During the past two years, each stage of the pandemic has brought with it a new species of tired. The first was a heady sort of tiredness, all jittery over-vigilance when the first lockdown happened. The memory of that time has an almost lunar quality: it felt like being marooned in a pod on a hostile deserted landscape but with your lights and radars still blinking, still whirring, powered by adrenaline and restlessness. It was a short, sharp fear, in anticipation of a crisis that would be intense but soon over.
And it was soon over. Sort of. And then it wasn’t. Then it was over again, then around Christmas last year, it wasn’t. And now, after a brief late-summer of almost normal, the emergence of the Omicron variant means that Covid is threatening the holiday season for the second year in a row, as restrictions tighten around Europe and scientists advising the UK government turn up the volume on their demands for more curbs before the new year.
The British experience is distinguished from much of the world by the in-plain-sight element of our government’s incompetence and corruption. But the uncertainty, the stop-starts, that marooned feeling of waiting to be rescued, the anticipation of life changing overnight, has been a global experience that is still ongoing. Once again, borders are sealed and airports shut down. Once again, infections are rising and as many start planning to travel home for holidays, a ripple of rumours has started. I have heard them from Nairobi to Norwich, predicting another lockdown, another domestic travel ban, another last-minute intervention by authorities who wait too long and act too late.
With the dashing of each raised hope and resurrected plan, a new tiredness sets in: a turbulent kind of tired, hot with anger towards politicians whose reckless behaviour claimed your loved one; a confused, self-berating tired, when you don’t seem to be able to complete the most simple of tasks. It’s a glass-eyed tiredness, endlessly scrolling but not absorbing, trying to become animated by force-feeding yourself the news and images of a world you can’t experience.
And now, creeping in, is a sloppy tiredness. If you haven’t felt it you will recognise it in someone who has. The kind of tired where – after months of following every single rule, from the sensible to the unreasonable – you are tempted to skip a test and go about your business if you’re feeling poorly. You might cancel your Christmas party, but still make a couple of what you know are not strictly wise visits to the pub. You might not do other small things that do not seem worth the effort, you might let your mask slip on a journey home, you might, as I have often done on a long commute, take the packed train because you are too tired to wait for the next one an hour later.
Multiply that tiredness by a thousand if you live in a country where there are not only no boosters, but barely any vaccines at all; where the only means to combat Covid are cyclical lockdowns and curfews, all of which merely keep calamity at bay rather than eliminate it. I have written over the past year of family and friends across the African continent clubbing together to pool resources in the absence of public health support, but now I can see their resolve weakening with every death, with every economic blow. Their efforts at social distancing and mask-wearing have been effaced by time and the realisation that without vaccines and proper healthcare, their trials will not end. There is now only resignation, both to the virus and the poverty and corrupt governance that have allowed it to spread.
We tend to think of our pandemic behaviour in binary terms: compliance with the rules or rebellion. But the reality is that in the middle there is drift: metaphorical knees buckling after two years of carrying the weight of responsibility for your safety but also your family’s – and, in fact, every single stranger with whom you share airspace.
And this is where the jeopardy comes in. Despite the cartoonish antics of a government branding lockdown easing as “freedom day”, the big victories don’t come in one heave, one big push in the right direction that will deliver normal life. They come in the small moments of perseverance and resolution. And those are harder to muster because they are solitary and unrewarded.
Whether you are in Africa or Europe, whether you are well-off or struggling, your efforts to maintain good pandemic manners and protocols will appear trivial, dwarfed by epic systemic failings of governance and mocked by the hypocrisies of those who make the rules but do not follow them.
Whenever I reach what I am sure is rock-bottom, I try to purge this jeopardy of defeatism by reading the words Seamus Heaney gave to a graduating class in 1966. “Getting started, keeping going, getting started again – in art and in life, it seems to me this is the essential rhythm not only of achievement but of survival, the ground of convinced action, the basis of self-esteem and the guarantee of credibility in your lives, credibility to yourself as well as others.”
The key, I think, is to acknowledge the fatigue and make allowances for it – to view it not as a catalyst or a moral failure, but as a place from which to make a recovery.
The end of a year offers the temptation of neat resolutions and trite pledges for the future. But as we find ourselves grappling with a new variant and a new wave – once again making grim calculations and weighing up risks to elderly people, steeling ourselves for the prospect of new restrictions and searching for the willpower to follow them – I am just shooting for survival.
My only hope and ambition is to make peace with the fact that being tired and being tempted to give up is part of the essential rhythm of life. My hope for you is the same, that your year-end is one of respite and replenishment. If it isn’t, keep going. Get started again.