We may be getting too used to living in our COVID cages

Have you noticed? Torontonians seem even more distant than usual – we’re going out of our way to avoid each other on the street.

At the onset of the pandemic at this time last year, it was part of my routine to throw a tennis ball against a wall and go for long walks to help relieve the COVID-related lockdown stress. These days, I keep a bobblehead of Ignacio on my desk for therapy when things get a little COVID crazy. He’s the monastery cook turned luchador played by Jack Black in the movie Nacho Libre.

One look at the perma-smile and I’m reminded of the scene in the movie where Nacho climbs a steep cliff to drink the yolk of eagle eggs – legend has it that this will make him fly like no other luchador in the whole world. You gotta laugh and sometimes you gotta take inspiration wherever you can get it as a winter of COVID-19 discontent gives way to what’s forecast to be a brutal spring for the virus

While we are all anxious to cast off the chains of COVID-19, Mother Nature – and the pandemic – have other plans. A third and potentially more deadly wave is circling around us. And despite the rollout of vaccines to offer hope against the rising tide, the social and psychological fallout from living under the mushroom cloud of the coronavirus is shaping up to be worse than the most cynical experts predicted. 

The pandemic has had unprecedented effects on the quality of life of Canadians. The share of Canadians rating their life satisfaction as 8 (out of 10) or above decreased from 72 per cent in 2018 to 40 per cent in June 2020.

That’s the lowest level since 2003 which, coincidentally or not, is the last time we had a pandemic. 

SARS wreaked its own kind of havoc, but that was mostly confined to about a dozen countries (and workers in the health-care sector).

The coronavirus has created a different kind of chill in the air – and it’s not just from the recent cold snap reminding us that it’s not quite spring yet, despite moving to daylight savings time last Sunday. (If only we could “spring forward” to next year.)

Have you noticed? Torontonians seem even more distant than usual. We’re going out of our way to avoid each other – and our shadows – on the street. Even our neighbours are crossing onto the road when they see us coming so as not to get too close. 

At the grocery checkout line the other day, the guy behind me kept taking two steps back every time he felt someone was intruding on the imaginary bubble around him.

We’re not just keeping the requisite two-metres away. We’re becoming distrustful of one another. 

We’ve seen the punch-ups on social media instigated by anti-mask and anti-lockdown conspiracy theorists who don’t believe the virus is real. But we’re also seeing the opposite extreme – a hyper-wariness of the people around us.

We’ve become disease vectors and carriers to our fellow citizens. Behavioural scientists warned us it could happen.

The fact that there are new, more deadly variants of the virus floating in the air has something to do with the heightened anxiety. So does the fact that messaging from governments and public health experts has not always been clear, and has conditioned us to fear the virus.

Past pandemics have taught us about the stigma and discrimination that can linger for those who actually contract the disease. But we’ve been conditioned to keep our distance from each other to contain the spread of the virus for long enough now that, subconsciously or not, paranoia has seeped in.

The fear among some behavioural scientists is that interactions that we take for granted – and that psychologists tell us we need as a species to build a sense of community and trust – will no longer happen as often as they should post-pandemic. Even after vaccines are administered to the majority of the population, we will have to wear masks and keep our distance.

At the same time as we’re craving to get back to doing the things that we love with friends and family, the danger is that we will become habituated to living in the COVID cages we’ve built around ourselves out of fear.

The Journal Of Community Psychology featured an article this past summer titled The Dangers Of Social Distancing: How COVID‐19 Can Reshape Our Social Experience. In it, Kevin Sikali, a graduate fellow at Villanova University in Philadelphia, says humans will have to develop new ways of living with the virus (especially if it becomes endemic like the seasonal flu) to ensure the effects on how we interact with each other are not everlasting.

He suggests vaccine passports (of which there has been more talk lately for nonessential travel) and the widespread screening of people in work areas, retail stores, recreation centres and other public spaces to allow for larger gatherings. It seems out of step with our views of personal freedom, but it may be inevitable if we want to save some semblance of our human need to socialize. 

As much as we want there to be, there will be no stitching the pre-COVID-19 past to the post-COVID-19 future. Whatever that looks like. The federal government is already warning that the pandemic is having a “transformative effect on our economy, accelerating trends toward greater teleworking, digitalization and automation.”

The brave new world is upon us. We’re all going to have to relearn how to get along with each other. In the meantime, I’ll be searching for guidance from Nacho.

Photo credit: Enzo DiMatteo


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2 responses to “We may be getting too used to living in our COVID cages”

  1. I passed a woman on a deserted street. Though more than six feet away from her, I thought to be courteous and safe and stepped into the empty street for more distance. She scurried by, looking at me accusingly, as though afraid I’d leap at her and infect her. Nearly everyone I pass on the street steps off the sidewalk out of my way. I haven’t socialized in over a year and am now afraid I never will. The Typhoid Mary stigma is huge.

  2. That person stepping back in line ups or walking across the street as you pass is just protecting the people they love. Try not to take it personally and simply understand some people are trying their best for those that are vulnerable. Paranoia is based on the idea that the fear is delusional or irrational and there is nothing delusional about this pandemic other than those that refuse to accept it. Some people may seem to go overboard but remember they are making split second decision’s based on the moment …its not our place to judge. I am sure everything will get back to what we think is normal and that will take longer for some rather than others. I remind myself of the saying that “Everything will be ok in the end …if its not ok, its not the end” … We are going through a storm and we have to accept that when we come out of the storm many things will be different even though we may long for what was before …change is the way life is. Personally if someone doesn’t want to let me on a elevator or crosses the street when I pass or steps away from me I give them a wave and a thumbs up or put my hand on my chest to let them know its ok and that I am gratified they are doing their best to help all of us get through this…It reminds me they aren’t any more afraid than me …they just care for the ones they love and for others around them…and that fills me with hope.

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