Artwork for FTWeekend Comment - issue dated 23.05.20
© Jonathan McHugh 2020

Be the first to know about every new Coronavirus story

After eight weeks of lockdown, I am beginning to lose my bearings. The anticipation of liberation, as restrictions begin to lift, has strangely made me more grumpy and disoriented. And I am not alone.

Friends report increasing battles with their children and spouses over trivial things, as the initial sense of bonding in a crisis gives way to the dull drumbeat of cramped togetherness, coupled with uncertainty over whether to send children back to school or whether there will be a job to go to. Few people have taken such drastic action as the writer Neil Gaiman, who flew from New Zealand to the Isle of Skye to get away from his wife during lockdown. But for every individual who is revelling in bird song, there are many others suffering acutely from quarantine fatigue.

In the 1980s, behavioural researchers at Nasa studied Antarctic missions and submarine voyages, to understand how human beings might cope with the confinement and isolation of a space station. It was soon clear that breakdowns in social interaction can disrupt a mission as badly as medical issues.

“Without the ability to physically remove oneself from others”, wrote researcher Marc Levesque of his year at Antartica’s South Pole Station, “mentally plotting the exact time, place and method of a fellow crewmember’s demise became one of the few options available for coping”.

Mr Levesque’s version of lockdown was far more extreme than ours. He had to put up with colleagues who were strangers, three-minute showers, and the grinding sensory deprivation of winter white. My own household argues about who ate the last biscuit, not who took what polar explorers called a “Hollywood shower”: a luxurious four minutes. But it is intriguing that on many missions, dislikes and resentments are heightened in the last phase.

The notion of a “third quarter phenomenon” was coined in 1991, by the researchers Robert Bechtel and Amy Berning. They found that morale seemed to dip, and interpersonal tensions rise, when missions reached the three-quarter mark. Whether the expedition was due to last a year or six months, there was something psychologically crippling about knowing that the first part of the journey was over, but that a long, tough period still lay ahead.

At least these intrepid voyagers volunteered for their roles and knew the end date. None of us chose Covid-19. We teeter on the verge of entering the next phase, without knowing when or if we will return to our old lives. We may endure a prolonged third-quarter, irritated by the continuing privations and girding ourselves for a next step which never seems to come.

This may help to explain why many of us haven’t mustered the energy to take up oil painting or read Tolstoy. Whether you are on your own, elbowing a partner for laptop space or trying to work while home-schooling children, you may be running low on resilience. A friend in Massachussetts is churning her own butter, because the shops have run out. Far from enjoying this homely pastime, she is infuriated, racing to fit it in between work calls and home-schooling. Why do you need butter? I ask. “Because all we eat is toast!” she shouts, furiously. “It’s not that bad” her husband murmurs in the background.

On polar expeditions, morale was hugely influenced by compassionate leadership. We adults are used to heading our own households, and in some cases our organisations. But we are doing so without the distraction of a commute or the ability to complain to a sympathetic friend out of earshot.

Julia Marcus, professor of population medicine at Harvard Medical School, has compared social isolation to abstinence. Both are unnatural. She has urged public health experts to learn from efforts to stop the spread of HIV in the early 1980s. Telling all gay men to stop having sex was unhelpful, she says. It was more effective to guide people on how to have safer interactions. She argues for the same approach now.

Yet even as we start to socialise again, we must accept that “normal” is not coming back any time soon. We are not able to plan for things we usually look forward to, like a summer holiday, or the end of term school events. A-Level students leaving school, and university students who are about to graduate don’t know if they will ever walk through their institutional gates again.

These deprivations do not rank with illness or death, but they produce a kind of grief for what might have been. For some, they create what the clinical psychologist Dr Hogan Bruen calls a “forced depression” by disrupting plans for the future that usually provide hope. Six in 10 British women are struggling to feel optimistic. For some people, the next phase produces dread. Disabled people and others who rely on carers coming into their homes are especially anxious right now that their helpers may be exposed to infection as restrictions ease.

In a recent poll, 60 per cent of Britons say they feel uncomfortable about going to bars and sporting events or using public transport. Only 49 per cent are happy with the idea of going back to work. #ExtendLockdown has trended on social media, with thousands of people expressing concern about the easing of restrictions, even as others lambast them for being workshy. We should not underestimate how exhausting this is.

I was prepared for quarantine fatigue. I hadn’t expected to wrestle with the sense that the beginning is over, but that we are nowhere near the end. In this next phase of our pandemic journey, the strains and stresses may take their toughest toll.

The writer is a senior fellow at Harvard University and advises the UK Department of Health and Social Care

Letter in response to this column:

Cummings shows we’re not all in this together / From Paul Twyman, London SE5, UK

Get alerts on Mental health when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article