Minju Jung By: Minju Jung
Doctoral Researcher in Politics and International Relations
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14 Jul 2020 : The pandemic and mental health: Are we wasting time again?

It was about a dacade later after the financial crisis hit South Korea in 1997 that I read Durkheim's Suicide (1897). At that time, my country had been still suffering from economic recession, and many people committed suicide due to financial difficulties and depression. I merely remember the details of the book. But I remember that I agreed with him that suicide is a result of social factors and, that high level of anomies causes the high level of anomic suicide.

Many South Koreans are mentally ill. South Korea is notorious for its highest suicide rate among the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) (26.6 deaths per 100,000 people in 2018). This rate is much higher than that of the UK (11.2 deaths per 100,000 people). There are many reasons for this high suicide rate. But financial difficulty, caused by a poor job market, and unsupportive social and welfare system, are among the biggest reasons.

South Korea is a competitive society. Many people suffer from job insecurity and endure injustice and unfairness in the workplace. People work 50 hours a week on average, and to a large extent, work-life balance is ignored.

Perhaps, every economically advanced country, having low economy growth rate, may be competitive as well. However,  the transition of South Korea to a high-competitive society was sudden and dramatic. Until the 1997 financial crisis hit the country, they had enjoyed a flourishing economy. The economic growth rate in 1995 was 9.2%, and Korea joined the OECD in December 1996.

But, in 1997, Korea faced a foreign-exchange crisis. This crisis happened because foreign exchange reserves had run out due to the expiration of short-term debts of foreign capital taken by domestic companies, and the rapid outflow of foreign capital from the country. At the end of 1997, the government declared a sovereign default and asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout. South Korea had to endure the draconian measures, imposed by the IMF imposed to do a massive restructuring.

I consider the 1997 Asia Financial Crisis as a 'singularity' that put South Korea into a whole different (uncontrollable and irreversible) path in its history. The impacts of the financial crisis were huge in every sector of the country and influenced peoples’ lives in all its aspects. In particular, its impact on the economy was massive. It caused large scale unemployment and mass bankruptcy. Many companies closed their businesses or minimised their employment and investment plans. It was common for people to lose their job in a moment’s notice. People got depressed, and I believe, South Koreans have not yet fully recovered from the fear of the economic recession.

The 1997 Asian financial crisis changed the mentality of South Koreans significantly. Before the crisis, people worked hard to overcome national poverty. Whereas, after the crisis, people worked even harder just to keep their job. Now, it has become common that the business sector cuts jobs in efficiency, carelessly. Also, working conditions are poor, and injustice in the workplace and poor working conditions are prevalent.

South Korea could never get back to the normal that they assumed to be as ‘normal’ before the financial crisis. And the public became chronically mentally ill.

I have been seeing the similar signs that threaten public mental health in this COVID-19 crisis. Due to the prolonged pandemic situation, the economy around the world has been downturned. Many companies have been facing not only economic recession but also have been fighting for their survival in the market. People have been losing their jobs in a day without plans or alternatives. They are left in uncertainties. Sporadic local infections and self-isolation may worsen this job insecurity. It seems obvious that the impacts of the pandemic are so massive that the government’s bailout cannot save the UK economy. The lives of many people may change and have been changed suddenly in significant and unexpected manners.

Besides, in due course, it might appear that the pandemic has increased social inequalities in terms of education and income. This is highly likely to happen because, for example, during the lockdown, rich parents are likely to educate their kids with personal online tutors, whilst education for many students is stagnant.

We wasted time during which we had to prevent the transmission of the virus into our territories. The outcome of unpreparedness was tragic. It has caused an economic recession, an increase in the number of confirmed cases and deaths from the virus. I am worried that we may be wasting time again, which can be used to prepare our societies to minimise the impacts of the pandemic on public’s mental health.

I am concerned that the massive and significant social and economic changes, caused by this pandemic, could put people into a deep depression, causing public mental health problems. As a result, it would result in an increase in the anomic suicide.

The first thing to do to reduce these risks is, perhaps, to dismiss our expectation that we can get back to our life before the pandemic. This will help us not to waste time. I believe that we should accept the fact that massive social disruption and enormous changes in our lives are inevitable and unavoidable. 

Simultaneously, we need to review existing social systems and build social safety nets to minimise the repercussions and the negative impacts of the pandemic on public mental health. In particular, we need to pay real attention to how working conditions change and what impacts it may put on human rights on mental health. Social stigma and loneliness should be addressed, too. Besides, we should build an atmosphere where people can freely share their depressions to each other. People should be able to talk and express their emotions and concerns to their friends and family (and to the public) in an open manner. By doing these, we can create strong bonds among people, and I hope we can avoid severe mental depressions of a whole society.

This pandemic may be recorded as a 'singularity' to many countries and societies. We may never get back to the old ‘normalcies'. Hence, we need to think about how our society can deal with the impact of the pandemic on the new ‘normalcies’ (i.e. massive dismissal, high unemployment, increasing social inequalities etc.). Some may argue that it is late because the economic recession has already begun. For me, no, it is not late yet because the pandemic and its impacts may last for a much longer time.

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