"I'm just tired of everything, I don't want to know anything about coronavirus anymore. I've had enough," says 23-year-old Nandini, a college student from Kolkata. For Nandini*, the past three months have been nothing short of a Herculean battle - a battle with her own mind, with those around her urging her to use her time productively and her complete lack of motivation to do anything, even study for her exams which will be held as soon as educational institutes are allowed to reopen.
But this uncertainty has left her irritable and drained of energy. And she is not the only one.
Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the world may very soon be facing a mental health crisis - nothing like we've ever seen before. And "coronavirus fatigue", a very real, very worrisome fallout of the pandemic is manifesting itself in thousands of hapless individuals around the world.
Lockdown or coronavirus fatigue is affecting people now when we're somewhat halfway through the pandemic. The feelings of panic and paranoia, which one may have felt in the initial phases of the pandemic, have been replaced by that of constant boredom and lethargy, with your morale being affected. The questions on our minds are no longer "What does the lockdown mean for us?" it's "When will this end, if ever?"
A study published in 2011 studied the impacts of uncertainty on those who survive a disaster. The researchers there explained how fatigue is often one of the most common symptoms of depression and mental health disorders.
Feeling more drained than usual?
Popular to contrary belief, fatigue can be mental or physical. And during the pandemic, it's a bit of both. People are over exhausted from an increase in workload, both in their places of work and at home. Moreover, there is the constant anxiety about the pandemic in the back of our minds.
In India, the lockdown has lasted for over three months. When the pandemic first began, everyone would tune in to the news for daily updates on Covid-19. They would stay hooked to social media platforms so as to not miss out any important updates. With time, a feeling of monotony set in.
Covid-19 in India has not yet reached its peak, but people's interests have. Recently, a photo went viral which showed how a Facebook page had altered its name from "Covid emergency updates" to "Fashion House", announcing that they would now be promoting local boutiques. Funny as this may sound, it is proof that Indians are tired, and the fatigue is beginning to show.
"I quickly scroll past any news update about coronavirus. I'd been following the numbers very closely in the first few days. But for how long? It's been three months, and that's all we ever seem to talk about. At one point, my feed was full of just Covid posts. All my cute pup videos had disappeared I was on the verge of quitting social media," says Neelam Verma, a homemaker from New Delhi.
The impact of social media in deepening the mental health crisis cannot be ignored here. In fact, Bollywood actor Sonakshi Sinha too decided that she could no longer take the negativity on Twitter and announced that she was taking a break. A break from social media, however, is a luxury few can afford.
News organisations around the world are doing a stellar job covering the ongoing pandemic. But it can be tough to see the silver lining when death, disease and destruction are all you see every time you go on social media. A study showed how negative news can adversely affect one's emotional well-being and cognitive and behavioural responses.
An interesting piece by LA Times said that the main reason news organisations tend to focus on negative news is because that triggers people more. Studies of viewers' interests have shown that they are more likely to pay attention to negative news than positive ones, which further shapes how newspapers and digital media companies organise their programmes and reports.
But that comes with a price.
"First there was coronavirus. Then Sushant Singh Rajput's untimely demise and all the hate spewed on social media over his suicide. Then we have India and China at loggerheads with each other. How much more are we supposed to take in?" asks Kusum*, a student based in Kolkata.
Kusum is right. 2020 does seem to be one disaster after another. But while Kusum says that she has tried to steer clear of news updates and social media in the last few weeks, some may not have the option of doing so.
Ananya*, a young journalist based in New Delhi, joined a news organisation after graduating in 2018. A fresher, she was in awe of the newsroom and was eager to hit the streets and start reporting. When the first cases of coronavirus were reported in Delhi, Ananya was covering the Delhi riots which ravaged through the capital earlier this year.
She was at a relief camp for survivors when her editor asked her to head to the hospital nearby where some Covid-19 patients had been admitted. As she headed to the hospital to speak to doctors and those managing the Covid ward, Ananya suddenly found herself weary.
"I had covered the protests at JNU from the ground. I had seen first-hand the trials and tribulations of the students there. Soon after, I spent days roaming the streets of North East Delhi to cover the riots. As soon as that was done, we had coronavirus. Suddenly, it was not about a story anymore. I live with my parents who are aged. I was worried about bringing the virus back home, but could not give up reporting either. At one point, I wished I could just quit and move to the hills. I just needed a few days of quietude and peace," she said.
Is WFH adding to the stress?
Kalpana Ravi is a media personality who has been in the industry for over twenty years. A single mother who lives with her 26-year-old son, Ravi runs a news organisation, MediaNews4U. Ravi along with her small team have been working from home since the lockdown.
"When the lockdown started, it felt like a breeze. Like a holiday. And then reality set in. As a journalist, I have to constantly come up with new ideas for stories, pitch them and get it done. Very soon, I was working around the clock. WFH is no longer fun because we simply cannot respect other people's time," she said.
She added that WFH as a woman is a "double-edged sword" because she has to take care of household chores and meet deadlines at the same time. "I wish I could switch everything off and just shut my eyes. There are so many days when I don't feel like logging in," she added. To make things easier for herself and her team, Ravi has decided to make it a five-day working week for the whole organisation.
Is this what burnout looks like?
According to Ruchita Chadrashekar, a trauma therapist, what many are facing right now sounds a lot like burnout. "Excessive and prolonged exposure to stress causes physical and emotional exhaustion. News, employment insecurity, fearing for one's health and the health of their loved ones, cabin fever from being confined at home, being in abusive households. Multiple environments are increasing stressors that are increasing vulnerability to exhaustion," she said.
She added that WFH is probably adding to the stress and anxiety already dominating the situation. According to research, stress is how the human body responds to threat or demand. Whenever encountered with such stimuli, the body's defences kick in which is usually called the stress response.
With almost everyone working from home these days, the boundaries between one's professional and personal spaces are blurred. Chandrashekhar said, "WFH for a prolonged period can add to stress if the boundaries with work continue to remain as blurry; especially with the state of the economy changing, employment insecurity, pay cuts and the increasing need to keep proving oneself so employment can be retained. Also, the lack of support from companies makes all this much worse."
Riddhima*, who works in a multinational company, couldn't agree more. "My bosses don't respect my personal space at all. Just because I am working from home does not mean I am available 24*7. When we began, I had no idea this is how it would be. Now it is just tiresome. It is becoming claustrophobic. No matter what I do to try and distract myself, it becomes monotonous after a few days," she said.
"Unable to focus on anything, I'm just tired"
26-year-old Ritika*, who works as a guest lecturer in a college in Kolkata, feels that during the pandemic, everything is at stake which makes it impossible for her to focus on anything. "I don't just work for money, but right now it is money that I need. My father's shop has been closed since the lockdown. Our expenses are rising with each passing day, but our income has gone down. How long will this last?" she said.
She has also observed a lack of motivation in going about her chores. "I am completely exhausted, my voice has cracked. I wish I could pause for a moment and take a break. But when I do take a break, I am haunted by thoughts of what is going to happen. I haven't slept peacefully in ages. These days I just stay in my room, isolated. I try to stay away from the negativity that is on social media," she added. For Ritika, alienation has been her escape from the threat that the outer world harbours.
In fact, Chandrashekhar believes that simply deactivating news alerts could work wonders. "Boundaries from the news are extremely necessary right now. It works because for a fraction of time, it reduces your brains exposure to stress. I recommend deactivating all news alerts and checking one reliable source of news, intentionally, once or twice a day, in order to stay updated," she advised.
How long will this go on? What is the solution?
That is a question no one seems to know the answer to, not even the World Health Organisation. Several countries around the world, like South Korea, are reporting the second wave of infections. The WHO has said that the pandemic is progressing at an accelerated and "dangerous pace."
In India, the peak is still far away and studies show that cases may keep increasing at an alarming rate till October.
A study suggests that one of the most important reasons why we're probably feeling more tired than usual is because it is the "fear of the pandemic" wearing us down.
According to Chandrashekhar, it is recommended that you take it one day at a time. Planning for a future may not be the wisest thing to do. "Having good social support could help, having community spaces to process and validate the stress can also help. At this point, the best one can do is stay afloat and have reasonable expectations from themselves. If you made it through the day, you’ve won," she said.
Karen Nimmo, a clinical psychologist, wrote in an article for Medium that we need to remember we're all rookies - none of us have lived through a pandemic before. It's a learning process, you pick up things as you go through the waves.
There is still a long way to go, but many are finding themselves lacking the energy to see this through. The enthusiastic "we will get over this" assurances have been replaced with uncertain shrugs and denial that the situation may possibly get worse. It's no longer panic about the disease, it's more about what ensues - the illness, the plight of the families, the tales of horror from hospitals, recovery and the stigma associated with it.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.