March 12th, 2021, marked one year (the anniversary) since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic and stay at home orders were issued across the U.S. According to the World Health Organization, “Globally, as of 12:25pm CET, 22 March 2021, there have been 122,822,505 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 2,709,041 deaths, reported to WHO. Read that statistic again and let it sink in.
Prior to the onslaught of the COVID-19 disease (Coronavirus) in 2020, no one saw a global pandemic coming. Most of us had heard the news of the virus in China and probably thought it would have been confined to that region or country. The only corona many of us knew of was the popular beer. Still, many of us had little or no context for the word pandemic (infectious disease affecting people across the world) and no real knowledge of what it meant to live through one. Sure, we had heard about the Swine Flu that killed thousands of people over the period 2009-2010, and of other infectious diseases that had emerged from time to time. Yet, all those recent diseases pale in comparison to COVID-19 and the far-reaching devastation, loss of lives and the sheer havoc wreaked on people lives and economies all across the world.
If fact, if we were to compare apples to apples, except for the Influenza pandemic of 1918, no other infectious disease in recent times had affected the world like COVID-19. Nobody could anticipate or imagine how COVID-19 would rock our worlds, disrupt every plan, and change the ways we fundamentally lived our lives. We were not prepared. We did not know how long it would last (still do not) and could only watch as the world as we knew it shut down and real life became as if we were living in a movie.
No More Normal
Here in the U.S, I can still remember when the stay-at-home orders rolled in. My daughter’s school had sent urgent emails indicating closure, which was shortly followed by my employer’s announcement that we should transition to working from home for the foreseeable future. Then came the news that churches, retail businesses, restaurants, recreational and entertainment establishments would be closing their doors and life as we knew it ended abruptly. Uncertainty, fear, panic, confusion, and chaos filled the air and our homes, as our TVs and social media bombarded us with news of deaths, severe illnesses and the suffering of people infected by the coronavirus across the world. We were advised to stay inside, socially distance and to restrict outdoor activities to help flatten the curve.
Hand sanitizers, masks, toilet paper, disinfectant sprays became scarce hot commodities in very high demand as we scrambled to figure out how to keep ourselves and our families safe. We turned everywhere for information to learn all we could about the coronavirus, how it spreads and googled home-made remedies with ginger, garlic, and turmeric to boost our immune system. Trips to the supermarket required careful planning and mental preparation to avoid crowds and get supplies safely. When we interacted with persons outside of our bubbles, we would painstakingly go over the interaction in our minds to ensure that we had not touched our face, phone, pocketbooks, or any item of clothing we were wearing.
Wash your hands, do not touch your face and sanitize seemed to be the never-ending tune playing in our heads. Sneezing and coughing became taboo in public spaces and could earn you the side eye amongst family and friends. Paranoia set in and many of us became germaphobes and hoarders overnight, while our home became multipurpose spaces for school, church, and work. Suddenly, normal daily routines were abandoned, the outdoors were empty, cars were parked, and the roads were traffic free. Life became quiet and eerie.
Challenges of the New Normal
Dealing with change is hard is normal times but the struggle got more real as COVID-19 began to impact every aspect of our everyday lives. Over the last year to current times, some of the biggest challenges I have experienced and heard echoed by my friends, family and coworkers had to do with the following:
- Social isolation: At the start of the pandemic, the first thing the authorities advised to do was to practice social distance to slow the spread of virus. One unfortunate psychological effect of this social isolation has been an increase in feelings of loneliness that people have experienced due to the lack of interactions with others. This has led to anxiety and depression in both children and adults alike. For me and others, minimal physical touch and contact when greeting friends or families, smiles being masked and the no large in person social gatherings have been especially hard. Additionally, effective communication has been made even more difficult as we largely rely on texts, emails and phone calls and are not always able to pick up on the emotions that the other person might be feeling.
- Work life balance: It has been a year since I have been working from home and I have now adjusted to my new routine. However, the first couple of months were incredibly stressful as I tried to figure out how to keep my team connected, adjust to new technologies and systems to get the work done while supervising online school for my daughter and keeping her engaged. The lines between work and home became blurred and I now work longer hours (many times without the necessary breaks) at home and still find it hard to wind down at the end of the day.
- Technology overload: Pre COVID-10, one of the parenting struggles I had was managing my daughter’s screen time. That became an exercise in futility the moment school went virtual, and she currently spends way more time looking at screens (from Computer, to iPad to TV) than ever before. The same is true for me as I spend my days doing back-to-back online trainings and meetings on Zoom and Microsoft Teams and then turn to my TV or video calls to connect with friends and loved ones. The struggle to unplug is real.
- Decline in mental health: Whether you were affected by the coronavirus or not, fear for personal health and safety, as well as that of loved ones was a huge driver for poor mental health. And if that were not enough, every day the news was saturated with alarming death statistics, images of grief, job losses, hospitals inundated with patients, overwhelmed doctors and nurses and misinformation about the virus which had us questioning what was safe and what was true. All these factors created the perfect storm conditions for a mental health catastrophe.
- Loss of leisure life: Closed borders, travel restrictions and occupancy guidelines have all resulted in a loss of opportunities to travel, participate in organized events and activities to have fun and maintain physical health. With a few exceptions, my interactions with public spaces have been reduced to going to the supermarket and doctors’ appointments. For my daughter and I, the decision to participate in any fun recreational event or even to visit friends can be stressful as we balance the need to be safe and sane. And so, my daughter frequently laments about the good old days of playing with friends, going to camps and longs for the days when she can feel free again.
Top Takeaways for the Next and New Normal
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it is easy to get stuck reminiscing about the good old days before the coronavirus and all the opportunities that you have lost. But despite the many hardships we have endured and continue to, if you are reading this article, you are still here. So, what will you take away from this experience? How will you use the lessons you learned during this time to serve you in the future? As I reflect on this COVID 19 anniversary and the ongoing pandemic, here are my top reflections and takeaways for the future:
- Mental Health is everyone business: Regardless of your age, gender, status, educational level or financial position, no one is immune. Mental illness is not about being “crazy” or being locked up in an institution. Mental health is an important part of our overall well-being and we should pay attention to signs of stress, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts in ourselves and others. If you or someone you know are struggling, get help.
- Change is constant: Navigating change and transitions can be hard and uncomfortable. Since change is always happening around us, it does not make sense to resist. Spend your time and efforts trying to figure out how you will adapt, what new skill you need to learn to respond effectively and how you will make it work for you. Embrace uncertainty and learn to become more open and comfortable with not having all the answers.
- Life is short and precious: ‘Here today and gone tomorrow’, gained new meaning for me as I watched countless amounts of people express their grief over the sudden loss of loved ones to the coronavirus. Pay attention to what and who truly matters in your life and take no one or nothing for granted. Try to be intentional about staying connected to the important people and relationships in your live and to let them know often how much you love and appreciate them.
- Gratitude is a must: Waking up every day and being able to breathe on your own has never been more meaningful. So, at a minimum, all of us have something to be grateful for. Avoid the temptation to grumble about the 10 lbs. you have gained, the vacation you did not get to take, the opportunities that you missed, or the amount of money in your account. We have more than we need. Instead. use this time to think about your plans and start putting things in place that will help you work towards achieving your goals in whichever version of normal we move on to.
So, stop, pause, and reflect on the past year and identify your biggest challenge, takeaway or win.
Until next time, Remember, It’s A Learning Life!