Recovering from Covid for those affected in the second wave has not been easy. Apart from the unfortunate many who have either died or suffered terribly before eventually emerging from the illness, the pandemic in its second coming has left deep and enduring psychological scars on virtually everyone else.
When we finally put 2020 behind us, the world had heaved a collective sigh of relief. For it seemed that the anxiety stemming from being confronted by a threat of a kind most of us had never encountered before would abate. Even if the virus re-surfaced, we would be more aware of what to do and what to avoid, better prepared in terms of infrastructure, more experienced in treating those affected by the disease. And most importantly, vaccination was finally becoming a reality. As if to encourage such positive ideas, the Indian caseload dropped significantly and with vaccination around the corner, we were getting ready to embrace a post-Covid world, full of hugs and shopping sprees. Indeed, many started behaving as if the pandemic was behind us.
We should have known better. Elsewhere, the second wave had come down with harsh severity and there was no reason to believe that we would be exempt. It was one thing for people to let their guard down, but even the government did so. Not only did it take things easy, it advertised its nonchalance by proclaiming to the world its greatness in successfully taming the virus. Elaborately long election schedules, full page advertisements welcoming pilgrims to the world’s largest superspreader event, top leaders appearing without masks in large rallies, it was clear that the powers-that-be were also residing in their own manufactured post-Covid reality. And the less said about ensuring adequate vaccine supplies, or building adequate capacity in producing oxygen or adding hospital beds, the better.
What was unanticipated was the emergence of the new variant. While it isn’t clear as to how much more transmissible and dangerous the new variant is, the effects of the second wave look dramatically different from the first. The speed at which the virus has ravaged the population is of a different order, as is its ability to infect even those that have taken adequate precautions, its lack of discrimination between the old and the young and the healthy and the immunocompromised, the unpredictability of its trajectory, and the number of deaths it seems to be causing.
We hear examples of people who have been vaccinated or having suffered Covid before, being infected. It is true that data tells us that in an overwhelming proportion of cases, they suffer only mild symptoms, but there has been enough anecdotal evidence suggesting that even some of these people needed hospitalisation. The claim that while vaccines might not protect us fully from getting infected, they offer 100% protection from more severe forms of the disease feels a little less reassuring than it did earlier. Far too many doctors, many of whom who have received 2 shots have had to be hospitalised and a few have even died.
Vaccines are still by far the most potent weapon in our arsenal against the pandemic; the latest research tells us that the Astra Zeneca vaccine (Covishield in India) gives 60% protection against symptomatic disease after two doses even against the current more problematic variant but the absolute faith in vaccines has been shaken and will take time to rebuild. In the meantime, the need to be cautious will continue.
What has happened is that the idea that the pandemic is a one-time event with a ‘bad’ period, which will later be followed by a ‘good’ period has fundamentally been shaken. Difficult as it is, human beings do have some experience in dealing with one-off disasters. While the sudden emergence of an unfamiliar and threatening situation causes great anxiety, we do have the mechanisms to cope and to build back our lives, as we showed last year.
After the initial period of numbing shock, we found a way to adjust to the new reality. We worked from home, we eschewed social contact, we learnt to help ourselves, we made do without whatever was not available, we adopted unfamiliar roles because there was no option. But during this entire period, there always was a voice at the back of our heads that knew that tiresome and terrifying as this period was, it would pass. And the prospect of vaccination was a concrete sign that things would improve.
That implicit expectation has been belied today. There is a nagging doubt today that a one-time vaccination (with 2 doses) whenever that happens for most of us, may not be as definitive an answer as we thought it would be. A third wave is already being spoken about, and we don’t know what that could look like. More worryingly, just as a new variant popped up here, any number of mutated variants can be born across the world.
That raises the prospect of living in a world constantly under threat, worrying about how to outrun the virus if it evolves. This is an arms race that could take an enormous toll on us all, as we lack the mental equipment to handle such a continuous assault on our sense of well-being, this absence of a sense of an ending. A new pandemic, one involving mental health might already have begun.
It is possible that there is no third wave, and that things get better from here on. It is interesting that right now, two different parts of the world are going through diametrically opposite emotional experiences. If many Western countries are looking forward to a prospect of a return to normalcy, in India we live in white-knuckled agony, surrounded by a grey sense of dread. The future might well lie in-between these scenarios. We may not be over the hump yet, but the worst might be behind us. Or it might not. And there is no way of knowing. That is the problem.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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