Mental Health Implications of SARS-CoV-2

While chairing a virtual trans-Atlantic research consortium, an SMS indicating “You were near someone who has shared their positive diagnosis. You were near this person on the 27th May 2021” flashed across my screen. My breast cancer remission status instantaneously gripped me with the fear of being infected with SARS-CoV-2. My brain was no longer in attendance at the meeting; the traumatic news left me unable to focus. It is likely that I was experiencing high levels of anxiety and a panic attack of sorts. I proceeded with the virtual meeting; turning off my camera was the only way I knew how to camouflage my anxiety.  I paused to consider why I hid my news and related anxiety. The text message left me exhausted and to be honest, unable to eat or sleep for days. Over the next two days, the work began accumulating.  I had no choice so I tried to ignore my anxiety and panic, by working tirelessly, without any healthy sleep or exercise routine. Sleep patterns and exercise routines have a significant impact on wellbeing, and mental health.

My panic and fear I believe is rooted in the tragic deaths of South Africans Zindzi Mandela, Professor Vishnu Padayachee, Minister Jackson Mthembu, Roopie Bugwandeen, Omi Nair, Jabu Mabuza, Satish Dhupelia, Professor Yusuf Karodia and Karima Brown. The frequency of death has exposed the frailty of human life. On the 17th June 2021, South African data indicated 58 323 SARS-CoV-2 deaths and global statistics revealed 3 858 704. Each death saw a family member, friend, colleague, brother, sister, child, parent and community mourn the end of a loved one’s life.

The frequency of death, and physical distancing in particular has seemingly desensitised individuals and communities to its tragedy and finality. Durkheim emphasised the significance of mourning rituals in maintaining and sustaining social order. SARS-CoV2 safety protocol impose limitations on how we mourn, and offer support to significant others, which is a formula for anomie.

South Africa has gazetted safety regulations which include funeral guidelines limiting mourner attendance at night vigils. When the deceased’s friends, colleagues and family forgo the closure obtained from funeral attendance, this can lead to emotional trauma. Notwithstanding the authentic scientific knowledge that fortifies SARS-CoV-2 safety protocols, the disruption to mourning adversely impacts human emotions and long-term post-pandemic resilience, renewal and mental health experiences.

Operationalising social distancing and physical alienation, the SARS-CoV-2 safety protocol has resulted in an escalating number of clinical diagnoses and treatment for anxiety, stress, burnout and depression. If SARS-CoV-2 has at this late stage failed to compel us to personally address the secrecy and ignominy with which we treat mental health conditions, we are  ill-equipped for the devastating long-term mental health implications resultant from the pandemic. The SARS-CoV-2 lockdown protocol has exacerbated hunger, self-harm, child trafficking, unemployment, gender and sexual violence, child abuse, substance abuse and suicide rates. It has altered personal and community circumstances significantly across the globe. While travel restrictions may have slowed down child trafficking, increases in gender-based violence and child abuse have been of paramount concern across the globe.

Physical human contact produces neurochemical and hormonal changes in the body and the long-term impact of its absence has not yet been understood. Isolation and physical distancing have been identified as normative and conventional responses to mitigate the proliferation and mutation of the deadly SARS-CoV-2 virus. Nonetheless, comprehensive and ancillary scientific studies focused on the absence and effects of human touch must be considered, across age and development stages. Mental health vulnerabilities do not discriminate; depression, anxiety and related conditions impact every one of us.

Frontline health care workers face frequent occupational trauma associated with the fatalities of patients and colleagues. Efforts to humanise significant loss amongst medics required innovation at the outset in an effort to preserve mental wellbeing. Lenmed psychiatrist Dr Shen Govender responded to the call and operationalised the first mourning guard of honour for frontline workers. This innovative and effective practice has become increasingly popular in hospitals across the globe, offering mourning alternatives and displays of respect for the deceased.

Statistics cannot be analysed in isolation from the resultant mental health implications.  Inadvertently, SARS-CoV-2 has compelled academics to modify their approaches and analyses of an increasingly vulnerable society. As a clinical sociologist, I have fostered SARS-CoV-2 research partnerships with extraordinary women from Tokyo, Croatia, France, UK, USA, Brazil, India, Nigeria and Finland. These interactions have exposed the expansive Stress and Mental Health Implications of SARS-CoV-2. The importance of interdisciplinary research during unprecedented times calls for innovation and collaboration to identify significant challenges experienced by women in particular. It offers opportunities to design collaborative clinical models that respond to significant social problems that intersect at multiple SARS-CoV2 levels. Collaboration include but not limited to clinical and applied sociology, psychiatry, bio-medical models, social psychology and neuroscientific theories. The concept of existential confidence during the pandemic has helped identify the impact of distinctive mental health challenges for women.

In an effort to lead innovation and change, an inter-disciplinary trans-Atlantic team of women scholars has been assembled to conduct research on SARS-CoV-2 mental health and wellbeing with an emphasis on resilience and recovery.  Global South intersections that require urgent consideration include the digital divide, gender, economic and food insecurity, migrants, disability, healthcare and the short- and long-term mental health implications of SARS-CoV-2 in its entirety. The critical cautioning for future research is the essential need to develop prevention strategies, recovery systems and renewal initiatives between the global North-South. The contestations must focus on pandemic resilience, renewal and recovery of society.

Professor Mariam Seedat-Khan CCS

Department of Sociology,

University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa


Professor Mariam Seedat-Khan is an internationally certified clinical sociologist who is based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), Durban, South Africa. She is a member of the UKZN-IMBOKODOWomen in leadership Board. In 2020 the UKZN Vice-Chancellor named Professor Seedat-Khan as one of five UKZN “phenomenal women” for founding Simply Managing Academic Related Tasks. SMART is a clinical learning tool  that assists students who experience learning disorders. She is also an Executive of the International Sociological Association (ISA RC-46); the South African Sociological Association (SASA) Working Group Convener, Clinical Sociology; a Board member of the Association for Applied and Clinical Sociology (AACS); and a member of the Canadian Sociological Association (CSA).  Professor Seedat-Khan is a visiting professor at Taylor’s University in Malaysia.