If you have ever had to go through a bereavement, you will know that there are various emotional stages one needs to pass through to reach acceptance and equanimity. Since we heard the first whispers about Covid-19 and Coronavirus in January, I have passed through (and still continue to do so) a number of emotional stages.
The hardest thing about the enforced measures under which we are living is the uncertainty of when it will end, and in view of that, perhaps it helps to consider the different stages and identify where we are now. This is a hugely personal thing of course and others will be at different stages. That’s OK. The main thing is to remember that we are moving through a process and that process will have an end … and a return to some kind of normality. Even if it is a different ‘normal’ to the one that we have known. It is also very important to say that people do not often move through the stages necessarily in a linear way, so you may revisit one stage a few times before reaching the end.
The first stage: FASCINATION & INTEREST. When the news broke about the mysterious virus that was ravaging Wuhan in mid-January, it all seemed so far away, but it was very interesting and the news media were very excited about it. But surely it was nothing for us to worry about. But by 23 January, 18 people were dead in the Chinese province of Hubei, and its capital Wuhan was in lockdown. There were 500 confirmed cases at that stage and the virus had already spread to Singapore and Vietnam. We were told that the new virus has been named 2019-nCoV, and it was a new strain of ‘coronavirus’ not previously identified in humans. We starting learning about coronaviruses; SARS, another respiratory disease which killed 800 people in the early years of this century, is a coronavirus, as is the common cold. On 24th January the first European case was reported in France.
The second stage: DENIAL & DISBELIEF. As we moved into February, it seemed that the news across the world was getting darker by the day. We were concerned for the people stuck on the Diamond Princess cruise ship moored off Japan and we heard stories of “Superspreaders.” But life continued here as normal and I remember even having light-hearted conversations with friends about it. “Let’s just get it and get it over with,” someone said. Others thought it was all a big fuss about nothing, the Worlds’ press making a big deal where there was none. It wasn’t that we didn’t believe it was happening, it’s just that having never seen anything like this before, we still couldn’t quite believe it would happen to us. This is actually rational behaviour, as, in any unexpected situation, a short period of denial gives us a chance to acclimatise to what is happening and to cope with things that are frightening or painful.
The third stage: FEAR & WORRY. I know that there are a lot of people who are still in this phase – with very good reason. Once we were put into lockdown on 23 March, it was hard to stay in the denial phase. Social Distancing, a phrase I had never even heard of a few months ago, was now a by-word for every activity. Covid-19 was real. It was suddenly happening all around us, not in some faraway country. People were dying and, as the daily press conferences started from Downing Street, we were aghast at how many were losing their lives. No one was unaffected by this, everyone was suddenly at risk and we became worried for friends and family. Supermarkets became places organised with military precision, with one way systems, social distancing markers and long queues. Everyone who could, started working form home. People were “furloughed”, another word I had previously never heard of. Those who had to leave home to work were running a risk every day. We also worried about how our lives have changed and the implications for the future. Jobs, relationships, finances: there was no aspect of our lives that was unaffected.
The fourth stage: ANGER and FRUSTRATION. Once the situation really started to sink in, it was not surprising that people began to experience anger. There was anger in the press about how the government had prepared (or not) for such a crisis and the general lack of personal protective equipment. We were angry at having our normal privileges taken away. We were mostly angry because our lives have changed and we were powerless to do anything about it. It is completely normal in any crisis to have a spell of anger. We want someone to blame. Remember the fist fights that were going on in shops over a few rolls of toilet paper? People emotions are heightened at times like these, and we regress back into more instinctive behaviours as we play out our frustrations. There is nothing wrong with feeling angry (as long as you don’t hurt yourself or anyone else), and just as we feel anger when grieving the death of a loved one, it is quite normal to feel angry about the loss of normality.
The fifth stage: BOREDOM and SADNESS. As the anger fades and we wade through weeks of isolation and staring at the same four walls, it is understandable that at some stage desensitisation sets in. The daily updates cease to be as shocking, as our minds and bodies adapt to the situation as the new norm. Boredom sets in as even people who were quite keen to not have to go to work for a few days, become fed up with being at home. Sadness is very much part of this stage as we mourn what we have lost. Although we have got very good at finding new and innovative ways of connecting, we miss our friends and our families.
The sixth stage: ACCEPTANCE and ADAPTION. This stage is a fluctuating one but it is a good precursor for hope which is the last stage. Adaption is so important as we come out of Lockdown. No one is expecting that things will just go back to normal overnight and most of us realise that the world may never look the same again. I personally have reviewed my working life: I have learnt that there is absolutely no point in my flying up to the north of England for a 2 hour meeting when I can easily have a Zoom meeting online. I won’t go back to travelling as much within my job. Hopefully employers will embrace flexibility around working from home and having virtual teams. We are a highly adaptable species and developing new skills and solutions to the challenges of life under lockdown has shown us just how versatile and flexible we can be. We may also have adapted our feelings about others in society: We have realised that the lowest paid workers in society may be the the most important. From taking care of the sick to delivering post and groceries, these workers are ensuring that the UK has kept running during lockdown, putting themselves and their families at significant risk. Also, perhaps for the first time, governments are adapting and finding new ways of working together to try and find a vaccine.
The seventh and final stage is HOPE for the future. Yes, the world will have changed, but maybe there will be some changes for the better. This from Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania:
“On an individual level, unfortunately, there are some people who are going to face post-traumatic stress (post Covid-19) The encouraging news psychologically is over half of people report a different response to trauma, which is post-traumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth is the sense that, I wish this didn’t happen but, given that it happened, I feel like I am better in some way. It might be a heightened sense of personal strength; it could be a deeper sense of gratitude; it could be finding new meaning, or investing more in relationships.”
It is also interesting to consider the changes that Covid has had on our planet: Having virtually stopped a lot of industrial activity and road traffic, air pollution has plummeted.
“In early March, the Stanford University scientist Marshall Burke used pollution data from four Chinese cities to measure changes in the level of PM2.5, a particularly harmful pollutant that attacks the heart and lungs. He estimated that, in China alone, emission reductions since the start of the pandemic had in effect saved the lives of at least 1,400 children under five and 51,700 adults over 70.”
Hope is clearly evident in the resurgence of our local community spirit. The heart-warming and uplifting community clapping every Thursday evening and the overwhelming response to the call for NHS volunteers, demonstrate that when the going gets really tough, people will come together to support each other. We are interconnected with, and interdependent on, each other in ways we did not fully understand before. Obviously, we DO care about each other. And as we move forward into a new era, let’s not lose that.
“We felt so lonely in the crowd. And now we feel so connected in isolation.” Hrishikesh Agnihotri