POWER FAILURE OP-ED
Load shedding is adding to the anxiety, depression and mental health toll among South Africans
As a priest I often find myself sitting and listening to the joys and struggles of others. For a while now I have heard more stories of struggle than joy. Load shedding is draining many whom I encounter and stretching our individual and collective wellbeing.
The current round of rolling blackouts is plunging many South Africans into mental distress. It is causing a wave of stress and anxiety which, for many, could lead to depression. Lots of people speak of their frustration, anger, disillusionment and outrage. There is also a growing, all-pervasive sense of hopelessness.
Many are infuriated by the fact that while the country faces a massive crisis, images of our President on social media show him smiling and hobnobbing with world leaders — seemingly unaware and unperturbed by the situation in the country. In fact, not once, in his weekly letter, does Ramaphosa address the power crisis. One cannot but think he is oblivious to the daily struggle and mental anguish of the people of this country.
Keeping the batteries charged of essential devices like laptops and cellular phones has become an obsession for many people. A charged battery may result in some income, or the total loss thereof. In many places, even if devices are charged, getting a connection is tricky because outages damage and affect cellphone transmission towers. The ability to work and meet deadlines is compromised and this drives stress levels up as non-production leads to increased anxiety around job security in a failing economy.
In the past two years, many people found the Covid pandemic very difficult to negotiate psychologically. The fear of the virus, isolation, economic anxiety, the sudden home education of children while trying to hold down a job and the death of loved ones (who could not be properly mourned) placed a massive burden on our collective psychological wellbeing.
Many relationships were strained — because people were not used to spending so much time together — adding further to the burden of mental wellbeing. The “new normal” became a buzzword as we lived through the pandemic.
The reduction of Covid infections and the lifting of restrictions brought a degree of psychological relief. The end of mask-wearing was symbolic of the fact that the stress of the past two years was slowly dissipating, and the rhythms of life could slowly return. People breathed in fresh air and some hope.
What South Africans did not anticipate was another “new normal” in which the strain of daily Stage 6 power cuts would, once again, induce massive collective stress.
Power failures have become the “new normal” in South Africa. We have lived with them for a long time. However, this time around, it seems to be much worse and is taking its toll on our mental health. Unlike the pandemic, the cause of this stress is corruption, incompetence, bad governance and ludicrous policies which have thwarted alternative power production. We know that what we endure is a direct result of selfish and narrow political interests, and not that of an unseen virus.
Daily life is hard to plan. In many places power failures come at unexpected times and, after planned outages, power often does not return due to failing infrastructure that cannot withstand being turned on and off repeatedly.
This unpredictability leads to a feeling of being disempowered and of being out of control of the basic rhythms of daily life. For those who are anxious by nature, this exacerbates their anxiety. Anxiety and stress lead to exhaustion and this becomes a vicious circle.
The impact on the economy, the struggle to run a business and the chaotic traffic people face daily when the power is off, adds to a collective mental fragility and exhaustion. Aggression is often a byproduct of this stress.
Some people say that the underlying anxiety of not knowing when this will end or if it will get worse, like the Covid pandemic, also creates anxiety. There is not only an unpredictability about this, but it forces people, again, to live in a vague space: will this end, if so when… maybe not? This creates instability for family and work life.
Last week someone spoke of the struggle of having to look after an ageing parent who needs oxygen. The home oxygen machine needs electricity to run. While there is no power — and therefore no oxygen — there is a big difference in oxygen saturation. This causes the elderly person to panic and, of course, the people around them. Tearfully the person says, “Tell me, I am desperate, what am I supposed to do, I can’t anymore!”
In many healthcare facilities, doctors and nursing staff are under severe strain when incubators go off and theatres lose power during surgical procedures. This affects not only their capacity to work, but also the quality of care given to patients. The anxiety levels of families, who are already worried about sick loved ones, are also amplified.
Schools are unable to function properly and so children are losing out on valuable teaching time. Many South African children get their only nutritious meal a day at school. In many places the preparation of these meals will be affected by power failures and could result in growing rates of malnutrition. Students who are supposed to be studying and writing exams now have to cope with an extra layer of stress.
Ordinary households too cannot prepare meals and many people report spending more money on takeout meals than they can afford. It is, for many households, an important time of the day, when the main meal is being prepared, that load shedding hits. Regular takeout meals, besides the economic cost, are also not healthy.
Several people say that their sleep patterns are being disturbed because they are waking up at odd hours — when they have power — to complete work or make deadlines. In a crime-ridden country, many people feel more anxiety at night when plunged into darkness. This results in the inability to sleep well and get a good night’s rest. In some places, criminal elements familiar with load shedding schedules are stealing infrastructure. This leads to a further sense of vulnerability and stress. This break in sleep patterns compounds fatigue and mental stress. It also leads to variable moods which may impact on others — relationships — in families and the workplace.
Small businesses, retrenchment, unemployment
The cost of alternative power resources is also prohibitive for most. Small business owners cannot afford solar or generators and so, to survive, are having to make tough decisions that include the retrenchment of staff. This will further exacerbate the mental health of the nation as unemployment rates continue to skyrocket.
The ongoing load shedding, like Covid, lays bare the huge gap between the haves and the have-nots. Those who can afford alternative sources of power carry on with life while millions of disadvantaged poor people are left, literally, in the cold and dark. The gap between the rich and the poor is magnified, again, by the government’s failure to ensure that basic services — like power — are provided for the country’s citizens.
If the Covid pandemic taught us anything, it showed us that our healthcare infrastructure is unequal and cannot cope. Good (and affordable) healthcare services to help people psychologically map their way through the current blackouts and resulting mental stress are unlikely to be available for most people. In a country that is already heavily burdened with psychological and mental stress — recently from the pandemic, but also from our tragic past which has never been dealt with effectively for many people — we will surely see an increase in depression and mental stress.
Many South Africans feel they are losing it as they face yet another day of load shedding. The power crisis is impacting on our lives, but also our individual and collective mental wellbeing. Are we taking note of this? This, sadly, can often play out in violent ways — for individuals and those around them. DM
Father Russell Pollitt SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Institute of South Africa. He entered the Jesuits in 2001 and was ordained in 2006.
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