Impending doom and an overwhelming sense of grief for all that we may have lost, even as the pandemic has played out over the last 20 months in New Zealand. This is the gist of just some conversations and expressions I’ve heard over the past few days.
Why are we feeling like this? Why now?
When the pandemic hit in early 2020 in other places in the world, they didn’t have time to relish or savour what they had compared to other places. Everyone started in the same place. Some countries were slow to react and underestimated the threat. Others put public health measures of various stringencies in place quickly, and pulsed these up and down according to the danger of the virus in their country: lockdowns, mask mandates, travel restrictions, etc. Other places in the world took a severe hit in terms of cases, hospitalisations and deaths. They didn’t have time to miss what they no longer had in terms of a pre-pandemic lifestyle.
New Zealand took a different path to most. Whereas most countries took a suppression route, we went for elimination. And it has worked well for us, enabling us to enjoy being at Alert level 1 and 2, with relatively few public health measures and restrictions compared to the rest of the world. In New Zealand, we revelled in our freedoms, and they lauded our response around the world.
This is where our cleavage, our split with the experience of the rest of the world, began.
We have been living to our own rhythm ever since
As most of the rest of the world diverged on to a different path, we began perhaps to take our freedoms for granted. Now, we see the rest of the world tackle Covid-19 and the Delta variant according to the challenges it presents given their own context and history of many cases, hospitalisations and deaths in their countries. We are perhaps just beginning down that path.
Though we have a tool in our armoury that was not available for other countries 20 months ago – vaccines – we are experiencing a sense of loss after a period of adherence to public health restrictions and now the eventual deeper incursion of the virus into our communities.
We had our freedoms. We will have them again. But for now, we are again off-time with the experience of the rest of the world as we need to make the psychological adjustment of the possibility of a higher number of cases, hospitalisations and likely deaths which we have not seen in our country yet.
Our experience differs from most of the rest of the world, and it can be deeply confusing
This gap in psychological adjustment at a national scale, and that we lost our hard-won freedoms, is making us feel our loss more acutely, and our anxiety and anger more sharply.
Thinking about the experience of survivor’s guilt can help us make sense of the sometimes contradictory feelings we have right now. Survivor’s guilt is feelings of guilt that occur after surviving a life-threatening, traumatic event when others did not. You are both grateful to be alive, but also grieve for what you have lost. It’s hard to reconcile these two contradictory feelings that we have at the same time. It is not in our usual range of experiences, and we can find it disturbing. We are going through similar contradictory experiences now that we are struggling to understand.
Sometimes, we may dismiss our complex feelings and become tied to an increasingly simplified view of the world.
We prefer black and white to grey
It can make life feel easier – but we can also know that something is missing, something in our experience is being left out.
The grey area now in New Zealand’s pandemic response to the renewed threats of the delta variant means we criticise the Government for not doing enough at both ends of the continuum: going too fast in loosening restrictions but also not opening up fast enough. Some of this criticism is no doubt valid, but we also detect something else going on that doesn’t fit this polarised, simplified view of the world.
Those who occupy the polar positions proclaim that this is how most people should feel and attempt to recruit us to their tribe to exert pressure to shape the world with solutions that help them feel better and achieve their own goals. And although we may agree with some of what they say or recommend, it’s rarely everything. It’s more nuanced, more complex than simple solutions.
Our experience means that we can have two contradictory thoughts or feelings in mind, yet have them both make sense and be an accurate representation of our complex feelings.
It’s not easy, but there it is.
We can both worry about the impact of the virus and want continued lockdowns until the vaccine covers a higher proportion of the population, while simultaneously craving the freedom to see long-missed children and parents on the other side of the world. Both wants and needs are valid, especially this long into the pandemic. And this explains why we feel both this grief of what we have lost, and a fear of what is yet to come, while also wanting to get on with our lives.
We will have to move forwards gently.
The situation has changed and may change again. There is no new normal. There is only change. And we can only prepare ourselves for more change, protect ourselves and each other as best we can, and strike a balance so that we can satisfy our needs for safety and for exploration and fulfillment. We can understand that we can have two seemingly conflicting needs, and yet they both make complete sense to us.
Pity the Government tasked with serving these contradictory needs that both make sense.