17 July 2020

Feeling uncertain during COVID-19? You're not alone

| Elka Wood
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Empty wharf facing sea on NSW South Coast.

Many people in the community are suffering heightened anxiety levels due to COVID-19 and uncertainty about where the world is heading. But help is available and talking through your feelings is recommended. Photo: Lisa Herbert.

If I’m honest, my anxiety levels have been higher than usual lately. If you are also struggling, get hold of someone at Beyond Blue because these folks are amazing and offer everything from online anxiety forums to free phone counselling.

So often during the past six months, it feels like I’ve been chasing peace, sometimes finding it fleetingly before descending into gloom again upon hearing the latest COVID-19 developments, or speaking to someone who lost their home in the bushfires, or whose job is on the line.

Many of the people I meet talk about similar feelings so when a friend suggested I write about the uncertainties that have descended on our previously privileged lives in 2020, it seemed like a solid, cathartic plan. Although the first thing I said to her was, “I can’t write about uncertainty – I’m too uncertain!”

My Victorian friend’s uncertainties include the future of cross-border travel. Mine range from income security to whether we’ll ever be able to freely travel to our other home in Montana, USA, where my husband’s family lives.

Once our brains get on the uncertainty loop, the questions seem endless. Will we ever see live music again? Are crowds extinct? Will future travel be hugely expensive? Will a two-week quarantine be the norm? Will we all contract COVID-19 in the end?

Uncertainty is nothing new, another friend – a practising Buddhist – reminded me.

“Six months ago, you thought you knew what your future looked like and could plan ahead,” he said. “But planning is always an illusion – we can never know what will happen in the future.”

COVID-19 reminds us of the larger uncertainties in life, which is what my wise friend alluded to. Nothing in life is certain, except death.

And reflecting on death is about as much fun as wondering what the chances are of contracting COVID-19 via an avocado!

Here’s the rub: our futures are uncertain, in part, because of the nature of pandemics. Individually, we are disproportionately powerless against a pandemic compared to how effective we are as a united, writhing organism of humanity.

Managing a pandemic requires agreement, cooperation and mass action – all things humans have historically struggled with.

This goes some way towards explaining why Australia’s COVID-19 death rate is one per cent of total cases and the USA’s is four per cent. Australians are used to accepting government direction, while the USA was founded on the cultural concept of small government and personal freedom, making the chances of 328 million people all following recommendations even more unlikely than the number alone suggests.

And nothing boils the blood of a righteous individual more than feeling powerless in a crowd refusing to use hand sanitizer because it’s smelly, or, worse, because they are in denial about the pandemic itself.

As cases in our Montana home rose this week, some concerning examples of individualism have been displayed in online noticeboards.

One man wrote, “It’s a hoax, ‘lamestream’ media lies and not a problem here. I won’t be controlled.”

Of course, there are always counter-examples, such as my dear friend, Laura, who lives in the same town as this man and is always the most responsible person when it comes to public health, fitting her handmade mask with wire so she can wear it with her glasses.

Chatting to Laura and two other close friends in Montana made my heart ache. Healthy women aged in their 30s talking with elegant acceptance about writing their wills. Not only do they accept they will likely contract COVID-19, but also that death is a real possibility.

These strong American women have accepted what I often cannot – that it is fruitless going down a rabbit hole of rage because we can’t control the actions of others.

It feels urgent that we’re all on the same page right now. And it is. But protecting our minds is also vital.

Whatever your political beliefs, world figures show the Australian Government has done a solid job of containing the pandemic and we, the public, have largely worked together towards the common goal of a COVID-19-free future.

Although the future remains uncertain – another lockdown? Bali in 2021? JobKeeper payments? – I hope you can take this perspective into your heart and use it as a step up on gloomy days, to poke your head up for a glimpse of unity and a corresponding moment of peace.

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Great piece Elka!

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