Dr Ahmad's book explores in depth the complex long-term consequences of COVID-19 for medicine, mental health, and social conventions.
"I could stand in the middle of First Avenue at rush hour and not see another soul around," remembered Samoon Ahmad, MD.
The New York City-based psychiatrist says his own eerie sense of desolation during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in Manhattan caught him by surprise. It started his thinking about, and then concentrated research into, the potential destructive and far-reaching sociocultural consequences of a prolonged COVID-19 era.
Ahmad was infected with SARS-CoV-2 in March 2020 and during his quarantine and extended recovery began to organize his research; the project evolved into his most recent book, Coping with COVID-19: The Mental, Medical, and Social Consequences of the Pandemic.
He spoke recently wtih Patient Care Online about how the book came together and the energy that kept the process moving. It will be available in April 2022.
Samoon Ahmad, MD, is a clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University Grossman School of Medicine. He has been at Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan for 30 years, and has written in the past about human coping and resilience in the aftermath of disasters.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and style.
Patient Care Online. Congratulations on the publication of the book—that’s right around the corner. I’m curious what your inspiration was for a project of this scope—really covering all potential sequelae of the pandemic? It's a huge undertaking.
Samoon Ahmad, MD. I would say that's an understatement, yes. I think a large part of it was seeing the impact of the pandemic, in New York City during the spring of 2020. The rolling count at the bottom of the television screens on every news network, and this constant coverage in the press felt surreal. But seeing the emptiness of Manhattan in March 2020 shook me in a way that I wasn't expecting. It was like being Will Smith in I am Legend. I could stand in the middle of the First Avenue and not see a car. And perhaps this feeling of desolation would have been less impactful in a suburban setting. But being so used to the streets in New York, standing in the middle of First Avenue at rush hour, and not seeing another soul around you is a very eerie feeling.
And it really hit me how far reaching the effects of the pandemic were going to be. I realized that we were going to be battling what are called two distinct problems: the SARS CoV-2 virus and the pandemic as a sociological phenomenon. Now, I would say in the case of the former, I felt confident that the medical community could come around and we will learn how to better treat COVID-19, develop preventive medicines and vaccines that would boost our immunity, or at the very least improve patient prognosis and these things have happened, even though the virus keeps throwing a curveball at us. In the case of the latter, somehow, I lacked that same level of confidence, I had no idea how the shutdown and these months of isolation would affect millions, if not billions of people. And you know, as I look back on the wake of September 11th, certainly the largest mass strategy I've experienced, personally, at least you could be with your family, or you could be with your friends, and most people, you know, went back to work within a few days, or they were going to school. And these kinds of support networks that have been a part of human stories since before recorded history were still intact. But the problem is with the pandemic, we were completely cut off from these groups that were integral to our social and personal identities, and many people had nothing to do and nowhere to go, and no one to talk to. So, one cannot underestimate the impact of such significant psychological trauma.
And, and then, I got COVID, and I was asked to quarantine at home for two weeks. And though I was lucky that I didn't experience the full blown sequelae of symptoms and it was not as severe, but the disease did take a toll on my body and it took weeks to recover from a lingering cough and fatigue. And I'm a very active guy who likes to bike and run and exercise and and I was telling my wife that after about eight, nine months, I felt my endurance level had come back to where it was. That was the timespan and I wasn't even hit that severely. So, I could just imagine, what's it like.
During that time of quarantine, I was struggling so with not having structure, not being able to go to work, that I started delving into the origin, the source, the pathology of transmission of the virus. And I kept finding myself going down this rabbit hole that kept on branching into different directions. As I dug deeper and deeper, one of the most interesting things was that one could not even find good, objective scientific information in one place, and I had to search all over. And if I, as a physician had this problem, I couldn't even imagine how a lay person would find and digest this information.
I just started to realize and it was cemented in my mind how severe and long- lasting the lingering economic, psychological, and psychosocial impacts were going to be. This was a major impetus to write the book; to bring all the scientific information in one place and secondly to discuss the psychological and social consequences, which will probably continue to linger for a long time. So that's what I would tell you was the impetus for the book.