PARIS – A recent cartoon from the French daily Le Monde showed a scruffy man arriving at a doctor’s office for a vaccine against Covid-19. “I’m here for the fifth shot because of the third wave,” he said. “Or vice versa.”
His bewilderment as France undergoes its fifth wave of the pandemic, with cases of the Delta variant on the rise as well as Omicron’s anxiety, captured a mood of exhaustion and seething anger across the world two years after that the deadly virus has started to spread in China.
Uncertainty disrupts plans. Panic spreads in an instant even though, as with the Omicron variant, the extent of the threat is not yet known. Vaccines look like a deliverance until they look a little less than that. National responses diverge without discernible logic. The anxiety and depression spread. Loneliness and screen fatigue too. The feeling is growing that the Covid era will last for years, like the plagues of yesteryear.
Even in China, with no reported deaths from Covid since January, some admit weariness over the measures that have protected them while so many others have perished.
“I’m so tired of all these routines,” said Chen Jun, 29, an employee of a tech company in south China’s Shenzhen City the other day. He was forced to take three Covid-19 tests in June following an outbreak in the city, then had to quarantine himself for 14 days. The pushpins he pinned on a world map to retrace his travels have stopped multiplying. “I’m starting to think we’ll never see the end of the pandemic. “
This feeling of infinity, accompanied by increasing psychological distress leading to depression, was a recurring theme in two dozen interviews conducted in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas. After two years of zigzagging politics and roller coaster emotions, terrible losses and tantalizing false dawns, border closures and intermittently closed schools, people’s resilience has waned.
This is sure to pose new challenges for leaders trying to protect their people and their economies. Will the tired obey new restrictions, or do they risk seeing family and friends again after months of forced separation? The question of just how draconian rulers can be when people’s mental health has become so fragile appears to be a central dilemma as the pandemic enters its third year.
“I know it will only get worse, it will not stop, the pandemic will only become more consuming life,” said Natalia Shishkova, a teacher in Moscow. “It’s all chaos, like a fantasy movie. You watch all these apocalypse movies and you realize their writers were true prophets.
Real progress in the fight against the virus has been made. A year ago, vaccine deployment was in its infancy. Today, around 47% of the world’s population is vaccinated. While the number of cases remains high, death rates have plunged. Still, life seems out of control.
The pandemic not only makes this month’s holidays or celebrations uncertain, but sometimes is beyond comprehension. How to assess the avalanche of statistics, notices, warnings, closures, reopenings? What to think of the big company that the Covid-19 has become, with its particular interests? What to do about the glaring inequality in the distribution of vaccines? How can we look away from the discarded masks that still dot the streets, the eternal rubbish of the pandemic?
Once linear, life now seems circular. Schools open. They close. The journey becomes easier, only for new obstacles to arise. Covid-19 disease is easing, to be replaced by a long Covid and now indications that even those who have recovered from the virus could be re-infected with Omicron. At the Parisian laboratory of Maria Melchior, a French epidemiologist specializing in mental illnesses, face-to-face meetings had just been re-established when, this week, she was told they would cease, with a return to Zoom gatherings.
“We don’t know when we’ll get back to normal anymore,” Melchior said. And what is normal now? She stopped. “Well, at least a life without masks.”
In Kenya, with infections falling in October, President Uhuru Kenyatta lifted a long-standing curfew. Bars filled. Musicians have lined up concert dates, as they have in many parts of the world, where theaters and opera houses have reopened. The spirits rose.
Then the Omicron variant hit. Even before cases were reported there, Kenyan leaders announced plans to ban office access to unvaccinated people and warned of further restrictions during the holiday period.
Nairobi communications specialist Corrie Mwende said she felt “freedom was returning” after a long period of “you could say it was like the end of the world”.
Today, she is not sure that her hope will come true.
Such hesitation is omnipresent. The pandemic began with the escape of the great powers of the 21st century, first the China of President Xi Jinping, then the America of President Donald J. Trump. Confidence was shaken, time wasted. Since then, a cohesive overall response has appeared elusive.
China has pursued a zero Covid policy, virtually closing its borders and deploying high-tech mass testing, instant locks and contact tracing. At the other extreme, Russia, despite a high death rate, has done little to restrict movement.
The 27-country European Union is divided over whether to make vaccines compulsory, and policies vary widely: Football stadiums are empty again in Germany, where infection rates have increased, but full in France, where they have it too, but a presidential election is looming in four months.
Britain, under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has oscillated between temptations of collective immunity and the kind of periodic restrictions now in place again to combat the Omicron variant.
In Brazil, whose president, Jair Bolsonaro, has consistently downplayed the threat of the pandemic, the death toll has fallen to less than 300 a day from 3,000 in April. Samba concerts are back in the streets. Fireworks, after a few round trips, will light up the sky over Copacabana Beach to mark the New Year – unless another disaster strikes.
It might be Omicron; maybe not. Some other variations have come and gone without driving the pandemic to terrifying new heights.
For now, each plan is a tentative plan.
Conspiracy theories abound, in part because the pandemic made the rich richer as markets soared and punished those who hadn’t invested.
Yakov Kochetkov, director of the Center for Cognitive Therapy in Moscow, said: “In Russia there has been a sharp increase in distrust of vaccines, even of the term ‘pandemic’ itself. It greatly affects the psyche.
Just this month, a 45-year-old man said he viewed the pandemic as a conspiracy that opened fire on a Russian government office and killed two people after being ordered to put on masks.
Anna Shepel, a Russian therapist, observed in her patients “obsessive thoughts, obsessive actions, fear of being infected, fear of touching anything in public places.”
Nonetheless, in a country deeply marked by fatalism and stoicism, President Vladimir V. Putin has received little criticism for his relatively lax response to the coronavirus.
In Italy, struck with devastating effect at the start of the pandemic, access to everything from cinemas to offices has been strictly restricted for anyone who does not have the “green pass” for those vaccinated. The government promises a “semi-normal” Christmas without the need to resort to confinement. Still, the country’s mood is gloomy.
Massimiliano Valerii, chief executive of CENSIS, a Rome-based research group, observed that the pandemic had heightened concerns about the future. “The social ladder has been blocked, the mechanism to be able to improve one’s position in life,” he said.
David Lazzari, president of the Guild of Italian Psychologists, said recent studies in Italy have shown that the incidence of anxiety and depression has doubled since the start of the pandemic. For those under 18, the levels had reached 25 percent. “One in four,” he noted. “It is very high.”
Among teens and young adults – stuck on their screens, often unable to date them over the past two years, inundated with friends online but with no real contact – anorexia and bulimia have spread, Ms. Melchior, the French epidemiologist who focuses on mental illness. .
In France, she added, depression and anxiety are about twice normal, according to Italian findings and a recent report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The US Surgeon General recently warned that young people are facing “devastating” mental health effects due to the pandemic and other challenges faced by their generation.
Chanel Contos, 23, an Australian student in London who is unsure whether she will be able to return home this month, expressed her deep frustration at learning that “once we get the proper vaccines in the country where you are, you would be fine. . “
She asked a frequently heard question among her generation: “How many of our lives can we give up for this?” “
Governments are well aware of this frustration. Nicolas Franck, a French psychiatrist, said: “We initially failed, now we are in the excessive precautionary phase.”
“People are so exhausted that their biggest fear is not so much a new variant but a new curfew,” he added.
China, by its extreme measures, is determined to move forward. But a sense of normalcy remains elusive, and the second anniversary of the day the first reported patient exhibited symptoms in Wuhan has not gone without comment.
Hundreds of people posted on the social media account of Li Wenliang, a Wuhan doctor who many consider a martyr for the official threats he received following his online attempts to warn his friends – and by extension the world – from a strange new disease ravaging his hospital.
“I can’t believe we’ve been wearing masks for two years now,” wrote one commentator. Another message read, “Dr. Li, it has been two years and the pandemic is not only still here, but it is getting more and more intense. “
Dr. Li’s story has come to be known as China’s “Wailing Wall” – a place where people mourn and seek solace for all that has been lost in a distant world.
The report was provided by Anton Troianovsky, Valerie Hopkins, Khava Khasmagomadova and Ivan Nechepurenko From moscow; Isabelle Kwai from London; Elisabetta povoledo From Rome; Abdi Latif Dahir from Nairobi, Kenya; Flavia Milhorance from Rio de Janeiro; Vjosa Isai from Toronto; Amy qin and Amy Chang Dog from Taipei, Taiwan; and Léontine Welsh from Paris.