By Marja. The coronavirus outbreak is triggering increased anxiety and stress in our public communities. The pandemic has led to a series of losses, from our sense of safety to our social connections to our financial security. The well-founded fear of getting seriously ill is currently more tangible than for decades in the industrialized countries. Ordinary people’s emotional responses to the potential threat of the coronavirus pandemic are varying considerably from individual to individual. Some people find it easier to tolerate some degree of discomfort and can manage their distress in a calm manner. Yet other people may understandably be having a great deal of trouble coping.
I have observed highly divergent psychological reactions to media coverage on the COVID pandemic among persons whose objective circumstances do not differ drastically from one another. As for my private circles, the prevailing situation appears pretty sheltered. None of my family members, friends or neighbors have been infected so far; none of them is working in a high-risk profession that exposes them to the virus; none of them is threatened by unemployment, bankruptcy or other severe financial consequences. Hence, their possible sources of anxiety are mainly dealing with minor issues of secondary importance.
Although this light-hearted article focuses on petty troubles of the better-off, its intention is not to deny or downplay the actual gravity of the crisis. A number of people are already facing or will soon face a humanitarian emergency.
Distressed juniors vs. tranquil seniors
After the pandemic outbreak in Europe, my husband got very worried about my old parents who belong to the risk group due to their high age while my father is 92 years old, my mother 91. In general, my husband felt nervous about the overall situation, suffering from concentration difficulties.
My mother, by contrast, was not worried at all, although she fully understood the circumstances and adapted to the required restrictions. The difference was mental: my husband became bothered, whereas my mother remained relaxed. The following anecdotes describe her confident, trusting attitude:
My mother stressed her excellent immunity system, reminding me how neither she nor her mother (i.e. my granny) were hardly ever infected when all other people around them got sick from influenza. She recalled an exceptionally heavy influenza epidemic from the year 1951 or 1952 when most of her colleagues and pupils fell ill but she stayed healthy. Despite this strong optimism, she obeyed the rules and sacrificed her regular visits to her favorite hamburger restaurant.
At the same time, Finnish newspapers made headlines of stubborn old-age pensioners who kept on convening with their friends at cafes although senior citizens over 70 years old were ordered to stay home. Perhaps old people are mentally more accustomed to the presence of life-threatening contagious diseases owing to their early childhood experiences when health care was not yet as developed as today. In the early 1930s, for instance, people still died in tuberculosis although tuberculosis was no longer such a wide-spread plague than at the turn of the century. The Spanish flu killed my mother’s young aunt in 1918.
I was impressed how fast and efficiently the City of Helsinki and the Lutheran parish organized as a joint endeavor food delivery service for all elderly residents who are over 80 years old. The implementation of this large-scale project relies on volunteers and is carried out in collaboration with Finland’s leading retail chain. A volunteer from the parish called my parents, too, kindly asking if they need help in grocery shopping, but my modern mother was ahead by a nose. She has ordered her groceries from an online shop of the above mentioned retailer since December 2018. Thanks to this fantastic, flawless and cheap service, my parents receive their groceries safely delivered home every week. [Please note that the above project is about shopping assistance, not about distribution of free food.]
Self-made fuss and moral hazard
When privileged white-collar employees were sent from their offices to telework at home, accompanied by their children, the unprecedented situation sparked a lively discussion on social media in March 2020. At the outset of the obligatory telecommuting, many commentators were concerned, if not upset, as they had been pushed away from their comfort zone. Respectively, they were sharing plentiful advice how to cope with the new challenges. The initial assumption seemed to be as if people would feel uneasy with telecommuting and they would encounter various difficulties because of social distancing.
This boiling debate provoked a sarcastic counterreaction, which probably reflected Finnish culture and ethos as much as individual psychology. A certain meme became especially popular. Its text has minor variations but its core message reads as follows: “Your grandparents were ordered to leave their home forever [due to the WW II]; you will be asked to stay on your home couch for some time. You’ll survive!” Moreover, people’s irrational behavior, such as hoarding of toilet paper, also evoked benevolent humor.
Some humorless protestors regard lockdown measures as violations of their constitutional civil liberties, pitting human rights against public good. Hard-core rebels cannot accept if they are prohibited from going to the hairdresser’s or driving to their summer cottage. Accordingly, I read opinions according to which a nail bar and a florist’s shop should qualify as essential services to be permitted to continue operations. These kinds of reactions make me ask myself where moral relativism ends and idiotic selfishness begins. My advice to those troubled by the denied access to the hairdresser’s reads: “Get a life!” A totally different issue are the entrepreneurs who are at risk of losing livelihood but that is another topic.
When people complain what they are missing most because of the lockdown restrictions, they also expose their priorities as an unintended by-product. Someone is yearning for junk food; another is longing for trainings with one’s sports club. People’s needs often appear childish, ridiculous and inessential, which holds true for my own preferences, as well. I missed Berlin momentarily even though I had not even planned to travel there this year!
My own soul-searching revealed unfortunately that I am no woman of small joys but will continue overlooking them. Sorry, neighbors! My kind, nice neighbors entertain their fellow citizens by launching different local actions, such as placing teddy bears or shamrocks in their windows for children’s bear/shamrock hunts. Some grab colorful chalks to decorate pavements with sidewalk art and friendly messages. Others hang poems or paintings in front of their porches. Everyone is monitoring via photos and videos movements of an exciting new resident in the neighborhood. This famous newcomer is a turkey called Norma L. Park. (Quiz: guess where Norma lives!) Paradoxically, social distancing is enhancing sense of community in neighborhoods, when people help each other, and also borrow or donate foodstuffs, plants and goods like in the good old days.
Many are expressing their gratitude for healthcare and grocery workers by yard signs or posters. Sceptics are nevertheless articulating their doubt how long this wave of sympathy towards the present-day heroes will last. Are you ready to pay higher taxes or retail prices in future in order to ensure better salaries and working conditions for nurses, paramedics, shop clerks and logistics workers? Singing on a balcony will not help them further in the long run. A crisis easily nurtures hypocrisy alongside truly noble deeds.
Social isolation and lack of interaction can lead to coronavirus loneliness that causes stress during these extraordinary months. Most individuals still see light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel since their self-isolation is likely to end sooner or later. But what about those genuinely lonely people who are permanently living in endless isolation year after year? There are too many seniors who are forgotten in nursery homes where no one ever visits or calls them. There are too many youngsters who were bullied at school and therefore dropped out. For them, the coronavirus isolation hardly differs from their ordinary everyday life.
As far as the telecommuting white-collar employees are concerned, the majority of them are indeed doing just fine. In fact, they are actually enjoying working at home because work hours are flexible and work environment is peaceful compared to noisy open-space offices. This is the result of a large, statistically representative survey published in Finland in April 2020. The preference is so strong that more than half of them wishes to continue telecommuting after the pandemic. Random feedback from my friends is consistent with the survey results.
Even though home offices provided some employees with novel experiences, they are nothing unusual nowadays. Telecommuting is increasing in a number of companies in any event irrespective of the current pandemic. Besides, more and more people are working as freelancers or entrepreneurs. Digital nomads are slowly becoming the new normal. Finally, many pensioners, homemakers and other active persons out of the labor force are maintaining contacts with their networks, for example, in the third sector.
To sum up, the initial fuss in March 2020 looks like a storm in a teacup. The same conclusion can be formulated alternatively: much ado about nothing.
Surely, we all wish to end the corona lockdown and return to the normality as soon as it is safe, but maybe we still learned some useful lessons from these nearly quarantine-like conditions. To conclude, I point out a few beneficial things and thought-provoking aspects that define my personal takeaways from the lockdown.
I managed to concentrate on my tasks better than for ages since most distractions disappeared. I did not feel “compelled” to browse concert programs, flight schedules or recreational activities. Thanks to my undisturbed work flow, I got rid of several unfinished jobs that had been in progress for too long. The ability to focus is the only cure for achieving our goals, whereas multi-tasking is undermining our capacity to concentrate. At the same time, the situation prompted me to try out time management methods and tools.
I became consciously aware how mobility constitutes integral part of our lifestyle and identity. My generation got used to take it for granted that we can easily travel when- and wherever we wish. Freedom of movement for persons is the cornerstone of EU citizenship, the principle of which has been effectively indoctrinated since the early 1990s. Even though most EU citizens will not reside into another EU country, masses of people have exercised their right to visit foreign countries without border-crossing formalities, especially when flights were affordable. Now it feels odd and nostalgic when this self-evident privilege has vanished for some time.
Digital leap presents an opportunity to surmount physical barriers and geographic distances. Webinars, virtual meetings and online classes offer a convenient, time-saving and environmentally friendly option that works better than in the past thanks to technological development and improved presentation skills. I benefited from the cancellation of in-person seminars in Finland because they were streamed with the result that I was able to attend them online. Some webinars attracted much more attendants than corresponding live events ever before. However, this is not to say that we should abandon face-to-face gatherings. It just means that every cloud has a silver lining.
“Daydreaming”, Owner: Marja