“Remember to wash your hands class…”


“Good morning class”. “Good morning Mrs Baker. How are you today?”, the choir of Grade five learners respond.  Mrs Baker looks into the eager eyes of her Grade five learners.  “I am well thank you class. Are you ready for the day?”, Mrs Baker asks. “Yes, thank you Mrs Baker”, the little eager beavers reply. Mrs Baker continues: “Today we are going to learn about hygiene.  Who knows what hygiene is?”, Mrs Baker asks the little ones. She suddenly sees a sea of hands going up, waving at her to give an answer. “Yes dear?”, she points at a little brown eyed boy. “It is when you have to wash your feet mam…everyday!”.  The entire class bursts out laughing. Mrs Baker develops an endearing smile on her face. “Do you think you only have to wash your feet every day?”, she looks at the little boy’s face. “Yes mam, my mom says so. But she also says your hands must be washed”, he answers with his chest out and a look of confidence on his tender face.  Mrs Baker continues: “And why do you think you have to wash your feet and hands every day?”. Again, she can see a sea of hands and she chooses a little lad who is almost on his feet, to answer. She nods with her head for him to answer. Ever so proudly he announces: “You have to wash your feet so that you don’t get smelly paws…my mom said so!”. The class roars with laughter and even Mrs Baker joins in the merriness of it all.  She eventually calms them all down and continues: “Yes, your moms are all correct. Hands and feet and even paws must be washed.  That is what we will learn about today class.  So, who knows, do we have to use soap when we wash our hands?” Again, she witnesses a sea of hands and smilingly wonders what she will hear this time around.

Before the Corona Pandemic, the brief conversation and introduction of hygiene to a class of Grade fives would seem quite normal.  However, if you think about it today, this conversation has been magnified and intensified to the point where we even panic if we did not wash our hands, especially if there was no soap involved.  The basic lesson to a class of Grade fives has become a gospel that we listen to every day. One that we also have to practice religiously every day.  The pandemic has increased anxiety and stress in many people.  Like a hurricane we have watched as it seemed that the world is spinning out of control.  The mental health of millions of people was impacted in alarming numbers.  All the while people are worried that something that may seem so small, like not washing one’s hands, could lead to contraction of the virus which may result in severe illness and even death. The messages of washing hands, disinfecting surfaces, wearing a mask and avoid touching one’s face, has become a global message as the world try to fight the corona pandemic.

Although the general population may experience high levels of stress and anxiety in the face of the pandemic, people suffering with a mental illness such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) may experience very high levels of anxiety and even have intensified symptoms of their own condition as they try to keep their behaviour under control in the pandemic.  The well-needed safeguards mentioned above can serve as triggers for someone living with OCD.  People fear that they have not washed their hands enough times or have been in close proximity to someone who may be carrying the virus and they have contracted the virus from this person or persons.  This could lead to worry over keeping daily routines or rituals and the possibility that the doctor may not be able to help.

Many people worry over the possibility that Covid-19 can cause OCD.  Mental health experts advise that OCD can be caused by many things such as changes in brain and or body chemistry, genetics, and habits learned over a period of time.  Experts in the field advise that the long-term pattern of OCD makes it unique and that it does not come on suddenly, even at the onset of something as daunting as Covid-19.  Although many people feel anxious about the coronavirus pandemic, the need to solve something through rituals and or compulsions (like in OCD), is absent.  People are able to focus on other things and take a break from worrying but will remember to follow the guidelines for keeping themselves and others safe in the pandemic.  For people suffering with OCD, it may not be so easy to rid themselves from the fear and anxiety coupled with compulsions.

For someone suffering with OCD, there are many ways to get relief when dealing with the requirements of the pandemic:

  • Remember, most people who get the coronavirus do not always have serious complications;
  • Follow the advice from health care professionals without over-doing certain activities like washing hands;
  • Get information from reliable sources and professionals;
  • Ensure that you remain in touch with trusted support structures and people who understand the mental health challenges that you experience.

For people not living with OCD, the following are useful tips to manage anxiety:

  • Follow the normal requirements for managing safe behaviour related to the corona pandemic – like washing hands, wearing masks and disinfecting surfaces regularly;
  • Maintain social distance but do not isolate and withdraw from other people as this may lead to depression;
  • Seek information from reliable sources and limit the time and exposure to social media and other platforms which may increase anxiety. Remain informed but work to lessen the anxiety caused by this exposure;
  • Create time for things that are enjoyable e.g., read a good book, listen to music, sing or dance, get some fresh air, watch a good movie and learn to laugh more while taking time to relax as well.

Experts in the field of Mental Health have cautioned that it may appear that the line between pathological behaviours and adaptive health and safety measures may have been blurred as the world responded to the Corona Pandemic.  Behaviours that may be symptomatic of a bigger mental health challenge such as repetitive washing and sanitising rituals, are now encouraged on a global scale by health authorities in an attempt to control the spread of the coronavirus. The stress and anxiety caused in lifestyle changes by the coronavirus is intense, and the impact thereof can not be undermined.  Mental Health experts advise that there is always help during this time and creating a support-list is a priority in coping with the demands of the corona pandemic.


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