Dr. Aicha Hind Rifai, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar, reflects on the human experience of the pandemic as unveiled by a survey among the QF community.
No matter how old we are, whether we are single or have partners and children, and wherever we call home, all of us have been touched by a pandemic that none of us expected to witness in our lifetime. It has deeply shaken not only the basis of our lives, but also the core of our beliefs, priorities, and values.
With an unprecedented year behind us and the challenges and optimism of a new one now ahead, it is a time to step back and contemplate the journey of self-rediscovery that the pandemic had offered us.
To reflect on the human impact of the experience of 2020, Qatar Foundation’s Communication Directorate conducted a deep-dive survey within the organization’s community to try to take a close look into the profound changes that have come people’s way over the past 12 months, in order to further understand how a crisis can help individuals better recognize – and reconnect with – their real purpose in life, rearrange their priorities, and become a better versions of themselves.
The survey, which polled people of different ages, marital status, and gender, asked them which idea they genuinely believed pre-pandemic had to be rethought in 2020 – and what their priorities for the future are.
The results from the survey revealed that the most common shattered beliefs that people had were that they are in control of their own lives, that they are not flexible enough and can’t easily adapt to change, that everything comes naturally and can almost be taken for granted, and that they are truly living their dreams and achieving their goals.
Dr. Aicha Hind Rifai, Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine – Qatar, a Qatar Foundation partner university, explains how, after the pandemic slowed down the hamster wheel we are caught up in through our daily lives, our eyes were opened to the fault within our perceptions, helping us to mature and evolve.
“The pandemic revealed to many people that we are not entirely in control of our lives, which is a basic fact in all forms of spiritual disciplines, yet most of us fail to see amid our extremely fast-paced lives,” she says. “However, the crisis created by the pandemic was a big example of how we try and do our best, but the results are not necessarily in our hands.
This crisis gave us an opportunity to trust in ourselves and showed us that we don’t have always to rigidly follow certain patterns for the world to go on
“And such a reveal is necessary for humans to realize this, learn from it, and accept that it is one step on the way to growth and maturity.”
With regard to the misconception about our flexibility and adaptability, Dr. Rifai believes that the way we have reacted to it has come as a surprise to most of us. “Nowadays, intelligence and mental health are both identified by a person’s adaptability and resilience,” she said.
“This crisis gave us an opportunity to trust in ourselves and showed us that we don’t have always to rigidly follow certain patterns for the world to go on and to achieve our own success. Rather, it’s creativity that will keep us going and progressing.”
As for the third most common shattered belief, Dr. Rifai believes taking things for granted stems from the illusion we create that we are going to live forever – and unless something major happens to shake this perception, humans tend to unsee the truth.
“Life is pretty much like a cruise ship and we are all on board, planning for our days and enjoying the ride, but we never realize the fact that we are on board until a storm hits hard,” she explained. “This friction between the reality we are living, and our deepest beliefs is what’s called insight or reality testing, and it’s another step we have gained towards maturity.”
Taking some downtime to review what we are doing, and allowing ourselves time to pursue our dreams and passions, is essential to maintain our mental health and wellbeing
The survey showed that people realized how much energy and time is exerted in one aspect of life: work and providing for their families. After remote working and remote learning policies took effect, time previously spent on commuting and being stuck in traffic was better invested. Many people started resuming some of their hobbies and dedicated more time to their old passions.
“From this tough time, we have learned that life shouldn’t be a rat race,” said Dr. Rifai. “Taking some downtime to review what we are doing, and allowing ourselves time to pursue our dreams and passions, is essential to maintain our mental health and wellbeing.”
Digital learning, and the convenience and accessibility to enroll in programs remotely, has motivated many people to expand their knowledge and make the best use of their time
“Part of how the human psyche functions is based on the denial of the fact that one day we might fall ill or we will face death,” says Dr. Rifai. “It’s one of the natural mechanisms used to combat mental illness and being overly anxious.
“But now, because of the pandemic, we are constantly hearing statistics about numbers of deaths and hospital and ICU admissions, and being exposed to such information threatens that denial of illness and death which our lives are based on. In defense, we are alerted to the importance of making our health a priority.
“Family and friends represent our support system, and its extremely difficult when we are forced to be separated, whether because we are in different countries or by physical distancing, and experiencing such restraints along with the uncertainties we are now surrounded by for the first time amplifies the importance of spending as much time as possible with the people we care about the most.”.
Dreaming of travelling is a sign of people still exercising their mental health capabilities
Dr. Rifai is Chair of the Grand Rounds Committee at Weill Cornell Medicine – Qatar, says that the pandemic has seen a huge increase in new applicants to the university’s online programs, with more than a 1,000 new applicants bi-weekly. “I believe that digital learning, and the convenience and accessibility to enroll in programs remotely, has motivated many people to expand their knowledge and make the best use of their time, as well as to prepare themselves for any career challenges in the future.”
Speaking about the growing tendency among people to feel a sense of thankfulness and gratitude, Dr. Rifai said: “It relates very much to realizing how we take everything for granted until we are confronted by an existential threat.
“This pandemic pulled the carpet from underneath our feet we felt fragile through being at risk of losing our safety and health. In this situation, I believe that most people who live in Qatar valued the fact that they are in a country that absolutely has one of the best-run campaigns to prevent, control and treat COVID-19, and one of the most transparent healthcare systems worldwide.”
As the survey found, travelling was among the most common priorities that people highlighted for the future, and Dr. Rifai describes this as a natural healthy reaction to the pandemic. “Future orientation and planning are always the best medication for bringing hope,” she says.
“People are projecting themselves in the future; a better future where they are free to travel without fear or restriction after they were cornered for too long. And dreaming of travelling is a sign of people still exercising their mental health capabilities.”