There’s no going back to ‘normal’ – we just have to live with anxiety

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So, suddenly everyone knows the Greek alphabet and exactly how worried to be about omicron. Hugely? A bit? Somewhat? Well, guess what? I don’t believe anyone who is certain about all this any more. In the groundhog day that is the generalised anxiety about the pandemic, a few things have become apparent that are deeply revealing about our collective state of mind.  

There are the straight-forward dangerous anti-vaxxers such as Piers Corbyn. There are those who somehow think a pandemic can be fought with a bit of British stiff upper lip. And then there are the rest of us, who swing between being as sensible as possible to thoroughly confused by what we are being told.

The biggest denial has been clear right from the beginning of all this and that is the fantasy of a return to “normal”. Pandemics may burn themselves out, but it’s a matter of years, not months, and everyone’s life will have been affected. If all advice about coping with anxiety is to do with living in the present, then it would be helpful to stop living in the past. Things have changed and we are not in control of those changes. We are not going back to pre-pandemic days for a while yet, even if, as we all hope, this variant is mild and a wave of new drugs is cutting the risk of death. 

Is living with restrictions offensive to the British? Everyone in New York is masked up, the Spanish and Portuguese wear them with little fuss. Are we saying that no one else cares about civil liberties? The truth is that those desperate to protect the British way of life seem able to write off the British way of death. We have done appallingly, whatever spin the Government wants to put on the numbers. Even if we are vaxxed, we still dwell in uncertain times. 

Like most people, I swing from “we’ve just got to get on with it” to “hmmm, I am not sure about going to the pub” on an hourly basis. In the space of 10 seconds, I can go from “we are all going to get it anyway” to “I don’t want to catch this thing”. 

See-sawing anxiety; dark, intense dreams; sudden alarm about one of my children – I cycle through all this in a day. My own behaviour is contradictory. I will go from researching medical grade masks to flying to countries where very few are vaccinated. I will refuse to go to the cinema, but then sit in a small, barely ventilated restaurant. To date, the most dangerous places I feel I have been are the long passport queues at airports. 

We are all bad at risk assessment so we skew emotionally to whatever suits us at the time. That is why so much dissent from official advice is understandable. No one wants to spend their days thinking about death, so we pace our feelings. No one wants to be deprived of human contact, but many people have been shielding for nearly two years now and somehow we forget about them. We don’t like to think too much about the vulnerable because it reminds us of our own vulnerability.  

None of us wants another lockdown, and yet surely by now we have got to the point where we are immunised against the false binaries that are trotted out: individual choice vs collective solidarity. Health vs wealth. Freedom to spread a disease that may kill others vs freedom to feel a little more safe. 

All those who talk in absolutes, who stake out political positions based on pre-pandemic conditions, can safely be ignored. If the past two years have not enabled political parties, governments and pundits to see that new forms of cooperation rather than the resuscitation of old conflicts are necessary, then God help us all. Politicians have much to learn from scientists on this score. 

And now the advice is muddled and we are confused once again. Borders that have already been broached will shut down again. Wait and see while omicron goes on its search and destroy mission. There is no vaccine against denial. So we have to learn to live with a certain amount of anxiety. That is bloody difficult. Those who think they can mask that are much mistaken. 

Ventilation and vaccines work. All the rest is hot air, I’ve concluded – and we see through it all, even in our masks and misted-up glasses. Caution, I believe, is not a sign of powerlessness, but the only way that we may keep ourselves going, confronted with yet another spiky ball of confusion.

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