New Times,
New Thinking.

Rachel Cunliffe

Why the thought of another lockdown is so terrifying

We still haven’t processed the psychological trauma of last year.

This time last year, I was losing my mind.

I remember because of my iPhone’s insistence on showing me my “memories”, taking me back to those damp, dark days in November 2020 when all the joy and light in the world was ebbing away. We were halfway through the four-week “circuit breaker” lockdown that Boris Johnson had imposed to “save Christmas”. Maybe it was my chronic anxiety or maybe the signs – transmission rates, NHS pressures, the dysfunctional rhetoric coming out of Downing Street – were obvious, but it seemed inevitable to me that Christmas would not, in fact, be saved. The pubs and restaurants closed and the stay-at-home orders returned just as the clocks went back, depriving people of that precious hour of after-work daylight. The desperation for any kind of break from my artificially lit sitting-room-turned-office is reflected in the photos I took: of cold, wet walks in the dying sunlight, of the fox that lives on our street looking suspicious, of the rainy view from my window out over empty railway tracks.  

Everyone has their lockdown stories. The first time around – when the world as we knew it shut down overnight to be replaced by empty roads and police patrolling parks – was the most dramatic and destabilising. The third, which consumed the first quarter of this year as the vaccine rollout got under way, felt the longest. But it was the November circuit breaker that broke me.

With vaccines still just beyond the horizon, that was the first time I remember feeling utterly, incomprehensibly hopeless. I found myself struggling to concentrate. Going out felt futile; staying in felt like giving up. Getting out of bed became a challenge. Doom-scrolling Twitter became an obsession. If I had to sum up November in one word, it would be despair. 

I don’t know how common my experience is. I have an inkling, maybe, that others found it as hard as I did – being cut off from society with none of the solidarity of the first lockdown, none of the unseasonably sunny weather, none of the optimism that we just needed “three weeks to flatten the curve”. But I didn’t talk about it then, and neither did anyone else. Now it seems like we have a kind of collective amnesia, as though we’ve decided as a nation to pretend it wasn’t that bad really. Or if it was, it was worth it. We were saving lives, after all. 

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And of course we were – although not as many as we wanted to. Whenever we look back at the pandemic so far, the story is told in terms of data points: cases, hospitalisations, fatalities, vaccines delivered, comparisons to other countries. We look at the death toll – 166,730, at the time of writing. Or else we look at the economic indicators – jobs lost, businesses folded, the hit to GDP. The psychological impact is much, much harder to measure. It’s a mix of short-term shock and long-term emotional deterioration, combined with anxiety, loneliness and unspeakable amounts of grief. Some people will bounce back, others will be left with lifelong mental health conditions. We won’t know the full picture for decades.  

But I think deep down, most of us sense how traumatic the lockdowns have been. You can see it in the panic that now, even with 80 per cent of adults double-vaxxed and a booster programme under way, there might be another one: in the fact that trends for the search term “lockdown Christmas” have gone up by 300 per cent in the past week, and the attempt to make the Prime Minister rule out cancelling Christmas for a second year in a row. We are eyeing up Europe, desperately wondering whether we are ahead of their curve or behind it. The new antiviral drugs that will revolutionise the treatment of Covid-19 and save lives attracted a burst of positive headlines then faded from the news. Our government is reluctant to over-promise, holding out the threat of more restrictions as a way to cajole people into getting jabs. And for all that the shops are open, and pubs and restaurants are bustling with pre-Christmas socialising, people are scared to hope. Or at least I am.

I’m better now than I was last November. I can concentrate, I can get out of bed, I have regained my ability to turn off Twitter. Now, unlike then, I can reassure myself by studying vaccine numbers, tracking the victories we have won against this pernicious virus in terms of jabs in arms and antibodies in blood. I can plan a wedding for April, when winter will be over, and almost believe it might actually happen. I can look forwards. 

I know it’s irrational that flashbacks to last year, triggered by old photos or dour scientists at familiar looking government press briefings, still induce panic attacks. We have ways to deal with Covid now that seemed miraculous not so long ago. We are making so much progress, and the fact my mind can’t register that progress is a sign of how my ability to reason has been skewed, not of the situation on the ground. But the continued insistence in some circles that the only way out of this is the unreachable goal of zero Covid, with an endless cycle of lockdowns and booster programmes that can never quite catch up, makes it impossible to let the anxiety go. It’s amplified by the algorithms that feed on our distress and by journalists who know doom sells newspapers. The parallels to last year – the same headlines, the same voices, the same arguments – read as a pre-emptive admission of defeat.  

And our refusal as a society to be honest about just how devastating that rhythm of restrictions and freedom was, to acknowledge the damage done every time the optimism was dashed with a fresh round of disappointment, feels like a mass delusion.  

I want to enjoy this November, and the build-up to a Christmas that has been two years coming. I’m just not sure how I’d cope if it all fell apart again, after so many vaccines and so much promise. “It’s not the despair,” as John Cleese’s character puts it in the 1986 film Clockwise. “I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.”

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