A New Paradigm: Living in Geneva in Pandemic Times
Posted on 9 Apr 2020
Study for a British university degree in Geneva

Because of the Coronavirus global health crisis, we now behave differently. Coping with all these changes can be stressful. Still, we continue to deliver under this new paradigm.

Every night at 9:00 pm my wife and I go out to the balcony of our apartment to join what has become a ritual: collective clapping to remember and commemorate the health workers on the front lines of the fight against the Coronavirus. Who would have said that the whole of Geneva –and the whole of Europe- would be celebrating government workers so publicly, in unison, with total accord, and in oneness of spirit? Who would have thought a few months back that we will be sharing our fears so intimately, that people are actually willing to change their group behaviour in a matter of days? No one. No one would have really expected that news coming from far away about a strange-sounding virus in China would become so local an intimate. We simply didn’t see it coming.

Because of the Coronavirus global health crisis, we now work differently, communicate differently, go out differently, conduct ourselves differently, even perhaps eat differently, as some of us are thinking if there would be scarcity of food and are tempted to go to the supermarket and buy extra just in case. For those of us working at the United Nations in Geneva, the closure of the Palais and all other buildings hosting UN agencies was a clear signal that things were serious. When the announcement came, we thought that it would be a matter of days or a couple of weeks, but now we came to the realization that it could be a couple of months, in the best case scenario. Europe is now the epicentre of what our own Dr. Tedros at WHO called a global pandemic, so aggressive in the scalation of infections and deaths that it has forced national governments to lock down entire countries.

A whole new lifestyle

And those drastic containment measures are taking a toll in Geneva. Not only in the number of cases and deaths but in the mental health of its citizens. In our particular case, amongst us. There are several colleagues that are distressed as the result of a difficult combination: increased work demands with decreased access to professional resources. And it is not only the massive teleconferencing and the diminished personal contact. It is also the forced adaptation to a new scenario in which we are forcefully combining several roles in a limited physical space: UN staff member, father/mother, spouse, counsellor, cook, cleaner, caregiver, etc.  Still, we continue to deliver, but we live in a new paradigm. As UN personnel we share an ethos that is manifested in our attitudes and aspirations, an idiosyncratic cosmovision that gives us a unique identity. We know ourselves as resilient people that can endure and strive under pressure. We can adapt rapidly and feel comfortable in the middle of a crisis. But a crisis like this has never occurred before. There is no precedent and that adds to the pervasive feeling of uncertainty.

Coping with all these changes happening in our lives can be stressful, to say the least. Navigating through them can have a serious impact on your mental health. After all, before the outbreak of this pandemic, we all had busy lives. We had routines that we followed, some of them without being consciously aware. It is not only the fact that we are now working from home and with limited capabilities. More than that, we need to actively adjust to a whole new lifestyle. And given the rapid speed with which the crisis escalated, and continues to escalate, we are hardly given any time to react. Fear and anxiety are expected in this situation, and they can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in anyone. How each of us reacts, however, can be quite different. Some may be experiencing changes in sleep patterns, difficulties falling asleep, fear and worries about their own health and the health of their loved ones. Others may simply feel lonely without the usual amount of direct social interaction.

Talk to any expert and they will tell you that all this is expected in a crisis. After all, this situation is new, it is unknown territory, and it puts a strong strain on your mental well-being. They will also tell you, that there are several rather simple things you can do in order to protect and improve your mental well-being. As a first step, it helps to be aware of the fact that a negative reaction to the situation is normal. It is expected to feel somehow scared, lonely, anxious, or even angry and bored. Give your body and mind time to adjust to this new situation. After all, you are adapting to a completely different lifestyle over the course of just a few days. Also don’t forget to take care of your body. Take deep breaths, stretch, or meditate. If you are religious, pray. I do that regularly and can attest to the positive difference it does in my life.

Preserving your mental health is crucial

In the middle of this new paradigm there is another stress factor that is all too common these days: the “infodemic”. Keep in mind that that too much of the wrong information can exacerbate anxiety. Facts, however, minimize fear. Most of us have been bombarded with information on COVID-19. No hour passes without a new headline, another WhatsApp message, a concerning phone call with a friend. The sheer amount of information alone certainly is reason enough for stress. But more than that, it makes us susceptible for fake news, rumours, fear mongering, or even scams. In practical terms, adjusting consciously to this ‘new normal’ can mean taking intentional breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including social media. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting. It is advisable to cut down on the amount of information you choose to ingest and to improve the quality instead. Rely only on trusted sources and try to tune out the rest. Essentially, there are two authoritative sources when it comes to news about the pandemic: one is the WHO and the other is your national authority. While different news outlets all over the world are trying to chase us with headlines, I invite you to be intentional about what you are reading and rely on trusted sources. Your mental health is important. You need it.

* Alex Mejia is the Editor-in-Chief of UN Today and Division Director at UNITAR.