I realised recently that people tend to have one of two mindsets in how they perceive our temporal orientation ‘after’ the Covid-19 pandemic. Or, perhaps more accurately, after restrictions ended. Some aim towards returning to the ‘normal’ we all knew before those late months of 2019 that would reshape the next several years. However, others feel that we can never know that ‘normal’ again. That too many were lost, too many traumatised, and a generation was reshaped by a collective experience that made us all too aware of both the fragility of life and the long arm of our governments. Essentially, that after the ‘new normal’ we had to adjust to during the height of the pandemic, we must now settle into yet another new normal. And thus, adjustments are to be expected and accommodated. You can’t cut several inches off your fishing wire and keep trying to cast your line in that same, remote spot, expecting the same reach you used to have.
To accurately describe the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, psychologists have had to develop a whole new glossary of terms. For example, “Cave syndrome” is described as a fear of going out among the vaccinated. “Corona-phobia” is rather self explanatory: an intense fear of catching the virus. And, “Covid stress syndrome”. This is in effect a novel anxiety disorder expressed through PTSD-like symptoms, with onset exclusively after either contracting Covid or witnessing a loved one suffering from Covid.
Journalist Stephen Taylor explained these terms in a piece for The Guardian, as; “labels that helped people to better understand their experiences and the experiences of those around them. But the terms, having served their purpose, will probably fall by the wayside once the pandemic is over, to be replaced with more conventional psychiatric labels like ‘agoraphobia’”
Taylor was definitely onto something here, as we are already seeing the normalisation of trauma from such an unprecedented world event, as the easing of restrictions and requirement to keep ‘business as usual’ becomes synonymous with almost pretending the pandemic hasn’t affected you at all in the long term.
At first, the expectation to return to normal life after such a stringent lockdown was like being forced from a nuclear bunker, only days after being told the air was still thick with deadly radioactive dust. The idea of there being no distancing took a while to shake, as people still stood apart in queues, got in lifts one at a time, and wore masks indoors. Many clung to the ‘new normal’ of home working as long as they could, until they were forced into either a gradual or abrupt return to the office.
For many school kids, particularly in schools like my 12 year old brothers in a notoriously underfunded region of greater Manchester, kids went from being banned from even playing outside with their friends to now being crammed along with thirty other mostly unvaccinated bodies into a classroom with maybe one window, and often no PPE.
Meanwhile, in university, there was a strange period where attending classes in person was offered but could not be enforced, largely because my university has a huge population of international students who were still facing travel difficulties due to covid restrictions in their home countries.
I distinctly remember though, sitting at home taking my notes in an online lecture, when a classmate mentioned to the lecturer that their mic was cutting out for people watching online, and the lecturer promptly began to rant about how maybe we should consider not being ‘too lazy’ to attend in person then. This was the turning point where I realised that the minds of many had already shifted back to pre-pandemic times. I wondered if they had somehow just repressed the events of the last two years, and the disease sweeping the world that was still very much killing people (in spite of vaccination providing greater immunity). Of course the world was safer because of the vaccines, but safe? That would be an over exaggeration. Without herd immunity, there was always a new variant circulating among the unvaccinated and spreading to the vaccinated over time. And so how could it be lazy of us to continue to exercise the same precautionary safety measures as everyone had been throughout the pandemic? Especially knowing that if we caught Covid-19, we were at a higher risk of long-covid as young people. Several classmates struggling to keep up with the demands of academia after developing the condition could attest to that.
Despite working in the earliest lockdown with my dad in his catering business, which serviced both the general community and essential workers including emergency departments, I evaded catching Covid for a long while. Infact, due to increased hygiene in society and mask wearing, I didn’t get sick at all for a record amount of time. Then when I did return to university in person, everything hit me. Right as the world was opening back up – with England dropping the requirement to isolate and wales not far behind – I got sick. First it was glandular fever, causing bronchitis and tonsillitis in quick succession. Then, as though spotting a chink in my armour, Covid struck me too. I only had a headache and a fever when I took a test and saw the two lines appear almost immediately. My boyfriend thankfully was away at the time visiting his parents and so avoided infection, but one of our housemates also tested positive. And then, after reporting the case for contact tracing, three other friends tested positive. Thankfully, none became seriously ill, meanwhile my own mono-bombed immune system wasn’t prepared for covid even after all of my vaccines.
At first my chest just started hurting and I felt winded, then I developed a phlegmy cough and my fever worsened. I barely had the breath or energy to get food for myself, and so my boyfriend returned to take care of me, never venturing closer than the other side of my bedroom door. My coughing began to sound increasingly loud, chesty and breathless and what I was ‘producing’ was the unmistakable colour of infection. I couldn’t breathe clearly and sometimes my airways closed completely, leaving me gasping. The pressure on my chest was like someone sitting on my ribcage refusing to budge. I could hardly talk and sounded raspy when I tried to speak to loved ones over the phone. I was in so much pain.
Hearing this in a voice message, my best friend told me with complete seriousness that I sounded far too much like her grandma in the days before covid sadly took her life, not to go to the hospital. I wanted to reassure her that I’d be okay, so my boyfriend had to drive me in the back of his car with all windows down, taxi style, to the only A&E in North Wales.
I was shocked by the complete indifference of the hospital staff who tested me. I know now that their lack of concern was likely due to a total desensitisation; they had all seen much worse. I lay for eight hours in a crib made for children in a makeshift quarantine ward, as the real covid ward was almost full and this was my ‘triage.’ I was denied oxygen, likely because someone else needed it more. I coughed up blood and phlegm into one of those cardboard trays they use to collect stool samples, had bloods taken and finally a chest X-ray in my bed. Inexplicably, I was discharged at 3AM afterwards.
Within two days my condition was even worse. I felt like I could pass out from exhaustion and was having vivid nightmares where I was drowning, before I’d wake up unable to breathe. I called my GP and they seemed confused by my hospital test results. I was told that I should have been given a prescription for penicillin and a steroid inhaler, because I’d developed a secondary infection, likely pneumonia.
Once I had the right medication, my airways cleared up and before long I was even testing negative and able to have company as I recovered, but it wasn’t over then. I did develop long covid, making even simply walking upstairs difficult, while I became dependant on inhalers for the first time in my life. I was using these inhalers for six months after testing negative, and my energy levels only recently returned to normal. I’m told my lungs are now scarred from the infection. The nightmares continued, too, of being alone in the hospital room coughing up blood and gasping for air, or of dying in my bed at home, not to be discovered for days. I couldn’t focus in public because I was so paranoid about someone giving me covid again somehow, like germs were everywhere in the air. In person lectures became too much to handle for a long while, not in the least because I had such serious brain-fog that I couldn’t focus for long without having to pause and process the information. While some others were celebrating the ‘end of covid’, I was suffering the effects of trauma, only to be told that ‘I’m young, and have nothing to worry about’.
I didn’t die – that much is obvious. (Unless I’m somehow dictating this post through a Ouija board). I do personally know people who lost cherished loved ones to covid and had to witness their decline, or who never got to say goodbye. Others too who were sicker than I was and had to look death right into the face as they fought for their life on a ventilator. Without meaning to undermine the seriousness of these traumas, I understand as a psychologist that everyone processes trauma differently. Even the exact same event in some cases can have vastly different psychological consequences in separate individuals.
For me, it felt like a Herculean task to ‘bounce back’ to normal after my experience. Others in my shoes maintained a sense of admirable optimism and will openly state that while covid made them quite sick, it didn’t impact their mental health long-term. All of our experiences during a difficult time are equally valid. My issue is with the increasing demands of society to recover from our difficult experiences within an anticipated timeframe, and in a manner that fits set expectations.
We do not all carry the same ‘road-map’ back to normal life after experiencing trauma. Some people might wish not to be pathologised for having a reasonable response to an extraordinary life event, and to instead just be supported and given patience as they recover. Others feel that clinical diagnosis and intervention – such as antidepressants and a course of cognitive behavioural therapy – is necessary to overcome the trauma. Others just need a complete break from their fast paced, demanding life on their own terms. We cannot all be held to the standard of one person who endured the same experience but didn’t feel the need to change any aspect of their lifestyle to recover, or who processed the event in a manner that meant no long term trauma occurred at all.
For some, they did not even need to catch covid or know somebody who got sick or passed for it to have severely impacted them. The intensive isolation, loss of routine, loss of social interaction; that alone is intensely unnatural for any human being and was also bound to worsen any pre-existing mental health conditions. But, there are also those who look back fondly on that first lockdown in 2020, at having lie ins due to home working or furlough, having the time to make healthy smoothies in the mornings, and playing animal crossing so obsessively that future generations deciphering our writings might presume Tom Nook was some ancient deity we were desperately appeasing. And, it’s okay to have enjoyed those aspects. I remember dusting off board games to gain what little socialisation I could with my family, scrolling mindlessly through TikTok with zero repercussions, drinking my way through Bojo’s daily doom broadcast and then ordering a contactless takeaway. It’s also reasonable to find amusement in the memory of a vaguely dystopian hour of permitted exercise time being spent walking their dog, despite having never made a habit of it before. That entire period was a break from the hustle of a 9 to 5 working life that so many people feel trapped in, a comma in the story of our lives.
But, not everyone was at home relaxing. Essential workers were living a nightmare, particularly the doctors, nurses and healthcare workers caught on the front line of a very uncertain pandemic. This wasn’t at all helped by a very poor leadership here in the UK.
The same government that would later arbitrarily open the country back up as though it was all just a bad dream, had also used aggressive ‘blame’ tactics to make everyone feel personally responsible for the lives of other people, and caused an irreversible sense of anxiety over living a normal life again once the lockdown was lifted. The same government that encouraged us all to clap for the NHS, also negligently put them at risk with poor supplies of PPE and an ineffective track and trace system commissioned from their questionably competent friends. The same government that kept us compliant with fear that if we saw our elderly relatives we could infect them and be responsible for their deaths, ordered that sick hospital patients be returned to their carehomes, to die. The same government issuing outlandish fines for sitting on park benches, were throwing maskless birthday parties at Downing Street. And still, some will say ‘they did the best they could under the circumstances’.
For me, my Covid related stress and anxiety was only compounded by the uncertainty modelled by our leaders, the constant changes not just in the rules, but seemingly in the moral foundations underpinning those rules. Nothing had actually changed, but now we had to forget everything they said about us potentially murdering our grandmas with one hug or causing the NHS to collapse, and go back to work? Just like that, the media started reporting on anything but covid, and as more and more time alpsed, I started to wonder if the whole mess had been one big mass hallucination. I faced the realisation that I was utterly helpless to the whims of a government I never voted for. They are just people – as capable of mistakes as any of us – and they really flexed that mistake-making capability when given the task of keeping the british public alive and well. Our paternally benevolent rulers were far from benevolent, and truly, many of the authoritarian rules imposed on us were less for our own protection, and more to save their own skin after acting far too late. They were warned, yet did nothing, so when the crisis landed they threw everything they could at it to see what would stick; so long as it didn’t have to inconvenience them too much.
I’m not saying that we could stay locked up indoors forever. But, we shouldn’t be pretending like this didn’t impact us all in a big way. This event has shaken and shaped a whole generation, and we won’t even understand the really long-term consequences until some of the pandemic-babies grow up and us psychologists can really pick their brains. It’s now October of 2022, but I still have nightmares sometimes, and every cold I catch makes my lungs feel 60 years older. My best friend still wrestles with witnessing her grandma’s passing and with the toll it took on her mentally. My grandad still battles with loneliness after losing his support system and having to take care of my grandma with dementia alone for over a year of isolation. No matter how little Covid appears in the news now, many of us still get nervous hearing someone in the same room clearing their throat, and the ‘stay 6 feet apart’ stickers are still fading away on supermarket floors. So remember to be patient with your friend who doesn’t want to return to the nightclubs just yet. For some, the deep programming required to maintain order and preserve human lives in a pandemic can take longer than a few months to wear off, and that is far from abnormal.