why can't I tell you

not to be happy?

I'm not less alive

I'm not less alive


- (Afterhours - Milano circonvallazione esterna)

Almost a year has passed since the first lockdown, caused by the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, changed the lives of Italians. And while the physical consequences of Covid-19 are now well known, the psychological repercussions for those who fall ill are still too often ignored.

The outbreak of the pandemic has confronted us with all our social and individual limitations. Each of us has reacted differently to the periods of closure, insecurity and health risks: some have taken advantage of the months spent at home to develop passions they did not even think they had, others have worked as hard as ever, and others have come to terms with forced inactivity for the first time, finding it more or less pleasant. Initially, the most widespread sentiment was the need to share, and the need that was sought to find an immediate response was that of feeling part of a community (through the live broadcasts on social networks, through the rituals followed by all - who now remembers the exact doses for preparing pizza dough? - through the applause from the balconies, through long ovations to the streets below, worthy of recognition as they are deprived of passers-by; no longer arteries of communication, but veins emptied of blood and life). Later, however, a terrible fact had to be faced: the virus was in circulation, and anyone could contract the disease. So there were no longer any friends with whom to share their knowledge through courses organised on their Instagram profiles, joggers or simple travellers on the same road as us: our neighbour suddenly became a potential vehicle of contagion, who by his unconscious meeting us on the road could put our lives at risk. It was no longer important to know who that person was, where he was going, what feelings he had when he crossed paths with us - other human beings, in turn other potential vehicles of contagion; nor did it matter that when we met an irresponsible person on the street, it was because we were on the street ourselves. Because, after all, we always had important things to do outside; our choice to go out was not dictated by selfishness or nervous exhaustion - like that of the irresponsible - but by urgent, compelling reasons. The only relevant thing, however, was the fact that anyone could endanger our fragile existence.

There are several studies that monitor the negative psychological effects of a prolonged pandemic on people, and these are already partly visible even to those who are not in the profession: increased anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviour, hypochondria, the inability to accept uncertainty as a fundamental part of our life on this planet are all symptoms that have registered a huge increase in recent months[1]. We used to believe that science had the answer to every problem, but those who are scientists have always known that knowledge is obtained by hypotheses and that mistakes are on the agenda. We, the rest of us, have only just discovered this, and in the worst possible way, and I am sure that many would have preferred the blissful ignorance of the cave to the blinding sunlight of awareness. Especially if seeing the sun means experiencing anxiety and cabin syndrome. The fact that medical science was unprepared for the new disease and the ways to cure it, and had to proceed by trial and error, while many of the national and international media screamed from their headlines creating an atmosphere of terror and reported with spasmodic attention the count of each death, making it a war bulletin, (because metaphors are never random and are meant to build up a mental image of the world[2]) and governments caught unawares were adopting all kinds of different solutions, peeking at each other to see which one worked best, has led us citizens with no direct decision-making power to discover that the world as we know it can collapse on us at any moment and that there are no people with a crystal ball who will tell us what to do in every situation.

Despite this, however, we did have some certainty: if we had been careful enough, if we had worn our masks properly, if we had washed our hands in the right way, if we had been far enough away from others, if we had not left the house unnecessarily and if we had not assembled and above all if we had avoided the nightlife, nothing would have happened to us. The dreadful disease that made people die in the Extended Cares and filled the intensive care units of hospitals would have seen us say goodbye unscathed.

But in spite of all the care we took, after doing everything in our power to stay safe and not risk our health and that of our loved ones, some of us still fell ill. And by 'some' we mean many, many individuals: 2,832,162 people to date[3] have tested positive for Covid-19 in Italy over the course of this long year. The author of this post represents, unfortunately, one unit of this considerable number.

Yet certainly many of those who have contracted the virus consider themselves responsible people. Perhaps many of them wore masks at all times, observed their rights and duties with regard to the colour of the areas they were in, avoided dinners and lunches with too many people, and especially avoided the nightlife; and still, in one way or another, they fell ill. And this caused a lot of problems.

Because too often the idea of homo faber fortunae suae has been exaggerated, to the point of becoming the foolish, or at least naive, belief that we can keep every single aspect of our lives under control. More than that, we must keep it: we are masters of our own destiny and completely responsible for it. And if man is his own god, then he is also obliged to be omniscient.

Not being omniscient has consequences: those who do not seem to have the reins of their existence firmly in their hands are often looked at with curiosity, benevolent paternalism, ill-concealed embarrassment. Like someone who really needs to grow up a bit. Because if you don't pay enough attention you risk making mistakes: like being weak and careless and falling ill with Covid-19, for example.

Unfortunately, there is also the fact that contracting the virus not only puts us at risk, but also everyone around us: family members, partners, friends and colleagues, all of whom we must distance ourselves from at any moment in order to avoid infecting them with the danger we have become carriers of. Particularly for those who have fallen ill with a 'milder' form of Covid-19, and therefore have not been hospitalised, the difficulties of living (even temporarily) with those who are negative, but who continually risk being infected, often cause fears and insecurities that have never been experienced before. Awareness of one's own body as something potentially dangerous is among them: who among us, before now, has ever really paid attention to what they touch? Being positive and living with others means instead sanitising the surfaces one comes into contact with, so that the virus cannot remain there long enough to find its next host organism. This new awareness of one's own body risks making it almost a foreign object, something to be feared, because it can infect others: it thus becomes something dangerous, detestable and guilty.

There is also the risk of social stigma: testing positive for Covid-19 necessarily leads to the right physical isolation to protect others. On the other hand, it is not necessary, nor required, to feel afraid of someone who is ill: even if they are - momentarily - a person with whom it is a good rule to maintain a certain social distance, this does not make them a plague spreader to be discriminated against. And yet, in moments of maximum anxiety about one's own health, one often forgets that the sick person, before being a person, is a person, worthy of attention and of recognition of his needs. The psychological disorders mentioned above (anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, hypochondria), which have found fertile ground in the minds of many people during these months of uncertainty, often make it much more difficult to see the other person as someone to be cared for, because in moments of panic the desire to survive overcomes any empathic feeling.

If someone else close to you turns out to be positive for the virus, you (very often) develop a sense of guilt for having infected them. The fear that one's own hypothetical mistake may have endangered others becomes for many people an intrusive thought that occupies the mind, and drives them to spasmodically retrace every single movement they made before discovering they were infected. ‘What could I have done wrong?' is the question that many people who have tested positive for the virus ask themselves, and it can become an obsession. This thought can also lead to a sense of shame, which causes the person who discovers that he or she has been infected not to inform all the people who may have been infected, thereby encouraging the further spread of the virus. The positive person then has to choose between admitting his or her weakness and hypothetical lack of care by revealing the result of the swab and keeping the news hidden, but feeling guilty about the risks involved. The fact that someone has to feel uneasy about confiding their (supposed) mistake is a symptom of a society that does not allow weaknesses, but which now, by pushing some people to conceal their illness for fear of the judgement of others, is suffering the brunt of this misguided approach.

In conclusion, therefore, it seems clear that the psychological consequences of this pandemic will be as severe and long-term as the physical ones. However, it must be added that many of these issues did not appear out of nowhere with the outbreak of the pandemic: they were already present in a more or less latent way in most of the people who now suffer so obviously[4]. Could this be an opportunity to reinvent a society in which showing one's weaknesses does not make one 'less alive' but on the contrary 'more human'?



[1] https://www.internazionale.it/reportage/annalisa-camilli/2020/12/10/effetti-psicologici-pandemia

[2] https://www.valigiablu.it/coronavirus-giornalismo/

[3] https://www.rainews.it/ran24/speciali/2020/covid19/ (updated at February, 24 2021)

[4]https://www.fondazioneveronesi.it/magazine/articoli/lesperto-risponde/ci-si-puo-sentire-in-colpa-per-essersi-ammalate-di-cancro

Translated by Francesca Cioffi

Original version by Simona Sora

The sources used to edit this article can be consulted freely:

https://www.corriere.it/salute/neuroscienze/20_dicembre_04/senso-colpa-chi-teme-aver-portato-virus-casa-82a50542-21d2-11eb-a759-aabb3b0952b2.shtml

https://www.fondazioneveronesi.it/magazine/articoli/lesperto-risponde/ci-si-puo-sentire-in-colpa-per-essersi-ammalate-di-cancro

https://www.ipsico.it/news/senso-di-colpa/

http://www.oti-italy.com/2019/02/20/le-reazioni-psicologiche-alla-malattia/

https://www.sarapuosipsicologa.it/coronavirus-e-senso-di-colpa/

https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/un_policy_brief-covid_and_mental_health_final.pdf

https://www.healthline.com/health-news/why-some-people-feel-guilty-after-testing-positive-for-covid-19#How-to-cope

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7669543/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7669543/#B15

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/p...

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/p... https://www.internazionale.it/reportage/annalisa-camilli/2020/12/10/effetti-psicologici-pandemia

https://www.valigiablu.it/coronavirus-giornalismo/

https://www.rainews.it/ran24/speciali/2020/covid19/ 

https://www.fondazioneveronesi.it/magazine/articoli/lesperto-risponde/ci-si-puo-sentire-in-colpa-per-essersi-ammalate-di-cancro


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  • L'Autore

    Simona Sora

    Laurea triennale in Lettere Moderne ad indirizzo storico, laurea magistrale in Antropologia Culturale ed Etnologia. Nel 2014 ha fatto volontariato in un pueblo delle Ande peruviane perché voleva sapere cosa si prova ad essere straniera; nel 2018 ha fatto ritorno sulla stessa catena montuosa, seppur in diversi confini nazionali, per scrivere una tesi sul rapporto tra volontari italiani e campesinos, o forse solo per fare di nuovo ricerca su sé stessa.

    Nella vita ha fatto la receptionist di un ostello in Portogallo, la cameriera a Brescia, la promoter sul lago di Garda, la commessa a Milano, tenendo sempre le orecchie e gli occhi ben aperti su tutto quello che le capitava intorno.

    Da grande vorrebbe continuare ad ascoltare le storie delle persone, per fare esperienza del mondo attraverso i loro occhi; vorrebbe prendere un’altra laurea cambiando completamente ambito o forse discostandosi solo di un po’, perché studiare le piace tanto e le piace anche spaziare tra le conoscenze, e vorrebbe anche scrivere.

    Si sente sempre un essere umano in costruzione.

    In Mondo Internazionale è autrice di pezzi per il progetto TrattaMI Bene e revisore di bozze.

    Bachelor’s Degree in Modern Literature with a major in history, Master Degree in Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology. In 2014 she volunteered in a pueblo in the Peruvian Andes, because she wanted to understand what it is like to be a stranger; in 2018 she returned to the same mountain chain, although in different national borders, in order to write her thesis about the relationship between Italian volunteers and Campesinos, or maybe just to research herself again.

    She worked as a receptionist in a hostel in Portugal, as a waitress in Brescia, as a promoter on Garda lake and as a shopping assistant in Milan, and she have always kept her hears and eyes opened to see all the things around her.

    When she will grow up, she would like to keep listening about people’s stories, to experience the world through their eyes; she would like to pursuit a new degree in something completely new, or maybe in something just a little different from her degrees. She loves studying and learning different subjects too. She would also like writing.

    She always feels herself like a constantly evolving human being. In “Mondo Internazionale” she writes articles about DirittiUmani and she proofreads articles.

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