I am waking up after a sufficiently long sleep. I had felt exhaustion yesterday evening and fell asleep early. Keeping my eyes closed, and ignoring my cat making it clear he wants me to get up, to feed him, and to let him out of the campervan for his morning patrol, I am focusing for a few minutes on dreaming up positive pictures of this new day.
I am getting up, making my first coffee, feeding my cat, and not the other way round. Looking at the blue sky presiding over a cold April morning, I am not seeing the beauty of the lake, but struggle with what is going on in my head. I try to turn around the worry and the burden which is created by thinking about very simple things I have to do. Very simple things have become stressful when thinking about that I have to do them. I always knew this feeling, but it has become a prevalent stressor one year into the pandemic. Which gets me into the past, mourning everything my head is telling me that I have lost it. Worrying about the upcoming little things in my future again, I am loosing, once more, my ability to enjoy the present. Enjoying solitude, or suffering from loneliness? I have the choice, and more often than not, I fail to manage moving on a more enjoyable path for the day. Or I manage at the beginning, and fail all of a sudden throughout the day due to a small event, or just when daylight is waning.
I am attempting to disrupt my morning routine, which usually includes reading global news first. I have learned that reading these, mostly bad, news first thing over a coffee just fuels my being upset, being worried, feeling helpless and angry.
Instead, I am focusing on a voicemail which I received from a friend. My friend apologises for not having reacted earlier on previous mails from me. She explains the crippling inertia and depression which she is running through in this pandemic situation. I know her from before. She used to be so vibrant. Everything she describes about her struggle for today and the next days, I can perfectly relate to. I experience the same.
I could go on with stories of so many of my friends and family struggling with the same experience. With the ordeal of my ex-wife who single-parents our children 6.500 km from me, in a country equally affected by never-ending shutdowns, almost erratic closing of schools, and strict lockdown rules. I could describe in detail our worries about the depressive effects which the lockdown has on our teenage children, and our worrying about it, and how we wonderfully cooperate in coping with it. I could write about my single-parenting friend with three young children here in Berlin. I guess I would just describe individual stories which we all experience in countless variations right now.
We feel trapped, we feel helpless. We feel angry, and we suffer from our energy being sucked out of our lifes. We feel despair, because everything feels like a burden, simple tasks become more and more difficult. We daydream, we need rest after some work way earlier than we used to. A mental task, some office work, the need for a break comes after an hour, or sometimes after a few minutes. My friend in Berlin got help from a wonderful friend for a few days, taking care of her children. The time she had on her own, it felt like heaven. When the kids came back, the positive energy of this break lasted a few hours, only. Do people without small children really appreciate the effects of a protracted absence of Kitas, kindergardens, and schools being open?
I am attempting to describe the effects of depression, however, there are way more qualified writers than I am. But what I see is both an endemic increase of depression and, at the same time, a drastic increase of numbers of people who do not even realise that what they suffer from is a sustained series of depression attacks. This collective increase is a consequence of the protracted measures which we have imposed on ourselves in order to stay healthy and safe during a pandemic hitting us on an unprecendented scale.
But here is what I know about depression: At its core, it is a deep-seated and profound form of emotional pain. I also know that, like other unpleasant emotions, this pain easily separates itself from the triggering events and develops a life of its own, if experienced for too long. The trigger may vanish at some point, but the negative emotion stays. This is how anxieties develop, or phobias. Enough triggering events, and they are meant to stay even after the situation has long disappeared. It is the same with depression attacks. Because the point I want to make in this blog is a very different one, I stay away from explaining the neurophysiological reasons for this.
So, firstly, I state that increasing numbers of people in our societies are currently suffering from lasting emotional pain. Which creates a strong longing to make it disappear. May be through painkillers of various types, including meds, including drugs, including alcohol. But whether we sedate, or not, the pain stays, and it is a very deep pain. What happens if I have a headache and it doesn’t vanish after taking Ibuprofene? I feel helpless, I feel angry, I may double down on the painkiller, but I also try to understand why I have this pain. If the Doctor can not explain the pain, and make it go away, I may begin to distrust the Doctor.
We are facing anger, helplessness, feelings of being trapped, profound absence of a past which appears to be gone, on a societal scale. There is no discussion these days which I have which will not focus on Covid, or at least at some point invariably touch the issue. More often than not, this leads to an angry ramble.
We feel trapped because we are. Not only the unending cold weather is keeping us in our houses. We are strongly advised to stay in. We are advised to do home office. We face the protracted shutdown of any place where we used to mingle, whether the coffee shop, whether the shopping mall, whether any recreational place. We are living in areas where we face curfews, or we are being prevented from going to places just for touristic or any other recreational reasons. When I compare Berlin with Belgrade, just as an example, life is very different in Berlin. Much more shut down, like in other places in Europe. And yet, even in more permissive places, we all feel the effects of being prevented from engaging in what our brains need: Human contact, not over Zoom, but real contact.
We all know this, I am just stating it here to make my argument. We all feel that we began fighting this pandemic by hoping, and being told, that this will be over soon. But until now, it never was getting anywhere close to being over. I remember times last November when we faced yet another lockdown, hoping to re-open in January. And we did not, or only temporarily and in a very limited manner, re-open. We face a seemingless never-ending oscillation between hope and despair.
I suspect this is an issue seriously re-wiring our brains, to an extent unknown to many of us. Like, will I ever feel comfortable again when people come close to me in a crowded situation, whether on the bus, or in a crowded pedestrians zone? I crave proximity, and I fear it at the same time. I fear being surrounded by an invisible enemy. Again, I am making this argument for a purpose, not digging into the emerging scientific findings about how it affects us in all our societies. I have, for example, written on the impact of the pandemic and how we handle it, on domestic violence and on violence against women. What I want to express here is that fear, and anger, and helplessness, and the wish to make this going away, they have taken a deep root.
So, if there is an invisible enemy which I can not fight, I will feel threatened by anything happening close to me, getting me out of my comfort zone. My neighbor can make me angry, a tourist can, a foreigner can. Here is a strong vector fueling nationalism, through the fear created by anything alien to me.
At the same time, in our attempts to find a way through this, I feel from my conversations with a great many friends that we are establishing a narrative which justifies our own subtle non-compliance. Like many, I feel the temptation to not comply, in the security of my own private space. Where, as I said, the protracted cold weather plays a role because we are forced to stay in our houses. Where we all try to find ways to balance physical health with mental health. Mental health requires contact to other human beings. As we begin to rationalize this, I suspect that we may begin to move away from super-spreader-events to a mass of hidden mini-spreader-events.
My friend in the U.S. said, a few months ago, that in a situation where there is a choice only to either prioritize physical health or mental health, this friend will choose mental health, simply for survival purposes, thus meaning meeting people. We all want that. The conundrum sits with that it is not only about our own mental health, but about the physical health of other people, at the same time. If I prioritize my own health, I have to mitigate the many connections to vulnerable people which connect the people who I meet, with others. Mini-spreader-events carry the same viral potential, therefore, as super-spreader-events do, but they stay invisible. We have no guidance on how to mitigate, nor tool to assist, we are sitting with our own devices having to navigate through this huge responsibility. We are being told not to meet with more than a limited number of people in the “safety” of our homes, but how do we do this? The number of friends of mine who recently mention that they are going on a date, or, let me suspect, several dates, who knows the numbers? What about the absolute necessity of teenagers to hug each other?
So far, my argument expresses my suspicion that, the longer the fight against the pandemic lasts, the more we are being driven into “underground defiance”. If that is true, then the virus is being spread despite all public containment attempts. In a totalitarian regime, this may lead to even intruding into private space for controlling compliance. In democratic societies, it may simply lead to that all measures remain ineffective.
Here, the vaccination dilemma comes into play: The longer the vaccination campaign is being slowed down by insufficient supplies, resistance, doubts, administrative problems, and else, the longer the virus will thrive and prosper, unseen, at a too large scale. And the longer this happens, the more likely new mutations, and our inability to catch up with updated vaccines. We seem to be at a critical juncture of a whack-a-mole game, where we may get exhausted at an unknown point in the future.
If then, like today, some countries appear to be more successful with vaccination campaigns than others, and if, like we can see, these countries begin to release restrictions, the emotional impact on those who still live under lockdowns, will add exponentially to anger and helplessness. They will feel greed, and the wish to keep things for themselves, too. Another vector leading into nationalism.
Finally, in order to present my argument, a last story, from yesterday:
Another friend consulted me, by attaching a video to his mail. A video spreading through social media, one of uncounted similar types floating around. A well-dressed very attractive female presenter, propped up against a professional studio background, exhaling all visible criteria aiming at making her appearance credible and professional, spread a gargantuan conspiracy theory. That the virus does not exist. That the vaccines are evil. That all this is proven. That it is all about a global cabale of people subjugating their populations. The usual allegations, in this case against Bill Gates, were part of the blend.
The professionalism made me sick and angry. Because the flawless design of this presentation requires a deeper intellectual effort in order to pierce through the fog of manipulative rhethoric. Which is something which many people will not invest into. It took me two efforts in order to find a way demonstrating to my friend why these are incredibly well-crafted lies.
My friend almost apologised, because I had begun to ramble myself. He explained that this video was sent to his aunt who is hospitalised. He told me that in his circle of friends he hears entirely confusing advice about vaccinations, including hearing from a medical doctor in his circle that one should avoid the vaccination at all costs. He just told me another story about how deeply confused all of us are. In asking me he was trying to find guidance within a field which left him scared.
So it depends on who is giving you advise in such a situation. And I believe that more often than not the advise being given is half-baked, or uninformed, or even coming from people with a desire to manipulate.
This morning, I read a German news article about the German intelligence organisations watching extreme right-wing political movements and also noting new forms of extremism coming up. New forms of extremism connected to protests against Corona-measures. The key sentence in this news piece: The intent of some in this movement, and in right-wing political parties, to sow doubt in the confidence into the free democratic order which forms the value-base of our constitution.
That is my argument: That the helplessness, anger, fear, and facing the protracted, seemingly never-ending, nature of the crisis, is being used for increasing the base of those who just doubt the value-base which we have nurtured for more than seventy years. Automatically, by increasing the base of people willing to listen to the pied piper (Der Rattenfaenger von Hameln, for my German friends), one increases the number of people willing to vote for the pied piper.
For me, this sounds like a perfect storm.