Maldives lockdown takes heavy toll on mental health, sees threefold hike in patients

People seeking treatment for psychological problems as a result of the lockdown, amid growing stresses over isolation, job insecurity and economic hardship, have increased threefold, health officials in Maldives announced Saturday.

Dr Afiya Ali, the principle clinical psychologist at the main Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital’s (IGMH) Centre for Mental Health, told reporters that 999 people turned to the centre for treatment in the three months ending May against 330 a year ago.

She said a study was needed to identify the types of psychological problems most common amongst the patients.

Independent psychologists have also reported a rise in the number of people turning to them as they try to navigate the ongoing fear of the virus, the emotional impact of physical distancing and economic distress.

Psychiatrists around the world are concerned about stress linked to the fear of contracting Covid-19. Being cut off from family and friends, and disruption to normal health services, are also exacerbating existing mental health problems.

Earlier this month, the World Health Organisation warned that coronavirus “may never go away” and predicted a global mental health crisis caused by the pandemic was looming.

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The lockdown in Maldivian capital and its suburbs is one of the strictest and longest in South Asia.

Most families in capital Male share small flats with extended relatives due to skyrocketing rent and property prices in one of the world’s most densely populated cities, making the lockdown even harder for them.

As the country creeps out of lockdown after more than a month, the toll on mental health is beginning to become apparent.

During Wednesday’s press briefing, Dr Ali asked people to avoid the 24-hour news cycle on the pandemic and stick to official channels for verified information.

She also asked people to keep in touch with family and friends via modern technology, eat healthy and exercise more. Parents were also advised to keep their kids engaged.

The restrictions in the capital region are being eased in phases, with the first phase starting Thursday and lasting at least two weeks. Most restrictions remain in place for the fortnight.

On March 8, Maldives reported its first cases of the novel coronavirus, as two hotel employees tested positive for Covid-19 at a luxury resort in the archipelago.

Eighteen more cases — all foreigners working or staying resorts and liveaboard vessels except five Maldivians who had returned from abroad — were later identified.

A six-case cluster of locals, detected in capital Male on April 15, confirmed community transmission of the coronavirus. Several more clusters have since been identified, bringing the total number of confirmed case in the Maldives to 1,672.

Five deaths have been reported and 406 have made full recoveries. Five remain in intensive care.

The Maldives announced a state of public health emergency on March 12, the first such declaration under a recent public health protection law.

The public health emergency declaration has allowed the government to introduce a series of unprecedented restrictive and social distancing measures, including stay-at-home orders in capital Male and its suburbs, a ban on inter-island transport and public gatherings across the country, and a nationwide closing of government offices, schools, colleges and universities.

Non-essential services and public places in the capital such as gyms, cinemas and parks have also been shut.

Restaurants and cafes in the capital have been asked to stop dine-in service and switch to takeaway and delivery.

A nationwide shutdown of all guesthouses, city hotels and spa facilities located on inhabited islands is also in effect.

Photo: A file photo taken in 2019 shows the Centre for Mental Health at Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH) in Maldivian capital Male. PHOTO/ THE PRESIDENT’S OFFICE

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