We might have imagined that we were done with the pandemic, but the pandemic was not done with us.
Do you have a clear sense of the mask requirements when you go to the mall or the grocery store?
Does the phrase “It’s okay, I’ve been vaccinated” still provide the comfort it once did?
Does the word “breakthrough” spark a sense of anxiety?
Like the virus itself, covertigo has a new variant and it is marked by confusion, confoundment and deja-vu-like dread. It comes with a feeling of being stuck forever in a box without a lid. The celebrated epidemiologist Michael Osterholm said the United States is in the third inning of the covid pandemic. We aren’t even close to the seventh-inning stretch.
Here are some covertigo variant warning signs:
Are you grinding your teeth? Drinking more? Doomscrolling through social media?
Are you short-tempered with your loved ones and firing off emails with ALL CAPS and exclamation points?
Are you surprised by the expletives that roll off your tongue when someone cuts you off in traffic or when a cable TV pundit gets under your skin?
While some of us will blow our fuses over Zoom call overload, lost income or, most tragically, lost lives, many more are quietly seething in ways they themselves can’t fully understand.
The uncertainty, the loss of control, the fear of a deadly airborne contagion have understandably fried a lot of mental circuitry. One study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the number of people who reported feeling anxiety, depression or stress-related symptoms had nearly doubled from expected pre-pandemic rates.
What is to be done? The Biden administration has an impressive team navigating covid and its impact, with groups focused on the economy, supply chain shortages and vaccines. But the war against covid requires a new and special kind of soldier. America needs a special envoy for reentry, a person heading a highly qualified team that will assess the constellation of covid challenges and prioritize the damage to the nation’s psyche.
That’s not the typical work of government officials, but understanding the psychological toll of the pandemic is a necessary step toward putting the country as a whole back together.
For example, we need to assess the psychological needs of children who have been deprived of teachers, friends, classroom learning, security and solace. Young people have spent way too many hours on Zoom, and way too many of them have zoned out of school altogether. School districts don’t have a clear handle on the kids who have just drifted away during covid, or the children of essential workers who spent far too many hours unsupervised when their parents trudged off to work during a lockdown. Without a concerted effort, how will we ever get these children back? Someone needs to be thinking about this.
But this isn’t only about kids.
We are a nation of individuals who are hurting and trying mightily to balance optimism and despair. The mental health needs are easy to spot, from overstretched medical teams trying to manage our intensive-care units to the pop-their-top passengers on airplanes, to the stress of ever-shifting return-to-office plans.
And we should not assume that the highest ranks of leadership are immune. The people leading us through this storm are far too busy to tend to their own trauma and deep-seated emotional distress.
The military provides a powerful lesson in reentry with returning service members. In recent years, the military has shifted its position from providing psychological support primarily to those who ask for help, to one in which it assumes that anyone who has returned from combat will have some kind of delayed reaction to trauma. Most of them will recover over time, but not all. The shift in the official language used to discuss the challenges for those feeling off-kilter is important and instructive. The guide for military personnel returning from the war zone states, “You are not alone. Seeking help is a sign of strength.”
Reentry will be a long process that will eventually be researched and studied along with the pandemic itself. Let’s not wait for that. Let’s make some assessments now to design and calibrate a compass that will serve the entire nation.
If we acknowledge the uphill battles we face, if we don’t wait for people to raise their hand for help but rather assume that anyone who lived through this strange and surreal era is standing in need of support of all kinds, then maybe we can get past this current variant of covertigo.