If you were to scroll back through my Instagram archive to what I posted on 15 March 2020, you’d find two stories I shared to my close friends – at the time, a private list of roughly 20-30 people. The first was a screenshot of an article in the Guardian with the headline, “UK coronavirus crisis ‘to last until spring 2021 and could see 7.9m hospitalised’”. The second was a picture of my own puffy face, eyeliner and mascara streaking down to my jaw. It was shocking – I was upset. But also, on some level, the surrealism of the suggestion that this thing might last a year was so ridiculous that I found it morbidly funny. I didn’t believe it.
I’ve thought about that series of posts a lot during the past year. It’s an anecdote I tell often when reflecting on how long this has gone on. I thought about them last March when we reached the one-year point in the pandemic, and again in the autumn when we hit 18 months. These milestones are small horrors in and of themselves – the moment you do the calculations and realise how much time has passed. That, actually, you’re not rounding up by much when you say that your life has now been dramatically worse for nearly two years.
This, to me, seems like an objective nightmare. So why does it feel impossible to talk about it? Recently, in the media and in online discourse, discussions of pandemic fatigue (like many debates in the pandemic) have been oversimplified and boiled down to a strict binary. There’s one camp that says “give me my old life back!”, lamenting a lack of nights out and parties, acting as though those in power are lockdown fetishists, without admitting that these have technically been available to them since July. Then there’s the other camp, the one that believes any complaint about the pandemic proves that the complainer doesn’t care that people are still dying. This camp fails to recognise the other types of loss people have suffered during the pandemic, or the reality that two years is a lot of life to put on hold. Both arguments are tedious, and yet the debate is repeated ad nauseam.
This reductive approach fails to reflect the nuance of how different people feel in the face of new variants and rising case numbers. There are those who are completely unafraid of Covid, who have few restrictions on their life and therefore feel that, while it’d be great if things were completely back to normal, they are able to enjoy themselves pretty freely now. There are those who follow their own self-imposed restrictions – maybe they don’t go to restaurants, don’t go to parties, or simply don’t travel (or, on the extreme end of the spectrum, are waiting for the pandemic to be “over” before they return to doing any normal things). These people may feel frustration at being “restricted” without having official limitations placed on their lives: and this is a valid opinion, given increasing hospitalisation and the ongoing risk of long Covid. And even these varying perspectives stem from all manner of different motivations, anxieties and beliefs. We simply end up in a mess when we pit them against each other. A lack of clarity and action from the government only worsens the confusion, leaving people to argue with each other from completely different pages.
This is part of what makes this debate so unsatisfying. But let’s say we do understand each other. Then what? What do we do with that information? Science is moving as quickly as it can, but a multi-strain vaccine is still predicted to be at least a year away. We may be coming out of an Omicron wave, but inevitably new strains will arise until the world is more comprehensively vaccinated. Even if the most extreme sides of this debate got what they wanted (full lockdown, or full freedom) the pandemic would still be happening. And while things are far better than they were a year ago – and a year before that – it’s still here, with likely more to come.
This feels impossible to accept when most of us are so desperate for normal life to return. But no amount of think pieces wishing the pandemic away will help us escape how far from ending this situation is. Though the government’s catastrophic handling of the pandemic – and its apparent willingness to let the NHS and industries like hospitality break under the weight of little guidance or funding – is responsible for how unendingly bad things seem to be, the futility of the situation is what makes it, for most of us, truly unbearable.
There needs to be a way to talk about our collective pandemic fatigue that works within reality. We must accept both the real risks of an unmanaged virus and the injustice of not getting these two years back. There can be questions about how we manage that in the meantime, and empathy for those who thought this thing wouldn’t last beyond the first lockdown. But as much as we may want to will the pandemic over, it isn’t.
[See also: The pandemic has had a scarring effect on loneliness, but we can do better]