As local cases of COVID-19 mount, the public response has ranged along a spectrum that goes from irresponsible dismissal and reasonable concern to deep anxiety and outright panic.

As we have emphasised before in these columns, calm and reasoned action is needed on both community and individual levels to protect the elderly, chronically sick and other members of society who are prone to suffer the most from his disease.

In some ways, the virus is a test of empathy among the healthy. If they choose to be very careful and mindful of their fellow citizens who are most likely to succumb to COVID-19, then the coronavirus will prove that solidarity is a value very much alive and well in Maltese society.

In fact, if the public continue to cooperate – at a level which health minister Chris Fearne said he was happy with in his interview with Times of Malta yesterday – then the hope is that this country will join others like Singapore and Hong Kong in making a relative success out of its fight against the disease.

However, the dire ramifications of this crisis are not only related to health and the economy. There is a third prong, or sting in the tail: its effect on psychological well-being.

We also reported yesterday on the stress-inducing and anxiety-exacerbating effects of the bombardment of news and information, in a story dealing with the increasing demand for mental health chatlines and helplines.

Patients with co-morbid mental disorders, including addictions and anxiety, are especially vulnerable.

Furthermore, the enforcement of measures like contact-tracing, case isolation and mandatory quarantine, which form part of global public health responses to the outbreak, can tend to bring on feelings of anxiety, guilt, shame and stigma in those subject to the measures.

And while health professionals around the world, among them those caring for patients with COVID-19, are especially brave in times like these, they too are more prone to mental health problems, in part arising from the fear of contagion and spreading the virus into their homes and communities.

How can Malta respond to these particular challenges of the outbreak?

Mental halth professionals and organisations, including NGOs, must work as a multidisciplinary team to share information, training and resources among national (hospital), regional (health care centres/polyclinics) and communal levels (community practices). Together, a mental health plan can be developed that supports members of the public, patients and health workers whose mental resilience may be buckling under the strain of this unprecedented crisis.

Dignified psychiatric treatment is equally crucial. Government investment in appropriate therapeutic services and facilities, which are needed in local communities, would provide essential assistance.

We should keep in mind the effect of anxiety on the people around us. A degree of worry is to be expected and is even needed, but too much anxiety has a disturbing influence. When threats are uncertain, such as in the current coronavirus situation, people can easily overestimate the actual threat and underestimate their ability to cope with it. While a degree of anxiety performs an alarm function, directing the individual to take a situation seriously, felt in the extreme it can become mindless panic.

The only way to deal with the virus is by working across our differences, supporting one another, and looking out for the most vulnerable, sick and isolated members of society, as well as those most likely to suffer economic impacts.

Likewise, out sympathy and support should also be extended to those who may not be coping very well with the psychological stresses imposed by the novel coronavirus.

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