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TematicheCina e Indo-PacificoIs harsh Covid lockdown taking a huge toll on...

Is harsh Covid lockdown taking a huge toll on mental health in China?

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Although China has relaxed harsh Covid measures, in some of its provinces following youth-led, nation-wide protests the consequences of prolonged lockdowns and separation from family have led to unravelling of facts about mental illness that millions of Chinese nationals are currently afflicted with in the country. According to a WHO report, fifty-four million people in China experience depression and about 41 million suffer from anxiety disorders because of Covid measures.

“China’s lockdowns have had a huge human cost with the shadow of mental-ill health adversely affecting China’s culture and economy for years to come,” The Lancet, a highly reputed British medical journal said in its editorial in June. Millions of Chinese nationals have been confined for a protracted period because of restrictions under zero-Covid policy, being followed in letter and spirit by Chinese authorities. 

According to The Economist, suicides in Wuhan, the city where the virus was first identified, were 79% higher in the first quarter of 2020, when it was under lockdown than in the same period a year earlier. The British weekly magazine stated that a survey found more than 40% people were at risk of depression in Shanghai after lockdown was imposed in the financial hub of China in April 2022. Searches in Shanghai, resided by 26 million, for psychological counselling on Baidu, a Chinese search engine, rose by 253% that month, said The Economist in its report. In other parts of China, where lockdown has been equally severe, mental health has been a serious issue before the country’s National Health Commission. Although it has not officially released any data on suicidal deaths in the country in the last three years, the country is confronting horrendous facts related to psychological problems faced by people almost on daily basis. 

However, if rising mental health problems are benefiting any one section the most then it is psychiatrists. Even quacks and those with little experience are minting money out of the situation. As per an estimate, the total number of certified psychiatrists in China is more than 40,000, indicating that there are less than 3 psychiatrists per 100,000 population. And most of these psychiatrists work in the developed eastern coastal region of China, leaving the treatment gap for mental disorders in the country’s western and central regions. “China’s lockdowns have had a huge human cost with the shadow of mental-ill health adversely affecting China’s culture and economy for years to come,” The Lancet wrote in an editorial in June 2022. 

Since 2020, China has slapped partial and full lockdowns in several cities and provinces in order to stamp out Coronavirus. Chinese authorities argue that lockdown measures have saved lives, and to this regard they point towards low pandemic related deaths in the country where a total 15,986 people succumbed to infections in comparison to 6.6 million worldwide. The US alone has lost more than 1.08 million people. But China follows a policy prescription which stresses on “putting the people and their lives above everything else.” 

Ironically, local authorities impose strict lockdowns even if only a few Covid cases are found; mass testing is carried out in places where cases have been reported; people afflicted with virus are isolated at home, or placed under quarantine at government facilities; factories, businesses, educational institutions are closed in lockdown areas; lockdowns last until no new infections are reported. 

As of the end of November, about 412 million people in China, according to estimates by the Japanese investment bank Nomura, were in some kind of lockdown. That means almost a third of China’s total population spent their working time at homes due to lockdown. This has led to bringing about huge human and economic costs. Anxiety, depression, and panic disorder have caught young, elderly people, migrant workers in its octopus’ grip. Due to lockdown, people struggled to get access to food and emergency healthcare in cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Wuhan where authorities doubled down their efforts to curb Covid spread by sealing up buildings and locking down areas. According to South China Morning Post, in Shanghai and other cities, “people died while waiting for the nucleic acid test results they needed before they could receive medical treatment for diseases unrelated to the pandemic.” 
In particular, for school going children, Covid curbs have proved to be harsh and mindlessly awkward. During Shanghai’s lockdown, several school children were barred from returning home; even 15-year-old boys had to isolate themselves at hotels. They had to cook for themselves and did not have people to talk to. According to Current Psychology, a US journal, around 20% of Chinese junior and senior high school students during lockdowns experienced suicidal ideation. All this while, a Fudan University survey of around 4,500 young people conducted earlier this year showed that some 70% students expressed varying degrees of anxiety. If the above is not (yet) a health crisis, the situation is dire and shall be kept under control.

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