CFO and CHRO Community Conversation explores mental health during times of unrest

Dr Chris van Straten and Dr Stavros Nicolaou highlight the impact of Covid-19 and the civil unrest on mental health.

As South Africa struggles with the third wave of Covid-19 and the civil unrest across the country, CFO South Africa and CHRO South Africa brought together leading finance and HR professionals to talk about the mental health impact crises like these can have on people.

International SOS regional medical director of clinical governance for Africa Dr Chris van Straten opened the discussion, saying that mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression and burnout have been on the rise even before the pandemic.

Many organisations had already started to acknowledge that, like physical health, the mental health of employees can have an impact on their work.

Chris explained that, with the onset of Covid-19 and the continuing struggles that it brings, everyone is feeling increasingly anxious around what it will mean for them physically, their job security and for their families.“There is more anxiety and depression and there has been a rise in suicides globally and in South Africa,” he added. “The stress is real and it is affecting people.”

He said that there has also been an increase in anxiety in the last weeks as South Africans have not only had to deal with Covid-19, but also the civil unrest and looting across the country, as well as its potential ramifications such as fuel and food shortages.

However, Chris said that he is feeling less anxious and stressed than he was a year ago for one reason: “I got vaccinated.”

Vaccines to reignite the country
Aspen Pharma Group senior executive of strategic trade Dr Stavros Nicolaou emphasised that the most effective economic, and perhaps even psychological, policy for South Africa is to vaccinate as many people as swiftly as possible. “The vaccine rollout is one of the sparks to reignite the country after the civil unrest it has recently experienced, and to bring a semblance of stability and confidence back into the economy.”

The vaccine rollout programme commenced on 17 May and has significantly ramped up from 32,000 vaccines administered on average per day, to 180,000 vaccines administered per day. Stavros explained that South Africa was poised to reach 230,000 vaccine administrations per day, but as the civil unrest continued across South Africa, the administration rates had dropped to below 137,000 per day.

“The programme was all but suspended in KwaZulu-Natal and in some parts of Gauteng,” Stavros said. “This is not good, because you ideally want to vaccinate the entire country in tandem. He added that South Africa shouldn’t be in a position where one region of the country is more highly vaccinated than another, because the end objective remains to achieve herd immunity by the end of December.

He explained that South Africa would have reached this objective if it had ramped up to 300,000 vaccinations per day as it had hoped, but that there had been signs of a temporary setback to this plan. “There are people who are hesitant to go out and get vaccinated because of safety concerns, and a number of facilities remain closed to the extent that the Minister of Health has indicated a reallocation of the vaccines out of KwaZulu-Natal into other provinces in the country.”

Stavros said that the rollout programme will be significantly hampered by the situation in KwaZulu-Natal, and especially as mass vaccination sites like Dis-chem, MedScheme and Momentum had closed due to the unrest.

The rioting and looting has also posed a number of other public health challenges, putting strain on medication security in KwaZulu-Natal. “When chronic condition patients such as diabetics or cardiovascular patients can’t get their medication, it starts pushing up case loads for chronic diseases in already overstretched public and private health facilities,” Stavros said.

He explained that there are a number of knock-on effects that are coming from the uncertainty South Africa is currently faced with, but that the country will have to come together to figure it all out.

“The rollout programme remains immensely important in both social cohesion, which is really what has fallen apart in the past couple of weeks, and in an economic recovery plan,” Stavros said. “We can’t afford to take our foot off the accelerator on the vaccine rollout program, so the message should be that it's important to get vaccinated.”

Keep being resilient
Chris explained that one of the lessons we have to learn from this is that we’re all in this together. “When it comes to getting vaccinated, wearing a mask or social distancing, it’s not about you. It’s about the risk that the virus poses to your family and colleagues. We have to think of each other and support each other.”

He added that, from a leadership perspective, finance and HR professionals need to be creating cultures where people feel included and not scared. “People need to know that it’s okay not to be okay, and that it’s okay to be stressed and ask for help.”

“We are a resilient bunch. I think we need to pat ourselves on the back and keep living that,” Chris concluded.