I recently read a very disturbing Guardian piece detailing the goings-on in an Austrian ski resort back in March, through interviews with people who had been there. It seems this resort (Ischgl) was a hotbed of transmission at that time and may have played a significant role in the coronavirus’s spread across Europe. Reading it felt like watching a disaster movie. It’s particularly horrifying from a post-lockdown perspective, now that we have (somewhat) normalised the new high standards of hygiene, social distancing, and isolation of ill people, to hear stories like this from the start of the pandemic where none of those precautions were in place. I felt a visceral disgust reading it, and could recognise the “puritanical instinct” the article mentions is being heightened in all of us; the nightlife scenes depicted there would never have been appealing to me before, but now they even feel wrong.
Sometimes I feel like we are all being groomed to be more and more afraid. At the start, fear was something they wanted to avoid spreading. We were told the vast majority of people would only get a mild illness with this virus (when was the last time you heard that message?); that we should wash our hands well, avoid touching our faces, and carry on. There would be an epidemic, but that was OK as long as we flattened the curve so hospitals could cope. Then there was the sudden lockdown, and we never heard that hospitals coped, as it became all about the grim death toll competition with our neighbouring countries. And then deaths went back to normal, or even a little lower than normal; but now we’re obsessed even with case numbers. Zero covid is now the only appropriate ambition.
Is it that we underestimated it earlier in the crisis (and didn’t realise it warranted this much fear)? In what way?
As cases rise, now, blaming fingers are pointed at young people hammered by mixed messages and trying to get on with life. Even permitted social contact is inevitably clouded by guilt and fear, as public health bodies tactlessly warn us not to “kill our grannies” (as Carl Heneghan points out, people kill their grannies with viruses every Christmas, but we never give that any thought). For their own benefit and protection, we strip care home residents of the will to live by removing the social contact and activities that make life worth living.
What psychological toll is wrought on us by being asked to constantly behave as if we are infected with something that will kill someone if we don’t stay vigilant and keep it to ourselves? On the face of it, distancing and mask-wearing and hand hygiene are simple things, and I am certainly not against them. But for some, at least, they are a constant stressor, slowly, insidiously, etching fear deeper into our hearts. I don’t see anyone talking about this.
The worst of the burden of fear is borne by those who had been told to shield themselves from the virus due to their preexisting health issues. These people were directed to keep themselves at home behind closed doors for 4 months in fear for their lives, with no organised support to psychologically manage that situation and maintain rational thinking about their risks. Then at the end of July they were callously tossed out to work again, just as we started to talk about a second wave, apply localised lockdowns to squash outbreaks, and while the narrative around the virus shifts to an ever more fearful one.
It feels a bit ironic that I spent months in therapy learning to live with the constant likelihood of illness, the way everyone else apparently does without any problem… and then a new virus comes along and suddenly the rest of the world flips out and decides illness and death are impossible to coexist with. Which was exactly my starting point.
I honestly don’t know what I think or feel about this coronavirus a lot of the time, or how scared I should be. I feel schizophrenic. I can see it so many different ways. I think we have to try to be rational and balance the harms incurred with different actions, and we are not being helped to do that. We should be. This would pave the way for collective kindness. Some of the things that are shooting up out of this fear- and suppression-based approach – rejection of science and reason, conspiracy theories, covid denial – are truly scary.