So many ‘new’-s have together spawned off new narratives. Some of which are raising old
demons or creating new problems. This was one of the talking points during an afternoon chat on
‘Building resilient families and children’ with Aketa Chanda of Child Fund, India, Drs. Nayreen
Daruwalla and Rama Shyam of SNEHA, and Rebecca Chandy of ResilienceWorks – where this
larger topic was explored in reference to children, adolescent girls, and women. The panelists
covered two narratives that are creating new problems for the social and emotional well-being
of these groups – first, on the “social distancing”, and second on specific mental health issues.
The concept of “Social Distancing” has created a web of blame game, often targeted against
vulnerable groups. For example, migrants who have taken arduous journeys to reach back to
their native lands find themselves between a rock and a hard place, being blamed for the spread
of Covid-19. They are shunned, maligned and excluded by their very own communities. While
ground-level social initiatives have endeavored to break social barriers, the pandemic has
resurfaced our biases as only certain groups are shouldering the blame, groups usually
discriminated against on the basis of their castes, income, profession, etc. They are being
excluded either for no fault of their own, or because of stereotypes emerging out of the
behaviors of a few. The term ‘social distancing’ takes on a very different meaning for these
people. The panelists could not stress enough the need to replace this narrative of “Social
Distancing” with “Physical Distancing” to communicate that inclusion of all – more so during
these trying times – is imperative, as long as the physical distance is adequately maintained.
The difference between “social distancing” and “physical distancing” can be felt in how we are
affected psychologically. In fact, physical distance alone could be psychologically challenging in
more than one way. The pandemic has shone a spotlight on mental health issues. Now, more
than ever, people are cognizant of mental health issues, talking about it and accessing support.
This change is resulting in lowering of the associated stigma. Yet, this new narrative has also led
to two challenges. First, for some specific disorders like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) –
people with compulsive hand washing, behaviors who needed to be supported to reduce
handwashing. Now, the message that frequent handwashing is a must is creating dissonance for
these individuals, their counsellors and caregivers. Secondly, while there is a greater openness to
accessing counselling for mental health, there is a dearth of qualified professionals to provide
guidance and care. Earlier it wasn’t viewed as a primary medical discipline, so there is a gap
between the demand and supply of qualified service providers.
Covid-19 has offered an opportunity to build back better. But not if the new narratives and
perspectives foster inequalities for vulnerable communities, which, already stark, would only get
more pronounced. More pronounced also would be mental health issues, if the opportunities
presented by Covid-19 related to the relatively greater acceptance of mental health aren’t
seized and availability of services spruced up. In the face of these narratives and perspectives,
we revive the demons of the past that will cast shadows on the future wellbeing of all vulnerable
communities in general, and of children, adolescent girls and women in particular.