With some elements of the lockdown expected to ease from Monday, now is a good time to start to reflect on the past seven weeks and consider the ‘positives’ we might take from the experience.
That’s not to diminish the difficulties people have faced or its impact. The blanket lockdown has been incredibly tough for millions and will have profound financial, emotional and psychological effects in the years ahead. But clinicians often talk about ‘Post Traumatic Growth’.
It describes the phenomenon by which traumatic events, struggling with adversity and being under pressure, can actually prove helpful in the long term for many people. It helps them develop new skills and draws on qualities they were perhaps unaware of.
It can lead them to challenge the status quo, to appraise and evaluate their lives and make permanent changes. Many patients have told me — almost guiltily — that they’ve quite enjoyed some aspects of the lockdown or been surprised to find it has had some benefits on their lives.
Dr Max Pemberton discusses the mental side for the lockdown in this week’s Mail
And I find myself agreeing with them. Professionally, I’ve seen positive changes in the health service. There are fewer meetings, they are more focused and shorter, and there is less red tape and bureaucracy generally because of the sense of urgency engendered by Covid-19.
With so many staff off because of Covid-19 or suspected infection, more junior personnel have stepped up and — by taking on more senior roles — have reinvigorated services with new energy and thinking.
I hope these changes will be permanent. It got me thinking about what good things I can take from lockdown. The first is a less busy diary. Before lockdown I’d book and double-book myself professionally and personally and end up rushing from engagement to engagement.
Suddenly, there was nowhere to go and no one to see. It took a while, but I’ve enjoyed having entire evenings with not much to do, perhaps best summed up by the wonderful Italian phrase ‘La dolce far niente’ — the sweetness of doing nothing. I’ve also rediscovered a love of reading and listening to music.
I’ve learned that I don’t need social media with its endless bickering and political pointscoring. I no longer have Twitter on my smartphone and have been amazed at the difference it’s made.
No longer am I constantly checking for tweets to retweet or tweeting myself. I like to think I’ve become more patient through having to queue in supermarkets, and I appreciate nature more, too.
From now on I will be a staunch defender of public spaces such as parks and gardens, which are essential for our physical and mental health. And I have developed a strong appreciation for the kindness I’ve seen, small deeds and big ones, over the past weeks.
It is an inherent human trait but rarely on display. The Covid-19 crisis has helped me — perhaps all of us — become less materialistic; to re-evaluate what’s really important and to focus on our friends and family.
Not being able to see the ones we love most has reminded us how important they are to us. As a colleague said to me last week: ‘I’ll never roll my eyes at having to see my mum again!’
We’ve also started talking to one another. Modern life hadn’t just become frenetic, but also quite lonely. Many didn’t even know their next-door neighbour, yet that has changed through WhatsApp community groups or meeting others as we clap the NHS each Thursday evening on our doorsteps.
The virus has given us all an excuse to get to know people in our community, albeit from a distance. And what a wonderful legacy of an awful time this will be, if we continue to acknowledge and look out for each other.
Dame Vera Lynn, the ‘Forces Sweetheart’ who has been centre stage this week for VE Day celebrations, has compared Covid-19 to the ‘ruthless, deadly’ Nazis, and called for a VE Day-style national party when we’ve finally beaten it. Well, I’ll certainly raise a glass to that. Such events are important psychologically because they provide a demarcation between the past and future. They help us draw a line under what we’ve been through. Things may not go back to how they were — at least not immediately — but to help us all move on, we need a good, old-fashioned knees-up! We deserve it.
Covid conspiracies are just fairy tales
The coronavirus pandemic has been fertile ground for a range of wild conspiracy theories: it has been claimed that the ‘man-made’ virus originated in an American bio-weapons lab, or was it a Chinese research lab? Others insist it was deliberately ‘leaked’ as part of a plot to destroy China, or perhaps the U.S., or maybe the West in general by wreaking economic disaster. One hypothesis revolves around the British Government’s slow response to the crisis and suggests it wanted to reduce the numbers of very old people. There is no doubt that things could have been better handled here, from the speed of lockdown to the availability of testing and contact tracing, and access to protective equipment. But to suggest that ministers decided to cull the elderly — many of whom, incidentally, were the bulwark of the Tory vote in 2019 — is utterly bonkers. Yet such conspiracy theories speak to the deep psychological need many people have to view the world in black and white. It’s like a pantomime or fairy tale, with goodies and baddies. Yes, it’s an immature view of the world, but it’s reassuring because it removes doubt and avoids facing up to the fact that the world is a very uncertain place.
What a hypocrite Professor Neil Ferguson is! The Government adviser whose mathematical modelling predicted that up to 500,000 Britons could die in the coronavirus epidemic and triggered this blanket lockdown resigned this week, after it emerged that his married lover visited his home on at least two occasions recently. Ferguson defended himself by saying he thought he was ‘immune’ after developing Covid-19 symptoms and selfisolating for two weeks. He clearly thought he was also ‘immune’ to the rules the rest of us abide by — an attitude typical of many high-achieving academics I’ve come across. In the future, we should listen less to ‘theoretical modellers’ like Ferguson, and more to scientists with experience of real people and their problems.
Why tech will not replace real life
I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I’m fed up with video conferencing, or even just chatting with friends on Zoom and Facetime. It’s simply not the same as seeing someone in person. We think this is a modern problem, a consequence of the digital revolution, but what we are experiencing today was first imagined nearly 100 years ago in E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, a short story that I’ve rediscovered in lockdown. And a century after it was first published, I’m struck by the author’s eerie prescience. The story is set in a future world dominated by technology. Humans live in pods below ground, communicating with each other solely through what we know as instant messaging and video-conferencing. All physical and spiritual needs are met by the omnipotent ‘Machine’. But over time humans forget it is they who created the Machine to serve them. Instead they become subservient to it and begin worshipping it. But then defects appear in the Machine and its eventual crash brings about the end of civilisation. Without the Machine, the human race cannot function. Forster’s underlying message is of chilling relevance now. He shows that it is our direct experience and engagement with the world that is of value. It is not technology per se that endangers humanity, but rather our reliance on it. Once we are free to see family and friends again, I think we will see technology — Zoom, Facetime etc — for what it is: fine when there’s nothing else, but no substitute for real interaction.
Dr Max prescribes…
Ever wanted to get a Harvard education? Now’s your chance. Many august institutions have started offering free courses. All they require is an email address and an open mind. From the scriptures of Judaism, to the fundamentals of neuroscience, there’s a dizzying array to choose from. I’m taking one on the birth of opera for no reason other than I know nothing about opera — yet! For a modest fee, Harvard will even send you a certificate on completion.