“My psychiatrist just prescribed me Trazodone to help with the insomnia. I sure hope it helps. My emotions are fried from lack of proper rest,” 43-year-old Gigi Gabra wrote in a support group for COVID survivors experiencing prolonged symptoms. It’s been a month since Gabra tested positive for COVID-19. Across the world, a number of people like Gabra have spoken about COVID-19’s symptoms persisting for months on end, a phenomenon being referred to as “long COVID.”
“After the initial two weeks I started getting shortness of breath and lowered oxygen concentration levels. My lungs, which aren’t great to begin with, are stable but I am still battling to keep my oxygen from falling down,” Gabra, a resident of Illinois in midwestern America, told Re:Set. The bigger problem, Gabra asserted, was the effect on her mental health.
“After COVID-19, I began experiencing tremors with my anxiety. I’ve also felt a constant paranoia that the after effects of COVID-19 might be worse,” Gabra said. “My psychiatrist has me on a strong cocktail of drugs that should have me sleeping like a baby. Instead, I wake up at 2 every morning, usually from a nightmare, and can’t get back to sleep.”
“I have difficulty telling dreams and reality apart at times. I’ll bring up an event and be told it never happened, that it’s all in my head,” Gabra added.
She got support from her family, but she was worried about passing on the virus to them as well. “I’m pissed off,” she exclaimed, as she reiterated she had taken all precautions, always wore a surgical mask, washed her hands and rarely left her bubble, with the exception of doctor’s visits.
Studies have shown that around 10% of COVID-19 survivors stay unwell three weeks after contracting the virus, and a smaller proportion for months. Researchers aren’t sure why some people have persistent symptoms. Absent antibody response, inflammation and factors such as post-traumatic stress have been cited as possible reasons.
Everyday, hundreds of people take to support groups on social media to find others who have similar experiences of living with long COVID.
“Hi! I had COVID in April and am still suffering! I have no sense of smell, taste is off, lethargic all the time, suffer from headaches, I’m off at the moment with depression and anxiety, I’ve not been right since before I had COVID,” one user wrote in a long COVID support group on Facebook.
According to a group of public health specialists in the U.K.,“the mental health impact of the pandemic is likely to last much longer than the physical health impact.”
Last month, the World Health Organization released the results of a survey of 189 countries ahead of World Mental Health Day about government funding towards mental health. They reported that, “although 89% of countries reported that mental health and psychosocial support is part of their national COVID-19 response plans, only 17% of these countries have full additional funding for covering these activities.”
The same survey found a lack of increased funding with over 60% of the countries surveyed admitting to disruptions in their mental health services for vulnerable people and 67% in counseling and psychotherapy.
“I have difficulty telling dreams and reality apart at times. I’ll bring up an event and be told it never happened, that it’s all in my head”
Gabra, who is having to pay for her psychiatrist, feels let down by the American government. “I feel they have failed in their response and responsibility,” she told Re:Set. Nearly 270,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, with over 13 million infected.
In poorer countries like India, the services provided are even worse.
62-year-old Sudhir Malhotra, a general physician based in India’s capital, tested positive for COVID-19 in the beginning of June. His 58-year-old wife followed suit.
“We got lucky,” Malhotra told Re:Set. “We both lost our sense of smell and taste, had fever and body aches, but we survived. Psychologically, it wasn’t as bad as we isolated together. Many patients have struggled because they are just alone.”
Malhotra went back to work in July, and has seen families forcing those who have tested positive to isolate for months. Even if they don’t have prolonged physical symptoms, the toll on their mental health is up in the air.
“In a time when they need support and help, they are discarded as something less than human,” Malhotra explained. “I’m seeing more and more people lie about their symptoms, because getting a positive test is a jail sentence you don’t know when you’ll get out of. There isn’t much awareness of what happens once your quarantine is over.
He added that even in his case, the Delhi government called him only a couple of times in the first week after his diagnosis, but not after that. “[I June], information about the virus was still new, we didn’t know how to handle it, so it was scary. No one spoke about the psychological stress long term.”
Malhotra is sure he contracted the virus at work, but as a frontline worker, social distancing is impossible. He still has to get close to patients to examine them. “I was working confidently because I knew I had antibodies, but now studies are saying that they only last for three months, so I don’t really know.”
At work, everyday he sees someone walk in with body ache, chills, fever and/or cough, due to long COVID. “I prescribe little medication, but the bigger antidote is consolation, that eventually the symptoms will go away, because neither the government or family members are focused on it.”