In January 2020, the new programme Dutch Surge Support for Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) started. MHPSS provides quick response mental health and psychosocial support. Experts help during armed conflicts, violence, natural disasters, and refugee and migration emergencies. Despite the COVID-19 situation and worldwide lockdowns, expert Teresa Yamo Ombalo travels from Kenya to Ethiopia to help. In the coming period, we will follow Teresa in her work for MHPSS.
Looking back on a 14-day quarantine
Just as I arrive in Ethiopia, COVID-19 is declared a global pandemic. Travel restrictions follow quickly. The Ethiopian government issues a 14-day mandatory quarantine for incoming passengers. From Bole International Airport, my driver takes me straight to a hotel for quarantine. The costs of 14 hotel stays are unforeseen. From behind a transparent plastic screen, the receptionist tells me I am not to leave my room. Hotel staff will bring me my meals. If I need anything, I must call the guest relations desk. At that moment, I do not think much of it. Tired from the early morning flight from Kenya, I go to my room and unpack.
What it means to be all alone
The impact of the measures hit me later. I am hungry and want to leave my room. But then I realise I cannot step outside. I order room service and wait for my meal to arrive. The knock on the door is a welcoming sound. But the lady holding my tray is wearing a mask and gloves. She has to stand outside my door as I pick up my food. I cannot share any pleasantries with her as we have to keep our distance. I realise this is the first of many meals I will be eating in isolation.
A new reality
The only time I am allowed out of my room is when the cleaning crew comes in. The crew kindly ask me to stand on the balcony. It is easier to keep our distance this way.
I am happy that work keeps me busy, but I need a new work routine. I start by catching up on work from the previous coordinator. Then I meet my new colleagues for the first time. Not in person, but by telephone calls, Zoom and WebEx. I am proud to have completed an MHPSS action plan in quarantine.
How to stay in shape in isolation
I am an active person; I have various work out programmes on my computer. So I decide to make the best of the situation by exercising in my room. It is spacious enough for a good work out. Other times, I skip rope on my 6th-floor balcony. By the 7th day, the exercises bore me. I decide to push my luck with the hotel gym and call guest relations. I am not allowed to use the gym, but I thankfully accept the offer of dumbbells being brought to my room.
How to stay mentally healthy in isolation
After a few days, the room no longer feels spacious. The walls are starting to shrink on me. I feel more and more alone and notice my stress levels are rising. I find distraction in my work, talking to family and friends online and my daily exercises. To keep my sanity, I need distractions. I keep telling myself that every day I spend in my room brings me closer to my freedom. This keeps my emotions in check.
How to make the days fly by in isolation
Telephone calls with my family and friends keep me going. Their encouragements and support make the days fly by. My dad, however, is not buying this whole quarantine-as-prevention thing. He is convinced I am infected. It takes the entire family to convince him I am fine.
After 14 days, I am tested for COVID-19. My test results come back negative, meaning I am healthy. The first person I call to tell the good news is my father. With this certificate of good health, I am finally allowed out of my room and out of the hotel. As I walk out of my room, I cannot remember where the elevator is. Do I turn left or right? I realise I have spent too much time in isolation. Getting out of the hotel really feels like a deep breath of fresh air. I walk outside, feeling healthy, feeling free.
The irony of it all
My work is about giving people mental health support. Especially people in quarantine and isolation! This experience has one huge advantage: I can now relate to people. I know what they are going through. I know how they feel. And I can say so and truly mean it. After 15 days of quarantine, I can relate to their experiences, feelings and emotions.
A worldwide pandemic affects people. It raises fear, worry and concern. In particular, with older adults, care providers and people with underlying health issues. The main psychological impact is that stress and anxiety levels increase. People need routine in their activities. When these routines are limited, we see a rise in levels of loneliness, depression, harmful alcohol and drug use, and even suicidal behaviour.
When groups of people are affected, concerns for service access and continuity of care grow. This is especially the case for people with existing or developing mental health conditions. Concerns also grow about the mental health and well-being of frontline workers. The World Health Organization (WHO) has developed a document titled ‘Mental Health Considerations during COVID-19 Outbreak’. Key recommendations from this document to stay mentally healthy are:
- Stay connected with social networks,
- Pay attention to ones’ needs and feelings,
- Avoid too much information on COVID-19.
More about Teresa Yamo Ombalo
Teresa is an experienced MHPSS expert from Kenya. She works as a Technical Working Group Coordinator in Addis Ababa in support of the World Health Organization (WHO). It is her job to coordinate the MHPSS agencies, map MHPSS activities, share best practices, and build capacities of MHPSS actors and partners in other priority clusters that support the development of MHPSS policies. She also strengthens advocacy initiatives with the Government of Ethiopia, the humanitarian community and donors.