The emotional trauma of Covid-19 is similar to what people are experiencing in conflict and war-torn areas. The trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic is now so pervasive, we now know someone who is affected by it, or we are personally affected by it.
At this point, we have lost someone close to us, or someone close to us has lost someone to the virus. We also know people who lost their jobs and even their homes. These effects are becoming “normal”, and this is blunting our emotions. Our emotional response is not what it was at the beginning of the pandemic.
Since people are carrying a lot of trauma, it seems as though employers do not understand this. Or they do understand, but they care more about the bottom line than the employees. Employees are expected to function optimally and be their old selves as before the pandemic. But they are not. They are hurting and are dealing with loss at a grand scale.
In South Africa, the debate is between saving lives or saving the economy, which one should we prioritise. If we prioritise people, the economy suffers, and more people will lose their jobs. If we prioritise the economy, more people will die. The end result of both scenarios is loss. The debate has become personal because it is expected of people to lose something.
Our situation in South Africa is definitely a result of the global political economic system. Governments have bought into the fallacy that economic growth results in jobs. Hence economic growth and tax breaks are prioritised when drawing up national budgets. However, poverty is never the priority. The view of economists in South Africa is that poverty reduction and alleviation are the results of economic growth. That is a fallacy because South African economic growth thrives on cheap labour and unemployment. The postapartheid economy is no different from the apartheid or colonial economies. They are structurally the same.
However, I do not see us fix the global political economic system in my lifetime. But organisations can at least, during the COVID-19 pandemic, recognise the grand scale loss and support their employees more effectively. For example, something that is at least more thoughtful than an email about alcohol abuse during the pandemic.
I know many staff who are working from home and are now working more than they have before. Some are expected to be available 24/7. They are using their electricity, water and their homes as office spaces. They are also not compensated for these expenses. Their homes have become their places of work, and places of mourning. They are now trapped in this environment 24/7. They are burnout, and there is no psychological break for these employees.
Given this, I am advocating for a better and more thoughtful response to employee wellness. Employee wellness must now be the focus at work. Employers’ response must be one that will give them hope and help them deal with the loss. A response that will help them overcome the pandemic at a psychological level. If not, the psychological effects of the pandemic will be around even after everyone are vaccinated.