Why the Weight of 2021 Feels More than 2020

Coronavirus

Why the Weight of 2021 Feels More than 2020

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

I thought I was finally living in a post-pandemic world; or at least a version of it. And then lockdown 2.0 happened.

Ever since the original lockdown was announced in March 2020, we were forced to accept a phenomenon that would reign our lives. For almost six months, most of us had no option but to remain confined within four walls. This, on the surface, seemed an easy, preventative measure against the virus. However, what arose in numbers apart from the patients physically affected by it was also those who were experiencing the mental toll of it. More and more people complained about a sense of ennui that had set into their routine; all this unspent energy sans any channel for it. Eventually, as the gravity of the situation (and defeat) set in, people much like myself found new avenues to invest these jitters in. I learnt to drive, learnt a new language, started a business – all activities that were consuming enough time to bide my anxiety.

Around September of last year, life started resuming to “normal” for me. I started meeting my friends again, frequented restaurants, and indulged in all sorts of recreation as I had been before the pandemic hit, albeit with a mask. The diminishing number of cases were inversely proportional to the traffic on the roads. Although this new life came with restrictions, I was grateful to live it, having experienced the claustrophobia of the lockdown for six consecutive months.

Although this new life came with restrictions, I was grateful to live it, having experienced the claustrophobia of the lockdown for six consecutive months.

Starting March 2021, the coronavirus cases in Mumbai have been at a harrowing incline. All those who had narrowly escaped the past year have now been afflicted by it. As a mounting number of people fell prey to the pandemic, the future started looking bleak again… in fact bleaker than 2020. By April, the state of Maharashtra enforced strict weekday curfews and a stricter weekend lockdown. To me, it felt like all the visions of a post-pandemic life were being eclipsed by sickness and death around me. Once again.

Lockdown 2.0 has opened the floodgates to remnant anxiety from last year. The past year, in spite of the challenges that we were confronted with, we revelled in the novelty of the work-from-home life and the liberty it donned on us to pursue other interests. This time around, it feels like there is no imminent end to misery. All the energy that I had previously invested in making the most of a bad situation has vanished now; there is only a gaping hole where motivation and joy used to be. Adam Grant, from The New York Times, calls this feeling “languishing”. He writes, “Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness … [It] is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being.

This time around, it feels like there is no imminent end to misery.

You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either.” The original lockdown was used more productively, to form new habits and rid myself of old vices. I was working out daily, inhaling literature, and forfeiting sugar – a tabula rasa in all its glory. My friends, who no longer had means to access cigarettes, stopped smoking altogether. On the contrary, this year has been a resort to those emancipated habits as a means to cope with this reality. While slacking came with consequences earlier, this year those consequences have lost their gravitas.

For working professionals, students, homemakers alike, the presence of a “burnout” is undeniable. The prolonged stress of living through these uncertain times has cast a shadow on any modicum of hope that surfaced during the brief dip in the cases. Emma Kavanagh, a psychologist and author, weighs in on this phenomenon, “We are tired and have been doing this for a long time and we had this initial array of coping capacity and it’s simply burnt out.” “The second wave occurred and people in many countries were back in lockdown. In technical terms, people were in a situation of “frustrative non-reward”. They thought they would be rewarded with an end to the pandemic, but that reward was taken away from them.

Understandably, people were frustrated,” added Steven Taylor, a professor and clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia. The lethargy that had gripped us last year has pervaded our mental faculties this time around. While coronavirus has, globally, captured people’s health, the other pandemic to arise from it has been that of collectively deteriorating mental health. It not only takes me twice as long to get work done but I also need to work doubly hard on it.

The lethargy that had gripped us last year has pervaded our mental faculties this time around.

With every mounting layer of the mask, I cannot help but feel that my youth is being wasted sitting indoors biding time until I can start living again. It has already been 14 months of living this dystopian nightmare. We are well past the five stages of grief, so retired from the notions of helplessness. A feeling more profound than grief has now held us hostage. Even after all the suffering from the past year, our reward has been short lived. In one swift motion, we have been catapulted to a time that no one wished to relive.

I cannot deny that there is a lot that is different this year. Although the new strain of the virus threatens us, there is also the dimly lit hope of the vaccine just around the bend. There is no knowing when this nightmare will end nor any elixir to escape from it. All I know is that while we may heal from the disease, it will be a while before we bounce back from the pandemic.

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