“I’ve been a topper for the past semesters and now I can’t read or write for the life of me,” laments Muskan Kaushik. The 20-year-old student from Ghaziabad tested positive for COVID-19 in early April along with other members of her family. Although she has since tested negative, the physical and mental impact of the virus continues to linger.
For Kaushik, the inability to retain information and memory loss stands out as some of the more concerning consequences of COVID-19. “I don’t remember anything these days,” she says, “someone asked me how I spent the last lockdown, I couldn’t recall.” She says that even after being given specific details, everything remains foggy when she tries to go back in time in her mind.
As a literature student, she has massive amounts of readings that she needs to get through. Before being infected, she says she was able to complete them with ease, now the virus has brought on headaches and eye strain. “It’s all PDFs and I can’t bear to look at the screen for more than two hours a day,” she comments.
Even basic activities like reading and writing are now a struggle for her. Although she has asked for extensions from her college, not all professors have been understanding, she says. “I’ve failed in two assignments because the professor refused to extend the deadline,” she adds.
How the COVID-19 virus could affect neurological wellness
Brain fog, concentration problems, memory loss are all symptoms that many COVID-19 patients are reporting from across the world, especially with the newer strains. A study by Osmania University, Hyderabad, noted that various strains of coronaviruses are found to have neurotropism (ability to affect nerve cells) and neuro-invasive characteristics resulting in neurological and psychological consequences. It also cites other research that has shown how the neurological impact of the virus can manifest as delirium, mild cognitive impairment and psychosis.
Chinese researchers who studied patients who had recovered from COVID-19 found evidence of impairment in sustained attention — the ability to attend to important information. Although ongoing research is delving deeper into the causes behind this, it is currently believed to be linked to the lack of oxygen that could be damaging the brain as well as underlying inflammatory processes.
“You’re not making it up”
Delhi-based behavioral health researcher and psychologist Ruchita Chandrashekar is now on her 26th day after testing positive for the virus. She started noticing issues with her memory and comprehension during the initial week of her diagnosis. “[It got really scary] when I woke up one day and couldn’t remember which city I was in,” she remarks.
Although her brain fog concerns her, she has turned to humor to cope with the situation. As a mental health practitioner, she has gone back to taking sessions but gives her clients the disclaimer that she could mess up her words or stumble at any point. She points out that her caseload now includes many people who have also been diagnosed with the virus, so they just laugh along with her because they relate to her struggles.
“I know I told you I’d reply to your email and then I forgot,” she tells this correspondent. Once a meticulous and organized person, she admits that she has now fallen behind on her emails and work but constantly reminds herself to be compassionate while she goes through the repercussions of the illness.
When Chandrashekar brought up her symptoms with her doctor, she was told that many are going through the same and it could take anywhere between two to six months to see an improvement. “I can’t even watch [shows and movies] anymore; it was my refuge earlier,” she laments. She struggles with holding her attention for more than ten minutes and mentions that it sometimes takes her three days to finish one movie now.
“You’re not making it up,” Chandrashekar assures people who are either currently COVID-19 positive or have recovered. “If something feels different, it’s because something has changed,” she adds. She reminds people of the importance of validating your own experience and going through recovery at your own pace.
“Have a support system that validates you and doesn’t dismiss it,” she suggests. She remains wary of people who push the ‘be positive’ propaganda. She emphasizes that there is no need to focus on feeling good or looking for a silver lining in this crisis. “You’re just forcing your body into numbness and survival,” she remarks. She shared that allowing yourself to feel your emotions and even crying can be healthy for you.
With people still experiencing both physical and mental health challenges weeks and even months after testing negative, it is clear that there is a need for a supportive ecosystem that acknowledges the reality. The virus is no longer a 14-day ordeal hence, healthcare systems, educational institutions, and workplaces need to recognize that people may need continual support even after recovery as they return to post-COVID life.
(Edited by Sanhati Banerjee)