Enzo DiMatteo: We may be getting too used to living in our COVID-19 cages in Canada

The social and psychological fallout from living under the coronavirus cloud is shaping up to be worse than most experts predicted

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      At the onset of the pandemic at this time last year, it was part of my routine to throw a tennis ball against a wall and go for long walks to help relieve the COVID-related lockdown stress. These days, I keep a bobblehead of Ignacio on my desk for therapy when things get a little COVID crazy. He’s the monastery cook-turned-luchador played by Jack Black in the movie Nacho Libre.

      One look at the perma-smile and I’m reminded of the scene in the movie where Nacho climbs a steep cliff to drink from the yolk of eagle eggs—legend has it that this will make him fly like no other luchador in the whole world. You gotta laugh and sometimes you gotta take inspiration wherever you can get it as a winter of COVID-19 discontent gives way to what’s forecast to be a brutal spring for the virus. 

      While we are all anxious to cast off the chains of COVID-19, Mother Nature—and the pandemic—have other plans. A third and potentially more deadly wave is circling around us. And despite the rollout of vaccines to offer hope against the rising tide, the social and psychological fallout from living under the mushroom cloud of the coronavirus is shaping up to be worse than the most cynical experts predicted. 

      The pandemic has had unprecedented effects on the quality of life of Canadians. The share of Canadians rating their life satisfaction as 8 (out of 10) or above decreased from 72 percent in 2018 to 40 percent in June 2020.

      That’s the lowest level since 2003 which, coincidentally or not, is the last time we had a pandemic. 

      SARS wreaked its own kind of havoc, but that was mostly confined to about a dozen countries (and workers in the health-care sector).

      Samuel Engelking

      The coronavirus has created a different kind of chill in the air—and it’s not just from the recent cold snap reminding us that it’s not quite spring yet, despite moving to daylight savings time last Sunday. (If only we could “spring forward” to next year.)

      Have you noticed? People seem even more distant than usual. We’re going out of our way to avoid each other—and our shadows—on the street. Even our neighbours are crossing onto the road when they see us coming so as not to get too close. 

      At the grocery checkout line the other day, the guy behind me kept taking two steps back every time he felt someone was intruding on the imaginary bubble around him.

      We’re not just keeping the requisite two-metres away. We’re becoming distrustful of one another. 

      We’ve seen the punch-ups on social media instigated by anti-mask and anti-lockdown conspiracy theorists who don’t believe the virus is real. But we’re also seeing the opposite extreme—a hyper-wariness of the people around us.

      We’ve become disease vectors and carriers to our fellow citizens. Behavioural scientists warned us it could happen.

      The fact that there are new, more deadly variants of the virus floating in the air has something to do with the heightened anxiety. So does the fact that messaging from governments and public health experts has not always been clear, and has conditioned us to fear the virus.

      Past pandemics have taught us about the stigma and discrimination that can linger for those who actually contract the disease. But we’ve been conditioned to keep our distance from each other to contain the spread of the virus for long enough now that, subconsciously or not, paranoia has seeped in.

      The fear among some behavioural scientists is that interactions that we take for granted—and that psychologists tell us we need as a species to build a sense of community and trust—will no longer happen as often as they should post-pandemic. Even after vaccines are administered to the majority of the population, we will have to wear masks and keep our distance.

      At the same time as we’re craving to get back to doing the things that we love with friends and family, the danger is that we will become habituated to living in the COVID cages we’ve built around ourselves out of fear.

      The Journal Of Community Psychology featured an article this past summer titled "The Dangers Of Social Distancing: How COVID‐19 Can Reshape Our Social Experience". In it, Kevin Sikali, a graduate fellow at Villanova University in Philadelphia, says humans will have to develop new ways of living with the virus (especially if it becomes endemic like the seasonal flu) to ensure the effects on how we interact with each other are not everlasting.

      He suggests vaccine passports (of which there has been more talk lately for nonessential travel) and the widespread screening of people in work areas, retail stores, recreation centres, and other public spaces to allow for larger gatherings. It seems out of step with our views of personal freedom, but it may be inevitable if we want to save some semblance of our human need to socialize. 

      As much as we want there to be, there will be no stitching the pre-COVID-19 past to the post-COVID-19 future. Whatever that looks like. The federal government is already warning that the pandemic is having a “transformative effect on our economy, accelerating trends toward greater teleworking, digitalization and automation.”

      The brave new world is upon us. We’re all going to have to relearn how to get along with each other. In the meantime, I’ll be searching for guidance from Nacho.

      Photo credit: Enzo DiMatteo