“The problem with pandemics,” said a sensible friend of mine this week, “is that they are either shrinking or growing, but they are very rarely just ticking along nicely.”
I had been venting about the new rules forbidding groups of more than six people from meeting up, and the spanner it had thrown into the works of the mental health organisation I set up four years ago. Mental Health Mates runs peer support meet-ups across the country for people struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. And like so many other organisations set up to plug the gap left by shoddy Government provision, we have been forced online since March.
The summer had provided a chink of light - our amazing walk leaders were starting to venture back out into parks - but the new restrictions have once again put an end to them, causing me to rant on a grand scale.
“The summer has been an illusion,” my friend continued, pragmatically, and as I looked back on fun seaside holidays and the ability to have dinner with friends, I nodded along gloomily.
Do we really think that everyone will stop wearing masks in shops as soon as a vaccine is released? I doubt it. None of us question the fact we still have to decant liquids into 100ml bottles when we arrive at an airport, or that the cockpit is locked on a plane - in fact, we welcome these rules because they help us to feel safe. And so it will almost certainly be with many of the new normals we have had to come to terms with in the last six months - masks, quarantine, social distancing, the freedom to move freely around without feeling like some sort of criminal.
Forgive me my naivety, but I am, like so many others, gutted that pandemics don’t just tick along nicely. I am gutted for all the people who can’t go on Mental Health Mates walks and must continue staying at home, ‘meeting’ with people on Zoom - which is better than nothing, of course, but will never be as good as the magic of face-to-face connection. I am gutted, also, for the many thousands of people who rely on Twelve Step meetings to keep them sober and clean, and on the straight and narrow.
These meetings, which were only just starting to return in person after a bumpy existence online, which involved frequent ‘Zoom bombings’ from idiots who would hijack the virtual spaces and say unspeakable things, have now had to return there.
As a recovering alcoholic, I have been incredibly grateful for all the work that has been done to get the meetings online, but after six long months sitting at my laptop, I am beginning to feel the strain of not physically being with my tribe. How do you comfort someone through the internet? How do you ever replace the eye contact, the hugs, the breathing, beating physical reality that is another human who gets what you are going through?
These programmes teach us the need for acceptance, and so perhaps I shouldn’t allow myself to feel too much rage about the lack of clarity in the Government’s exemption list, or the subsequent confusion felt by people in the voluntary sector who are trying to help the many vulnerable humans that our leaders seem to have forgotten about.
And I imagine that you do not have to have a diagnosable mental illness for the constant stop-start nature of restrictions to be having a detrimental effect on your own mental health. Frustration, disappointment and anxiety seem to be everywhere. There is only so much uncertainty that a human brain can take before it starts to become paralysed with fear. How long can we excuse this mess with words like “unprecedented”? And at what point does coronavirus stop being unprecedented? Furthermore, was it ever really that unprecedented in the first place? Let’s not forget that many of the recommendations offered in 2017 by the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group were ignored by the Government at the time.
The sun might be shining, but winter is definitely coming, and this one is an unknown. Our prime minister had no right to tell us that things would be back to normal by Christmas - of all the mistakes he has made, this to me is the most harmful. We need honesty and clarity now, even if we don’t particularly like what we hear. Only then will we be able to reach the acceptance that is needed to get through this pandemic.