On the day that the scale of the coronavirus crisis hit me, I was at the Department of Health. It was early in the morning and I was there for a breakfast briefing about the gender health gap. In a glass-walled room, the air was crackling with nervous energy. The British health minister, Nadine Dorries, had tested positive for COVID-19 that weekend and everyone in the room had one question on their mind: Should we even be here?
Across Europe, the economic and social lives of neighboring countries were already being cryogenically frozen by their governments. When they would be thawed, nobody knew.
A woman to my left had a cold. She blew her nose. Everyone turned to look at her. She looked like she wanted to disappear. “Take your tissue off the table!” the woman to my right barked.
As I left that meeting, I checked my phone. There it was. Confirmed with a clarity that made the skin on my forehead tighten: our office was being closed. I went home. Within weeks, the entire country had closed too, entering the limbo of lockdown. I’ve been here ever since.
The stupid opulence of feeling relief – in a pandemic, in such close proximity to death and disaster – weighs heavily.
Moving between my desk, my fridge, my bathroom, my balcony, and my bed, I have felt my world constrict. I have cried because of the weight of it all; because of the people dying, because of the medical staff who don’t have enough PPE, because I so badly want to see my family. I have been angry: at myself for taking too much for granted before this pandemic; at politicians who can do no right, who let that breakfast meeting go ahead, who systematically stripped away our social safety net during austerity and can’t admit when they’re wrong. I have felt afraid because the economic repercussions of this are beyond most of our comprehension, and in case someone I know dies. And I am guilty because I am, so far, safe; because I have a home; because I have work; because I avoid FaceTime calls and shirk Zoom quiz invites and because, when all the other emotions have passed through me, I feel absurdly relieved in this crepuscular new normal which feels at once like the beginning and the end of an era.
The stupid opulence of that relief — in a pandemic, in such close proximity to death and disaster — weighs heavily. I light a candle. So wasteful. I take a bath. My water bill is going to be huge. I rewatch Normal People. Is Sally Rooney even a Marxist? Does it matter?
Am I happier now? Surely, I cannot be happier. Not now. Not when I am also angry, sad and afraid. How can I yearn for lockdown to end and also be scared of what might happen if it does? How can I be grieving what someone recently called ‘the old world’ in a WhatsApp exchange and, at the same time, not yet be able to step into the new one.
As the government contemplates lifting lockdown and easing the measures put in place to keep us all apart, it turns out that, like me, fewer than one in five members of the British public think now is the right time to reopen schools, restaurants, pubs and stadiums. Our opposition to reopening restaurants and pubs is even higher. Just 11% of people think the time is right to consider reopening restaurants, while 78% are against. Only 9% believe it would be correct to consider reopening pubs, while 81% are against.
And at the same time, like me, half of British adults feel anxious about lockdown and worry about job security and making ends meet.
Consultant psychologist Heather Sequeira says these pandemic paradoxes make more sense than we might think. “Many people,” she notes, “were chronically stressed in their regular existence” before this pandemic blew a wind of change through the world, an invisible but destructive tornado which only shows itself to us when someone gets sick or loses their job.
Fewer than one in five members of the British public think now is the right time to reopen schools, restaurants, pubs and stadiums.
“For many people, lockdown has allowed them to press the pause button on their hectic lives and shift to a slower existence,” Heather reflects. “They are reporting getting outside more, walking, appreciating nature and spending more time with immediate family.”
Unless you are an essential worker, in which case you are not only in immediate danger but likely to have seen your workload increase in recent months, lockdown may well have provided a moment to reflect and reassess the direction in which your life is going, even if it has also impacted your income and security.
“Some people have made big decisions in their lives regarding work, marriage or health that will lead to additional change going forward,” Heather says. “Others have used the space to reach out and create deeper and more meaningful connections with others in their lives or re-energized their desire to keep learning.”
Perhaps our response to this pandemic doesn’t make sense because the entire thing is senseless. Britain now has the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe and the projections are that the number of lives lost will continue to swell while all we can do is look on in horror at the statistics.
Heather notes that her clients are at once worried about the health implications for themselves and others of ending lockdown and reluctant to see “a return to the anxiety of modern life — about missing out on stuff or not feeling as though they belong.”
The idea that things were working before this crisis is facile. “Many clients who have anxiety issues have felt increasingly grounded and centered during lockdown,” Heather says, “namely because they have less apprehension about missing out on experiences that they perceive others to be having or ‘keeping up’ with other people.”
“Some of my clients,” she adds, “are expressing that they actually feel more ‘grounded’ knowing that a large percentage of the UK population is doing the same thing as them. With an end to lockdown, there is likely to be an initial increase in social stress, social anxiety and a return of status anxiety.”
Lockdown has forced a shift to a slower existence. “In the past few weeks,” Heather notes, “we have all had time to adapt to a new way of being and to grieve the loss of our previous reality.”
Some of my clients are expressing that they feel more ‘grounded’ knowing that a large percentage of the population is doing the same thing as them. With an end to lockdown, there is likely to be an initial increase in social stress, social anxiety and a return of status anxiety.
Heather Sequeira, PSYCHOLOGIST
As society’s gears ground to a halt, it exposed the systemic inequality of that society: who could afford to sit this out, who had a decent home to isolate in, who had secure employment with sick pay and a severance package. It revealed how reliant we had all become on the system for our livelihoods even though it encouraged us to consume culture, goods, and experiences relentlessly in order to be visible and viable members of society, regardless of whether or not we could afford to do so — not just in terms of the monetary cost but the cost to our mental wellbeing.
Now, as we contemplate the end of lockdown, we find ourselves questioning whether it’s even possible to go back.
“People now have to adjust again to yet another new way of being,” Heather says, “one that is neither lockdown nor the same as our previous life. We are left with a huge amount of uncertainty, something that as humans we are not generally good at tolerating. Some things may be the same, other things very different and other aspects of life that we valued before may never return.”
Heather says that the contradictions of our connection to one another will likely continue to color how we feel moving forward. “The research shows that social distancing has impacted us in both good and bad ways,” she notes. “It’s likely that social rituals such as handshakes, hugs and other physical shows of affection will be tinged with anxiety long after the peak coronavirus period has passed because people fear infection and want to stop the spread.”
And yet, she adds, “this in turn may further exacerbate low confidence or feelings of loneliness — because physical touch has been found in research to moderate or buffer our physiological stress levels. It lowers our levels of the stress hormone cortisol, enhances serotonin which makes us feel good and reduces our heart rate.”
We desperately want to go back to ‘normal’ but we know we can’t because everything has changed. We want to move forward but we’re unsure of how to do it. We need each other to stay sane but we must stay apart to keep well. We are more alone and yet more together because the experience of this pandemic is universal; the virus doesn’t respect borders. It doesn’t care whether you want to leave the EU. When coronavirus crept across the globe, we were living in a time of hyperproductivity in which being busy had become a warped and somewhat dystopian status symbol.
So-called normal life was already making some people ill. Anxiety rates, among workers and children in particular, were higher than ever. Growing numbers of people couldn’t afford basic things, inequality was increasing, household debt was rising and too many lived in expensive rented homes that weren’t fit for purpose. We had been forced to accept a world in which some people made their fortunes while others floundered on zero-hour contracts to keep the cogs of capitalism turning.
Despite the obvious risk to public health, perhaps it’s no wonder that there was resistance to freezing our society, to creating space for people to stop for long enough to question it and, as it comes back to life, ask whether it was even working for us at all.
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