When Angie attended a funeral last week, she wore a mask. “I was very much a minority,” she says. As a close family member of the deceased, the musician from Victoria wrestled with feeling disrespectful for wearing it, so she didn’t put the mask on at the gravesite or the wake. Now she’s waiting to see if she, or anyone else at the funeral, has Covid. It’s just the latest of a long line of incidents that have left her feeling bone-tired.
She’s “tired of the days after a gig where I am in a state of hyper-vigilance, wondering if I caught Covid doing my job … tired of trying to keep my mum safe and therefore missing the golden moments of her old age … tired of reading about how the numbers are going up,” she says. “I cannot hold this much anxiety for this long..”
More than two and a half years after we first heard the word “coronavirus” (Oh, remember the beer jokes we made?), after traversing border closures, lockdowns, mandates, isolation periods, vaccinations, virus mutations, releases and re-openings and running the gamut of white-hot fear, anxiety, bewilderment, denial and resignation, many people are now, like Angie, utterly depleted. Against this backdrop, public health experts have issued dire warnings of a third Omicron wave.
We’ve reached the “is it Covid fatigue or just the lingering symptoms of having actually contracted the virus?” stage of the pandemic. No wonder we’re weary. Tick the box that makes you most tired: gaming out whether the pub is worth the risk, paying hundreds of dollars for childcare that goes unused, coaxing children to wear a mask while also explaining the government messaging that says they actually don’t have to but that instead it is “highly encouraged” and “strongly recommended”, or devising a plan B, C and D for every life scenario.
How do we make sense of the “meh”? The main thing that’s different about this phase of the pandemic is that a lot of us have contracted Covid, says psychologist Chris Cheers. Last year many of his patients “were stressed about the pressures of lockdown, or impending lockdown … Now, there’s anxiety about actually having Covid and having to live with the fact that it’s all around us, just as we’re being expected to go back to normal.”
Over it, tired and fatigued
For some, fatigue manifests itself by disengaging them from the news entirely. It feels better to be bored by the pandemic than terrified. Others have never stopped paying attention and are feeling very real exhaustion as a result.
Cheers says there are three different ways to feel tired. “Being over it, being tired and then being fatigued.” There’s the emotional experience of being “over” thinking about Covid, he continues. “Then there’s tired, which is a physical feeling, but also being just emotionally tired.”
“The difference between tired and fatigued is when we rest, tiredness improves, but with fatigue it’s still there.” It is then, says Cheers, time to think about seeking some extra medical or psychological help.
For those that haven’t tuned out, there’s a special kind of weariness. Masks have become a totem for Covid fatigue, whether you’re tired of being told to wear them, or tired of wearing them around people who won’t.
Nik, who has cancer, works in the IT department of a tertiary institution. He’s been wearing a mask to work and asks that his co-workers do so when approaching his desk. “I’ve been called ‘bubble boy’ by email to the entire office,” he says.
“Every day I fight the urge to just lie down and cry. Or give up. Every day I wear a mask hoping just maybe someone on the fence about it will be encouraged by my example.”
For immunocompromised people and their families, the pandemic never abated, and they don’t have the luxury of being bored.
Amy’s husband had a double lung transplant over a decade ago, but the couple had been able to live a relatively normal life afterwards until the pandemic hit. “Covid has changed our lives completely. We now sit and watch as everyone else’s lives have gone back to normal, but we are kind of left behind. I’m tired of explaining to friends, gently and without alarming them, why we can’t just hope for the best,” she says. “And I’m tired of feeling like the government doesn’t have our backs.”
Ask a frontline worker if they’re tired. “Patients ask us to take off our masks because they can’t hear us,” says community nurse Gwendolyne. “If one of us is quarantined, the rest of us just have more patients to see. We’re all tired but [have to remain] as vigilant as ever. None of us want it.”
Many frontline workers are still recovering from Covid but return to work knowing they are needed. Kath is a midwife at a large tertiary hospital. “In my first two weeks out of iso, I found myself in a state of post-exertion malaise if I got angry or excited enough for my heart rate to rise.” But Kath’s employer has been supportive. “The manager acknowledged how hard it is … It felt so validating but also it got my heart rate up so I had to sit down.”
For those not on the frontline, the fatigue stems from pushing back against employee expectations to return to the office. For others still, whose livelihoods rely on people not being locked down, shut behind state borders or too anxious to go to venues, the lingering financial insecurity and need for a return to normalcy brings with it its own flavour of fatigue..
And others are simply sick of being sick. Marty is a public servant living in the ACT. He finished his fourth course of antibiotics last week. “I had a bad cold flu in March … then had Covid from April to May and then had a really bad chest infection in May to June” He’s “constantly exhausted now.”
Alongside widespread fatigue is constantly changing public messaging. Leaders who once gave clear directives are now at pains to point out the difference between a mandate and a plea for people to do the right thing.
The lack of coherent messaging is also hard for parents to navigate, as they must constantly manage expectations versus risk.
“I’m tired of the mental gauntlet I have to run every time my kid has a runny nose – should they go to childcare or school? Should I test them? Should we cancel the catch up with friends?” says Anne, a mother of two from Victoria. Anne is tired of making sure her kids don’t get too excited about having birthday parties.
“Just because the messaging changes, it doesn’t mean our thinking catches up in that way. And now at an individual level we are all having to step back and make our own decisions about these things,” says Cheers.
And sure, we’re sick of being told what to do, but we’re also sick of being told by politicians that we’re sick of it.
“The pandemic fatigue narrative appears to be self-fulfilling,” says clinical psychologist Bo Weaver. He has observed resilience in his patients, “even in the most dire and trying of circumstances”, but fatigue narrative seems to have “contributed to the polarisation of discourse surrounding everything from masks, the value of older lives and the panic surrounding children’s mental health”.
It’s almost like society is throwing “a tantrum in the hope that it will lurch us back into pre-pandemic life”, says Weaver.
Pushing through the Covid malaise
Since Covid isn’t going away for a while, how do we push through this malaise?
Information empowers people, says Cheers. “We know more now. And the public messaging should be focused on that. You can’t just strongly encourage, you have to give the person the motivation to take these actions.”
Individually, it’s about pacing yourself, says Cheers. “Think about your priorities, and only do what you can. Do the things that we all know are good for our health: eating well, returning to exercise gradually, rest.”
Cheers knows being told to go for a run makes eyes roll, which is why it is also important to acknowledge how difficult life is at the moment. “We have to validate that often it’s hard to do these things because of the pressures for productivity and all this ‘return to normal’ stuff.”
Cheers says he has even seeing a longing for lockdown in some people. ‘‘They’re saying, ‘I need to stop. I need to rest. I need to have a break from this, but there’s these expectations that I just can’t act against.’’’
“We have to find a way to push back,” says Cheers. “To say, ‘no – things aren’t back to normal.’ At the time of a global pandemic, maybe this is the time to challenge some of those expectations about the way we should be living.”