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Has a year of living with Covid-19 rewired our brains?

When the bubonic plague spread through England in the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton fled Cambridge where he was studying for the safety of his family home in Lincolnshire. The Newtons did not live in a cramped apartment; they enjoyed a large garden with many fruit trees. In these uncertain times, out of step with ordinary life, his mind roamed free of routines and social distractions. And it was in this context that a single apple falling from a tree struck him as more intriguing than any of the apples he had previously seen fall. Gravity was a gift of the plague. So, how is this pandemic going for you?


In different ways, this is likely a question we are all asking ourselves. Whether you have experienced illness, relocated, lost a loved one or a job, got a kitten or got divorced, eaten more or exercised more, spent longer showering each morning or reached every day for the same clothes, it is an inescapable truth that the pandemic alters us all. But how? And when will we have answers to these questions – because surely there will be a time when we can scan our personal balance sheets and see in the credit column something more than grey hairs, a thicker waist and a new pet? What might be the psychological impact of living through a pandemic? Will it change us for ever?


“People talk about the return to normality, and I don’t think that is going to happen,” says Frank Snowden, a historian of pandemics at Yale, has spent 40 years studying pandemics. Snowden believes that Covid-19 affects mental health. Snowden sees a second pandemic coming “in the train of the Covid-19 first pandemic … [a] psychological pandemic”.


Aoife O’Donovan, an associate professor of psychiatry at the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences in California, who specialises in trauma, agrees. “We are dealing with so many layers of uncertainty,” she says. “Truly horrible things have happened and they will happen to others and we don’t know when or to whom or how and it is really demanding cognitively and physiologically.” The impact is experienced throughout the body, she says, because when people perceive a threat, abstract or actual, they activate a biological stress response. Cortisol mobilises glucose. The immune system is triggered, increasing levels of inflammation. This affects the function of the brain, making people more sensitive to threats and less sensitive to rewards.


In practice, this means that your immune system may be activated simply by hearing someone next to you cough, or by the sight of all those face masks and the proliferation of a colour that surely Pantone should rename “surgical blue”, or by a stranger walking towards you, or even, as O’Donovan found, seeing a friend’s cleaner in the background of a Zoom call, maskless. And because, O’Donovan points out, government regulations are by necessity broad and changeable, “as individuals we have to make lots of choices. This is uncertainty on a really intense scale.”


The unique characteristics of Covid-19 play into this sense of uncertainty. In daily life, uncertainty has played out in countless tiny ways as we try to reorient ourselves in a crisis, in the absence of the usual landmarks – schools, families, friendships, routines and rituals. Previously habitual rhythms, of time alone and time with others, the commute and even postal deliveries, are askew. There is no new normal – just an evolving estrangement. Even a simple “how are you?” is heavy with hidden questions (are you infectious?), and rarely brings a straightforward answer; more likely a hypervigilant account of a mysterious high temperature experienced back in February.


And maybe, a little like Newton’s orchard, the pandemic will give us a chance to see things we have seen many times before, but with new clarity. It would seem unlikely that every person who worked solely in an office will spend every working day in one post-vaccination. Changes to road layouts and car exclusions are under way in many cities, with Carlos Moreno’s “15-minute city” concept gaining critical airtime from Paris to Buenos Aires. In late 19th-century England the telephone was introduced in hospitals to help people with scarlet fever communicate with their loved ones; it caught on. With coronavirus, FaceTime and Zoom have offered the same solace of remote connection (though when some meetings shift back offline, and Zoom is no longer there to arbitrate on conversational turn-taking, and remind us of people’s names, we may have to relearn some communication skills).


“We can use this pandemic as a galvanising force for change,” says Alexandre White of Johns Hopkins University, who would like to see a universal healthcare act in the US “to prevent a lot of the worst healthcare outcomes that come from inequality but also to minimise the economic, social and health inequality in the first place. The conditions of possibility are there.”


And maybe that is the point – to see these times as creating the conditions for new opportunities. The challenges will be many; the fallout painful. But there is an opening for previously unthinkable change, not only to the structures of societies, but also in countless small ways – privately, personally. We have lived for months at close quarters with ourselves. We will deepen our appreciation of some of the simple things we have missed, and some of the pleasures that have helped us through, even if it is only the taste of a new season apple. And in some measure, we will know ourselves better.


[Taken from a Guardian article December 2020]

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