White flags: The most courageous act in the pandemic

Under the scorching afternoon sun, Maznan Omar was about to experience the longest forty-five minutes of his life. “I have been with the police for about 35 years and this is the first time I have experienced such an incident,” he said.

A 16-year old teenage girl, in a pink blouse and blue jeans, sat at the edge of the Kuala Lumpur-Karak Highway.

Maznan approached her from the back and spent several minutes persuading her to step down. But the girl remained quiet. “I was worried… she might jump.”

The firemen had spread the salvage sheet below the flyover to catch her in case she jumps. But Maznan, a ranked Sergeant Major, knew that the safest choice was for him to pull her onto the road.

His small steps to the girl, however, betrayed him. The more he talked to her and the closer he walked to her, the more restless she seemed. So he needed to distract her.

“I told her that since she did not want to speak, I had decided to leave. I brought out my handphone on the pretext of answering a call before slowly walking towards her back.”

When she turned her head, Maznan sped towards her and pulled her onto the road before other policemen came to help. His racing heart finally slowed down when he was sure that the girl was safe and sound.

But as he saw the face of the girl up-close for the first time, his heart sank. The father-of-four realised that “she was the same age as my youngest daughter.”

The pandemic brain for all and a worse pandemic brain for the poor

On 16 March 2021, Maznan Omar, the Bukit Tinggi police station chief, prevented a girl, who was suffering from depression, from being a statistic in the country’s rising suicide rates. She gave the country’s daughter a second chance at life.

The pandemic has been bad for everyone. After living under intense fear, stress, and uncertainty for at least 15 months, we now have a “pandemic brain”. The pandemic is a collection of many simultaneous stressors that have been “compounded by disruptions in our physical activity, daily rhythms, and routines, and stretched out over many months,” said neuroscientist Mike Yassa.

“We’re all walking around with some mild cognitive impairment,” Yassa said. Chronic and perpetual stress – even microdoses of unpredictable stress – would likely lead to changes in the brain regions that control executive function, learning, and memory.

You start to walk in a room and forget why. You have trouble concentrating. You struggle to keep a routine you have comfortably maintained for years. You forget names and faces. You forget how to tie a tie. You forget what it was like to walk in a shopping mall without feeling fearful of contracting a virus from someone.

Some psychologists call it the “fog of forgetting”. Some call it “languishing” – a feeling of blah or meh that is joyless and aimless, heavy and muddy.

That is the best case scenario for us – the privileged – who could still “work from home… [have] a support network, a savings account, decent Wi-Fi, and plenty of hand sanitisers”. Now, imagine having a pandemic brain when you lost your income or you have been terminated from your jobs.

Your “languishing” or “meh” becomes anxiety or depression.

Akin to losing a loved one

The first five months have been the worst for Malaysians’ mental health. The Health Ministry’s hotline has received122,328 calls, and most of them related to the psychological effects of loss of jobs and incomes, fights between family members, marital problems, and abuse. Suicide numbers for this year has also come close to 3 tragedies-a-day.

Longitudinal studies of the survivors of once-in-a-century crises like the Chernobyl explosion, 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Hurricane Katrina showed that anxiety and depressive episodes from collective and sustained grief stayed with them for a long time. Past pandemics like the Spanish Flu of 1918, SARS of 2003, Ebola of 1976, as well as economic recessions, have been found to increase the risk of suicides.

The first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic saw an initial decline in suicide rates as there was a higher sense of coming-togetherness among people. But this rapidly increased as the second and third waves carry on.

Losing a job is akin to the death of a loved one. The feelings of self-blame, guilt, shame, and inertia worsen into an incredible sense of hopelessness. This condition can be highly debilitating, and that explains why the vast majority of people with depression do not seek help – they simply could not.

This is worse in an Asian context like Malaysia where there still is stigma, lack of understanding, or condemnation against mental illnesses.

When depression pushes a person into the “dark and confining space”, and chases the person like a “dark monster” that does not let go, it is hard to just snap out of it. When your savings account falls to single digit, your renters are chasing for overdues, your children are crying from hunger, and you do not know when you would be able to work and collect a paycheck again, hope feels like an abstract concept.

Going online to look for organisational support, picking up a phone to call someone, or pleas for help are out of reach and almost impossible. “I don’t know what else to do,” we always hear – their choices start to close, until it feels like none is left.

Our white flags in the sky

In that revolving darkness, sometimes you find a slither of energy, if you’re lucky. You find a white flag, and you have enough energy and courage to hang it on the gate of your house – you give yourself one chance to live another day. A white flag becomes your tool of survival, a departure from a state of helplessness to a state of being helped.

A white flag draws a line between who you were and who you want to be. You give up being a person who is ashamed by events outside of your control; you become a person who accepts the help of others and passes it on to those who need.

That evening, your white flag stands tall in the evening sun that turned red, orange, and purple. You watch the horizon as the fire continues to burn what is left in raging flames. Finally, the night starts to darken the sky, and the white flag becomes the only light left in the universe.

How could anyone, with half a heart, deny, criticise, or tear down the white flags of our lives?

(Malaysiakini: https://m.malaysiakini.com/columns/581730)


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