Why It's Still OK To Not Be OK Following The Covid Pandemic

are we ok
Are We OK?Carolin Voelker - Getty Images

There was a period in deepest lockdown all those light-years ago when we would regularly ask each other if we were all right. Texts would ping in the mornings. ‘How are you doling?’ ‘How are you coping this this upturned reality, these homeschooled, banana-breaded one-walk days?’

‘Are we OK?’

We were not. Of course we were not OK. We were quite mad and grief-y, actually, with our hands cracked from sanitiser, hearts longing for our unseen parents and relationships spread thin as Marmite. But time passed. We all moved on. Everything went back to normal. Didn’t it?

The imminent fourth anniversary of our national lockdown has seen some of us looking around at a country on strike, down at our ‘burned out’ bodies, and asking the question again: ‘Are we... OK?’ For me, it was the first morning of the school holidays in July when I had this feeling. This bad, unplaceable feeling, like panic and doom, or having eaten something rotten at the weekend. It wasn’t until another parent described a similar dread that we were able to locate it in the bit of us that had not forgotten lockdown – the prospect of no school for weeks had pressed on a bruise.

I had to sit down. The first lockdown had started the week I went on maternity leave, with my daughter’s school closing the following day. I gave birth to my son on a hot April morning in bright panic – Britain felt as if it was vibrating with dread, alive with death. The baby’s first year was spent watching our attempts at ‘home learning’ in an airless house. Bemused, we shuffled angrily from room to room looking for escape routes. We used him as a clock, as proof time was passing.

Mine was far from the worst experience of childbirth in a pandemic, but even in my privilege, my mental health was paper-thin. The charity Pregnant Then Screwed marked the second anniversary of lockdown in 2022 with a film warning that the rise in postnatal depression would be huge; a mental-health epidemic yet to come. On the third anniversary in 2023 there was no such marker – the feeling by then was that we must look forward, not back. That we mustn’t dwell.

When the Dust Settles by Lucy Easthope, Britain’s leading disaster expert, was published just days after the UK’s final Covid restrictions were lifted in 2022. For two years, she claims, we lived in a state of terror. People’s parents died on ventilators, alone. Loneliness spread like weather fronts. Politicians decided where we could be for Christmas, and police fined neighbours for picnicking.

‘We are all disaster survivors now,’ Easthope wrote. ‘That’s the line I get the most reaction to,’ she says. ‘People originally fought me on it at book events, trying to deny it or saying I was being overdramatic – [that] survivors are burned or bloodied. Now, they start to cry.’ These people tell her what they did wrong – of trying to pretend the pandemic, and the measures to control it, had not affected them. ‘They minimised the toll, the trauma, the fatigue, the bereavement,’ because that’s what they thought they had to do, whether for their employers, or their families, or because everyone else was doing so. ‘A very well-used principle in disaster response, and particularly in understanding the harm of disasters, is “the ripple effect”: you can try to place yourself on the periphery of something but these events still have a profound effect on you – they ripple out.’

‘I’m not OK at all,’ admits writer and stylist Aja Barber. ‘Are any of us?’ She names the things she lost, the things the pandemic took from her. Time, which he’s acutely aware of today as she hosts her parents, whom she didn’t see for years (she lives in London, they live in Virginia), and, ‘my fertility. I feel robbed of a lot.’

Barber’s not alone – the thefts and losses piled up for all of us, and their ripples continue. These can arrive as insomnia, or anxiety, with couples no longer having sex, or children refusing to return to school. For me, the dread comes when I’m parenting with no plans in place – a darkness descends. And, after decades in an office, I’m still navigating how to work from home – my relationship with my large pink face on Zoom remains wobbly, at best.

are we ok
BernineMarie - Getty Images

For others, the ripples have been surprisingly pleasant. Author Rachel Connolly emailed from New York; she’d flown there from London at the end of 2023 to wring as much fun from the year as possible. In lockdown, Connolly says she became ‘religious about running’, and about talking rather than texting. She’s kept up all these good habits and combined them with a new appreciation of her freedom. ‘I think we can see that time as a reminder that life is short – you should try to make it look how you want it to look, while you can.’ Psychotherapist Eleanor Morgan has felt the ripples more acutely. ‘The open-endedness of the pandemic and the omnipresent threat of death brought things into sharp relief. It has been a very existential experience.’ But, she says, that’s not always a bad thing. ‘Many people began to feel it was more urgent to live a life that aligns with their values, and to think about what they really want. I’ve been struck by how much more the people in my orbit talk about meaning – lacking it, finding it, wanting it.’

Today, Barber is feeling a ‘pressure to “return to normal”,’ even though, ‘our normal wasn’t great to begin with’. Morgan’s clients say they have felt that imperative too, and a pressure to forget. ‘The impact of the pandemic on clients’ relational skills is something they feel a pressure to “move on” from,’ says Morgan. ‘But I’m curious about where this sense of pressure comes from – and who benefits... When we squash feelings, internal pressure builds.’ She has noticed how, four years on, many people struggle with empathy and find it difficult to sit with the differences in how we approach crises, changing the subject because they’re uncomfortable acknowledging someone’s pain. ‘This is a shame, because in reality it takes very little to make someone feel heard and validated.’ On a more macro level, she says, ‘If someone feels pressured to move on, could that also be a trickle-down effect from a government that has a vested interest in us forgetting about its abject blundering in a deadly pandemic?’ I have an image of ripples on a beach, a storm leaving odd pieces of plastic on the sand and rough little shells that cut your feet.

Playwright V (formally Eve Ensler, best known for her play The Vagina Monologues) saw theatre work dry up completely during the pandemic – and found that the world paused long enough for her ghosts to finally catch up with her. But perhaps this pain would be worth it? ‘I believed it would be our wake-up call. That we would reckon with, examine and hopefully change our ways of being,’ from endless consumption to healthcare to confronting the climate catastrophe. She is saddened today, not just by seeing the rush to move on despite the pleas of immunocompromised people, but also by how many people rushed to try ‘to make life the same as it was before Covid. How the capitalist machinery and momentum is still driving the energy of the world.’ We have been coerced to move on, perhaps without taking the time to process what we learned about ourselves during the pandemic, or how we wanted to live. And what does it mean to move forward? Is what we’re really talking about here, in fact, moving back? Returning to some previous ideal self, before the dry persistent coughs, before lockdowns, the clapping, the deaths?

The first time Lucy Easthope heard the Welsh word hiraeth was while reading about the tragedy at the Welsh village of Aberfan, a disaster that killed 144 people, most of them children, in 1966. ‘Hiraeth is a longing for a place to which there is no return... a time that can never be gone back to.’ How does Easthope feel about the pandemic, looking back? ‘Well, it’s not over yet!’ she says, brightly. ‘I don’t think it’s cynical or depressing to be aware of that – that information used well can be used to ready us and help with decision-making. There is a long tail still to come.’

Easthope’s beloved dad died last year – they had lived together through the pandemic, with her children, and she treasures those times. ‘We did a lot of talking, and his philosophy on what came next will guide me through the next stage of all this madness.’

As an expert in disaster recovery, Easthope could see things in the midst of the pandemic the rest of us could not. ‘You learn that the "honeymoon period" of disaster only lasts a few weeks, and then the fatigue and the dissent and the arguments set in.’ That’s when you learn about all the betrayals – "partygate" and the rule breaches. ‘There are always cruel revelations in disaster.’ She felt oddly alienated watching friends fall for this honeymoon phase, ‘buying their puppies, and baking, and I didn’t dare say it won’t last. I call it a “malevolent anaesthetic” – it made people feel even more betrayed [when reality struck]. We have to get better at being honest about what disasters do.’

So – how do we move forward, consciously, from this one, a pandemic that caused more than 230,000 deaths in the UK? How do we live? Rachel Connolly asks, ‘Am I allowed to block it out?’ The human impulse to forget in order to keep going is interesting. History suggests it might prove dangerously easy to do this. The last global pandemic, in 1918, has been called the ‘forgotten flu’. At least 50 million people died worldwide, but because few wanted to dwell on the pain and the fact it coincided with the massive losses of the First World War, it is often missing from history books. It faded away. Remembering pandemic trauma is tricky, because the deaths simply aren’t as ‘tellable’ as deaths from war. The smaller impacts, such as loneliness, or heartbreak in a time of lockdown, are even less so.

Lucy Easthope has hope. She looks for hope, she finds it, and takes it with her to the next job, the next conversation. Doing the work she does, ‘you realise all you have is today. Humans have always lived alongside [a certain] amount of peril – we got lulled into forgetting that.’ She had often wondered how people kept going in extended times of suffering such as the Blitz in the Second World War. She now realises it was only afterwards that this period was framed neatly, and bookended with a beginning and an end. ‘At the time, you just kept putting one foot in front of the other, every time dawn broke.’ It’s both her nature and her life’s work to believe we can move forward from disaster and start the work of healing. ‘But my professional experience has also taught me that there are many bumps ahead and that we have to be painfully honest about those. All the planners can do now is be the light-bearers, illuminating the traps.’

Four years on, are we OK? The consensus seems to be, well, no, we’re not. But that’s OK. The activist and historian Rebecca Solnit talks about how disasters can ‘shake things loose’ in a society, and illuminate its inequalities, hopefully leading to meaningful change, albeit in sometimes uncomfortable ways. ‘It has led us to ask questions such as, “How do [society’s] systems actually function? Who do they leave behind?”’ says Morgan. And, ‘on an interpersonal level, part of moving forward from a disaster is empathy and curiosity. It doesn’t take much.’ Those text messages we sent four years ago were just the beginning. Now is the time to ask the questions out loud, and listen attentively to the replies.

This feature appears in the February 2024 issue of ELLE UK, out now.

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