Back home: reflections on social isolation in Brazil during the pandemic

At least two months ago, thousands of people in Brazil were impacted by the transformation of their life routines. With the adoption of social isolation by the governments of most municipalities in the country, due to the pandemic of the novel coronavirus, social displacement was substantially reduced and the rule became to stay at home. All this abrupt change in the daily lives of Brazilians did not happen without difficulties and various psychological sufferings, be it the mourning for the lost plans, the shock due to the restriction of freedom, or the new anxieties arising from an unknown reality that was beginning to emerge.

The psychiatrist and professor at the UFF School of Medicine Jairo Werner Júnior, who lived in isolation on his recent trip to Antarctica, highlights that this type of experience requires a “change of character”. There, he developed with his team the project Saúde Antar, which is part of the Brazilian Antarctic Program. Investigating the dimensions of mental health in Antarctic isolation, Jairo noted the importance of, in symbolic terms, “dressing up another outfit,” with which one begins to think differently, feel differently, to have a different purpose: “there we needed to put on equipment for the cold if we wanted to go out; here you have to put on masks and protect yourself in all ways. We had a professional purpose that made our character feel totally justified in terms of external limitations and conditions. It is no different in this context of the pandemic we are experiencing,” he explains.

Often the difficulty that confinement poses is greater when imagined than when experienced. When the situation is experienced, ways of adapting to this reality are being discovered.


Jairo Werner

Contrary to what many may think, according to the psychiatrist, fear and anxiety are part of the current moment and can protect us. “In Antarctica, these emotions impelled us to face dangerous situations properly, with the necessary protection. I, for example, went through tornado speed winds, with more than 100 kilometers per hour, that broke all the tents of our camp. If we were not prepared to face this, the outcome would be very bad. The same way here. We have to be aware and prepared to face this type of demand of the moment, being very careful with our routines, changing our character, setting schedules, sleeping and eating well,” he highlights.

Altogether, there were more than 100 hours of interviews, with more than 80 Antarctic mental health notebooks filled out and many reports made during the 40 days of isolation, experienced in three different environments — in the camp, at the station, and on polar ships. According to Jairo, from this experience, it was possible to understand some of the reactions that the whole team had since they were also the object of research. “In this double role, of researchers and subjects, we made a diary of humor, sleep, feelings, which we are already using, even in the care of our patients. All this work, therefore, is already having an immediate effect of monitoring aspects of life that are altered in any type of isolation, such as the one we are now experiencing.”

Jairo observes that, in the quarantine situation in Brazil, there is every kind of reaction on the part of individuals, once in contact with this new reality. Especially those who would most need to protect themselves “wearing new clothes”, and those who belong to risk groups: “While some are apprehensive, others tend to deny this condition as a way to face the anguish, which comes from insecurity. And insecurity arises when you don’t feel capable of facing something. You either enter into a situation of explicit anxiety or use some defense mechanism, such as denial, minimizing the problem, rationalization. The person tries to feel more powerful ‘oh, it won’t happen to me.’ We have to be very careful with that.”

Another difficulty faced is the restriction of travel around the city and the feeling of having been denied the right as a citizen to come and go. For Jairo, “this can bring some insecurity to some people, in the sense of not considering this situation bearable. But often the difficulty that confinement poses is greater when imagined than when experienced. When the situation is experienced, ways of adapting to this reality are discovered, and, being aware of what is happening, the physical and emotional repercussions are fewer. On the contrary, when the individual does not have the possibility to understand what is happening, he can enter a situation of stress, with possible very bad physical and psychological consequences.”

I keep thinking of couples who left early in the morning, met at night, on weekends they went to a party and kicked the can down the road what they didn’t like about each other. And now, their interaction is intense and new negotiations need to be done.


Vera Maria Vasconcellos

The researcher also points out that reactions to the situation of social isolation have been different according to age. A child, for example, still does not have a conceptual thought that will give the ability to understand the situation more widely. And its functioning will reflect the environment and the emotional state of those who live with it. According to Jairo, “the child needs to feel safe, have activities and the possibility to play.” For an adolescent, who is characterized by the search for differentiation, the situation of isolation probably brings many inconveniences. “It is common, for example, to have a distance within the isolation itself. Parents will have to, through dialogue, establish a balance between the new restrictions of reality and the adolescent’s desire to be free,” he explains.

The elderly, despite having a greater life experience, may find themselves in a situation of lack of support in life and of a lot of insecurity, especially if they do not have a family and home structure, live with physical limitations, or have no resources of health. In view of this reality, explains the psychiatrist, it is important to build support and solidarity networks, in order to protect them, but without underestimating them, that is, recognizing their ability to choose and discern. “This help needs to be very calibrated with the needs of the elderly. If, on one hand, he has more experience; on the other, it requires greater patience and generosity on the part of those around you. Our social responsibility to them, whether they are family members or not, is very large,” he emphasizes.

In addition to all these challenging issues faced by people during the quarantine period, the retired professor at the UFF Institutes of Psychology and Education, Vera Maria Ramos Vanconcellos highlights another one. According to her, the most difficult thing in this moment of social isolation is the experience of being alone with yourself. “Life has tumbled around the world. While here in Brazil we are dealing with a very delicate situation in terms of politics and public health, we are faced with the need to learn to live in our human limitations. I keep thinking of couples who left early in the morning, met at night, on weekends they went to a party and kicked the can down the road what they didn’t like about each other. And now, their interaction is intense and new negotiations need to be made. This is not easy. This whole experience puts us in front of the need to reframe ourselves. How are we going to live in this hour of vertigo? We still have some time ahead! May this experience serve to learn to deal with yourself and with the other, negotiating through dialogue the survival of all our needs.”

Vera points out that, despite all the abrupt changes in our way of life, the loss of freedom and security, there are also potentially positive aspects of these new experiences. “Children are experiencing something that can be very rich: they are living daily with father and mother, something they did not do for a long time. They begin to learn the limits of their parents, that a home has a routine, actively participating in it. They also learn that their loved ones are not perfect, they don’t have patience all the time, but they love them. What, for an adult, is seen as tedious work, can be a great discovery for the child. It is very beneficial for her to discover a world from the arms and affections of her family.”

Many creative ways have been invented to deal with this new reality, according to Jairo. And it is the coping attitude itself that makes it possible to create skills that were not imagined to exist. “I think it is essential that, when faced with a real fact, we see what are the most appropriate ways to face it. In the work carried out in Antarctica, we list some ways that individuals could use for this, such as seeking direct solutions to solve problems, using spirituality practices, seeking social and emotional support, developing partnerships, participating in voluntary cooperation actions, emphasizing the relevance of preventive activities, practicing physical activities, even if within limitations, listening to music, develop some skill or hobby. It is possible to create modes of mediation between the previous, the current, and the future reality. This rupture can be dealt with in a healthier way,” he concludes.


Photo credits: Pixabay

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