If there is a common thread to this pandemic, it is loss. Many have lost jobs, businesses, or homes. Others have lost members of their family, and still others have lost their lives. Even the luckiest among us have lost something, if only time. But this essay seeks to focus on another kind of loss: the loss of patience. Specifically, I want to put into words for myself this strange and unsettling feeling that, of late, comes over me at least once a day, the feeling we call pandemic fatigue.
The first time the coronavirus entered my consciousness as anything more than a blip was around Chinese New Year, in late January. I was going to see the celebratory parade in Usera, Madrid’s Chinese barrio, and I asked a friend of mine if he wanted to come. “Doesn’t seem like a good idea,” he said. “Lots of people coming from Wuhan.” Wuhan? I did not understand. “You know, that new coronavirus.”
I was stunned that someone in my life—and someone I considered sensible—was willing to change their behavior because of this virus on the news. Long before that, I had written off the periodic media frenzies about foreign diseases. Every other year there seemed to be some new virus ready to destroy the world—avian flu, swine flu, zika, SARS, Ebola—and every year it amounted to very little, at least in my life. Besides, I figured the media had such a strong financial incentive to frighten people that they would play up any potential danger, however remote.
So I went to the Chinese New Year Parade, and I didn’t get sick (though my camera was stolen), and I pushed coronavirus back to the peripheries of my awareness. It did not stay there for long. The news coming out of China seemed increasingly dire. The city of Wuhan was shut down completely. A whistleblower doctor died. Travel from China was banned. And still, stories of coronavirus infections started popping up all over the place.
I went on vacation in late February with my brother—to Poland—and, for the most part, life was still completely normal. But our flight back to Madrid took us through Milan, just for a short layover. By that time Italy was in bad shape, and parts of the country were already on lockdown. Milan was one of the worst hit areas. Even so, we did not even consider changing our flight. I was still quite sure that this virus business would blow over. All this was just our instinctual fear of the unknown.
By the first of March, most people were still in denial. By that I mean that we were thinking of this virus like some other kind of natural disaster, a flood or a fire—one that is localized in space and time. Maybe Italy was bad, and maybe China was bad, but we didn’t live in Italy or China. The virus would go away and we would move on. Yet two weeks after I got back to Madrid, the schools were closed. Two days later, restaurants had to shut down; and the next day we were shut up in our houses. It was the lockdown.
I really believed that it would just be for two weeks. A month, tops. I encouraged my mom to buy tickets for a trip to Ireland in June. No way this would still be going on in June, I thought. No chance. But now that I had so much extra time, I decided to read a little about pandemics. I read books by experts in public health and infectious disease, by historians and novelists, and by investigative journalists. And slowly, the truth dawned on me—the hard truth that this emergency was going to last a long time.
This was the first time that I was living through a world-historical crisis as an adult. The closest thing I could remember were the attacks of September the 11th, but I was just a kid then, and I did not really understand what was going on. This time, I was painfully aware, and yet equally powerless to do anything about it.
I had heard stories of the solidarity that arises during times of crisis, but this was the first time I experienced it. Admittedly, it was difficult to show solidarity in any normal way, since we could not be physically close to one another. This was one of the most depressing aspects of the situation. But people figured out ways to lift each other’s spirits. There were the balcony concerts, the children’s drawings taped to windows, and the nightly rounds of applause for the healthcare workers.
The other aspect that helped us to get through this lockdown was fear. During these months we were still coming to grips with this new infection. How deadly was it, exactly? How did it spread? Could it stay in the air? Who was more vulnerable? What were all the symptoms? The uncertainty made the virus all the more frightening. Even so, it was clear that the virus was dangerous: overwhelmed emergency rooms, bodies stored in hockey rinks, and improvised field hospitals. With such a predator lurking the streets, it was less tempting to go outside.
The twin supports of fear and solidarity made the lockdown bearable. That, and a certain amount of creativity.
In Spain we were only allowed out to go shopping for food. We could not take walks or exercise outside. This really limited the options when it came to maintaining mental health—especially in my case, since I love a long walk or a good run.
But I adapted. I created a workout routine I could do in my tiny room, and made sure to do it every day. To get some sun, I snuck out onto my roommate’s balcony. Missing the local parks, I bought a bunch of plants. I made YouTube videos for my students learning English at home. Since we could not go to restaurants, my brother and I started cooking ever-more elaborate dishes—braised oxtail stew, Brazilian feijoada, French cassoulet, and even homemade kebab.
Still, the monotony could be numbing, the social isolation irritating. I can hardly imagine what it would have been like for someone living alone.
Eventually, after what seemed to be half an eternity, we were let out to exercise. In mid-May, I took my first run in over two months. I emerged onto the street almost shivering with excitement.
And yet the run was somehow less enjoyable than I thought it would be. Partly this was due to circumstances. For whatever reason, the Spanish government decided to let us out only at certain prescribed times; so when I set out the streets were absolutely packed. But I was more disappointed at my own physical shape. Though I had been regularly exercising in my little room, running even a fairly short distance felt difficult, heavy, painful. Breathing was so uncomfortable that I even wondered if I had gotten the virus. And, of course, I was much slower than before.
By the beginning of summer, some flicker of light began to appear at the end of the tunnel. We were coming down from the virus’s curve, and hopefully hitting a flat bottom. The state of alarm lifted on June 21 and we were free to do whatever we wanted. Except for the masks, life began to look pretty normal again.
But even at this relatively calm time, the virus could not be forgotten. This was brought home to me when I tried to get my papers in order to visit New York for the summer. I do this every year, and I was even more eager than usual to go home, since it is always nice to take refuge in times of trouble. Even after getting the requisite documents together, however, I was faced with uncertainty.
Here was my predicament: though I could legally travel there and back with my documents, there was no guarantee that the airlines would know that. Visa regulations are enforced very imperfectly by airlines, who tend to err on the side of caution since they face penalties if they transport someone who cannot legally enter a country. Aside from that, flights could simply get cancelled from lack of demand, or the rules could change while I was in the United States, leaving me unable to return to my job in Spain. I hoped that someone in authority could give me some clarity. But the Spanish consulate could only tell me that the situation was evolving, and advised me not to risk it. So, in the end, I had to forego a visit to my homeland.
I focus on this situation because it captures an essential part of pandemic fatigue: the sense of total uncertainty about the future. It is the feeling of being in limbo, of your life being totally up in the air, of being unable to plan even in the short-term. The most one could do was to wait, while the normal pleasures of life passed silently by.
During the summer, I slowly tried to regain the running facility I had lost. It was far more difficult than I anticipated. My body was slow and sluggish, and even rather delicate. On one run I pulled a muscle in my core and had to spend several days recuperating. Nearly every run was in some way a disappointment. But I did discover a new place to run: a park near my apartment, affectionately called siete tetas (seven boobs), a name the park owes to its seven prominent hills that stand above the surrounding city. Running there obviously meant a lot of running uphill, and I figured that this challenge might be enough to get me back into shape.
Practicing this way, I quickly discovered the key to uphill running: look down. It is simply too painful to focus on how much of the hill remains. When you look forward, you become hyper-aware of your labored breathing, and the urge to give up becomes irresistible. But if you look down, focus on your feet, you notice that each individual step is not that much harder than running on level ground, and so you can continue. And it quickly struck me that the pandemic requires just this same mentality: look down, focus on each step, and forget about how much of the hill is left to climb.
Perhaps a Buddhist would describe this state of mind as enlightened, since it is just this absorption in the present moment that meditation tries to cultivate. And, indeed, it is a powerful strategy when times are tough. But few runners, I suspect, would enjoy running the whole time with their head down. Part of the pleasure of a good run is the scenery—at least for me. Likewise, a big part of the motivation of running comes from setting goals and trying to accomplish them: an attitude inherently oriented towards the future. The pandemic, just like this hill, made all this impossible, and it was all we could do to just keep our heads down and keep pushing forward.
Time became a problem during the pandemic—empty time.
At first, I admit, it was exciting to have so much time to fill. Indeed, mixed in with all the alarm and frustration of the early days of the lockdown, there was a distinct note of relief—the opportunity to slow down, to maybe work on some hobbies, or simply to relax and introspect.
But very soon people began to hit a wall, or at least I did. Humans are simply not meant to spend so much time inactive, cut off, and without a fixed schedule. We need a bit of structure and variety, or else time turns into an mushy purée, thin and bland. With no reason to get up early or late, to do something in the morning or the evening, today or tomorrow, this week or next, it somehow became all the more difficult to focus on anything productive. Focus, after all, is as much an act of exclusion—expelling extraneous distractions—as it is of inclusion; and there was nothing to exclude (or, perhaps, there was everything at once?).
One consequence of this lack of any fixed temporal landmarks was an increase in my consumption of alcohol. Simply put, there was not much else to do, and none of the usual reasons not to drink. Not that I was deliberately drowning my sorrows, you see (at least not most of the time); rather, my background consumption of alcohol grew steadily, until I was drinking almost every day. This only exacerbated the physical toll of prolonged inactivity, contributing to the general sense of malaise and torpor that became my natural element. I would wake up groggy and late, and hang around the house most of the day, even when we were finally allowed outside.
The cumulative effect of all this has been pandemic fatigue: a listlessness mixed with an undercurrent of anxiety. Without a routine, unable to see my family, I passed the time the best I could—taking a few trips, teaching a few online classes, and trying to carry on with my usual hobbies. It was not an altogether unpleasant way to live, I suppose.
Yet the feeling was rather like sunbathing on an active volcano. The whole world had a delicate, fragile quality, as if the situation might suddenly and drastically change once again. This made it difficult to fully relax or to fully commit to future plans. Even the approach of the new school year seemed distant and unreal. Would the schools really re-open? And if so, how long would they remain so?
The reason I have become so aware of pandemic fatigue is that, for the moment, it is partially lifting. School has started for in-person classes, and I am once again in front of a classroom, writing on a white board, trying to memorize students’ names (much more difficult with the masks!). In short, I not only have a routine once more, but also a social purpose. It feels surprisingly good. Aristotle was correct when he noted that we are social animals.
Now, after all this time, I have to be presentable in front of other people. This means no more gym shorts and sweatpants. The pandemic beard—quite impressively long, if I may say so—was shaven off, and my long hair trimmed. I even decided to do a dry month, Sober October, in order to reduce my drinking to pre-pandemic levels.
Best of all, my running ability has started to reach pre-lockdown levels once again. All that running uphill paid off, and I can finally run without my body dragging behind my intentions. Better still, I can run while looking forward instead of with my head down, staring at my feet.
But this pandemic is not over yet, and neither is the fatigue. We are in the midst of the long-predicted second wave of infections. The Spanish government is scrambling, amid bitter partisan bickering, to put together a coherent response for this new challenge, and without much success. The main consequence has been a slew of new rules, changing unpredictably from week to week, the majority more annoying than effective. Even as I write this, I am not sure what I will be allowed to do by next week.
The worst part of the current situation is that we will have to endure the next round of restrictions and rules without the psychological supports from the early days. The buoyant solidarity has vanished into the usual humdrum concerns and routine bickerings of life. Lately, most of us (especially the politicians) are more concerned with finger-pointing than with lending a helping hand.
Also, the fear of the virus has lessened considerably. While this is, perhaps, partly justified, since we are more familiar with its symptoms and have better treatments, this is mostly a result of familiarity. Coronavirus is beginning to shift into the background threats in our environments, like car crashes or lung cancer—one of many dangers that we mostly ignore.
After the solidarity and the fear have mostly gone, the only thing left is the feeling of fatigue. In the end, this fatigue is a failure to live with coronavirus, to really face up to it. Most of us badly want to forget about this emergency and move on, and yet we are constantly reminded of its nagging presence. Without the support of the community or even the fear of a new threat, the virus becomes merely a burden, an extra chore, an added whisper of anxiety. Somehow, a problem affecting nearly everyone on the globe has become a dull ache that we all must deal with privately and alone.
I am afraid that there is still a lot of uphill running in our future. The only thing to do is to put our heads down, and push on.