As the pandemic winds down, people are getting more and more wound up

OPINION: ICU occupancy remains low. Vaccines are now approved for kids. But now that we’re starting to let our guard down, a whole lot of pent-up stress is coming out
By Matt Gurney - Published on Nov 25, 2021
As people start to let the world in again, how much accumulated stress will be poured out onto others? (Ada daSilva/iStock)

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After 20 months of this pandemic, how tired are you?

This is a question that is difficult to answer. Fatigue, exhaustion, stress … those are all subjective. It’s hard to quantify or explain to someone else. But if you were fraying around the edges, would you notice? 

I’m the co-editor of an online magazine called The Line. About a month ago, my colleague and co-editor Jen Gerson wrote a column talking about a post-COVID-19 mental-health crisis. Actually, it might be more accurate to describe it as a mid-COVID-19 mental-health crisis. A point in her column that I have thought of again and again and again is a simple question: If you were crazy, would you know it?

Anyone who is being honest with themselves would have to admit that no, they would not. People who have gone over the edge become definitionally incapable of realizing that.  

We would do a better job noting the changes in others, though, wouldn’t we? In fact, I bet a bunch of you have noticed changes in others. What changes have they noticed in you? 

I had a very interesting conversation a few weeks ago. It came up organically and was not in any way something that was on the record. The woman I was speaking with probably didn’t even realize I was a journalist. We were simply stuck waiting somewhere together, and, out of boredom, I struck up a chat. She mentioned to me that she is largely retired now and had been even before the pandemic, though only a bit before. This was a relief for her, as it meant she didn’t have to be commuting and could just lie low. She also mentioned that she is active in a variety of volunteer capacities in her community and that many of those have also been largely sidelined by the pandemic.

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That was interesting to me. You’ve probably all read reports, as I have, about the devastating impact of the pandemic on philanthropic efforts of all kinds. I asked her what her experience had been like as a volunteer during COVID-19, and she told me it’s been terrible. Absolutely awful. And, interestingly, she said it’s getting worse now.

And that made me go “huh.”

“Huh” is where a lot of journalism starts. 

Intrigued, I asked why. In the first wave, she said, everything got mostly shut down. During the second and third waves, things were slowly restarting, and people were just glad to have some normalcy coming back. But now that it’s almost over, she told me, people are miserable. She’s been yelled at, insulted, accused of having ulterior motives. People she has worked with for years, as colleagues or recipients of her volunteer efforts, have turned on her and become like new people, she said. 

“If I had known what it was going to be like,” she told me, “I would have quit last summer.”

I don’t know exactly how one could verify this and establish that it’s a broader problem. Maybe a poll or survey of philanthropic groups and organizations could get us some of the way there. Until and unless that happens, though, this one remains in the realm of the anecdote. But it feels right, doesn’t it? Ontario’s COVID-19 numbers have definitely been moving in the wrong direction in terms of daily case counts, but the vaccine rate is high, hospital occupancy remains low, and pediatric vaccines are now approved and parents are booking time slots. You can still make a very plausible case that this is almost over. 

And now that it is, people can begin letting their guards down. As they start to let the world in again, how much accumulated stress will be poured out onto others?

I have been told that patience is a virtue, but it has never been one I have been overly blessed with. I have an appallingly low tolerance for bureaucratic hurdles and pointless red tape. But I try, not always entirely successfully but with sincere commitment, to always be patient with the poor people who were tasked with inflicting the stupidity on me. They aren’t the ones who designed the dumb systems or insist on them; they’re just the people trying to do their job so they can collect their pay. It’s like yelling at a waiter because your lunch is late. It doesn’t make things go any faster and ruins the waiter’s day. That’s not how I like to live.

But I have to admit that, these past few months, I have found myself more short-tempered and less patient than usual. When I thought of that poor woman talking about getting yelled at by people she’s known for many years, though I felt terrible for her, I also immediately understood how and why that could be happening. Those people are probably simply as tired and exhausted as I am — as I expect many of us are.

I’d like to think that this will be transitory. That we will all, in our own way and in due time, find a way to decompress, to blow off some steam and let the bad vibes out and the good vibes in. What we probably need is simply a civilization-wide vacation. A nice long walk down a beach. With lots of tasty drinks. Maybe some golf.

But I’m not convinced that we are going to get that. Look at poor British Columbia. A week after that province was devastated by a horrific storm, leaving thousands trapped and the food-distribution network in chaos, all their work at rescue and recovery is being rewarded by …. another huge storm. 

There’s a lesson there for us all: we may need a vacation, but we are not guaranteed one.

Probably the only respite we are likely to receive is whatever we grant one another. So be nice to your waiters, your volunteer coordinators, and even, God help us, your banking customer-service representatives. Dig deep — really deep, with the bankers — and find a way to not ruin someone else’s day. Even though I know this is sometimes a lot to ask, it’s about all we can do for each other right now.

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