Victoria Heinrich knows the mental gymnastics that have to be performed after long stints of isolation and “lockdown”. A weather researcher and psychology PhD candidate who lives in Hobart, Australia, she has spent five one-year stints living in Antarctica. There is no permanent human habitation at the South Pole. Only a rotating cohort of researchers and scientists. In 2021, Heinrich told the Sydney Morning Herald she experienced “reverse culture shock” every time she emerged from her icy, extreme solitary confinement.
It is a month since State of Disaster restrictions in South Africa were lifted and, as we emerge, many are struggling to find a way back to what passes for “normal” life.
BC (before Covid), one did not have to deal with a waitress preaching anti-vax rhetoric while placing an early-morning coffee order. Nor the relative you took to be sane who found Q-Anon in lockdown and is now convinced a paedophile ring runs the world.
Lunatics and unhinged post-pandemic prophets, some passing as experts online and others just sitting next to you on the bus, might proclaim and manifest unexpectedly, possibly provoking a public showdown.
The cage door is now open and we are free to fly, but we can never return to who and what we were pre-Covid. We have lost too much. We are altered.
For those fortunate not to have lost everything and emerged relatively intact economically, it is time to take stock.
Considering what is out there – devastation, thousands of displaced and homeless people under bridges and an overwhelming need all around – it is little wonder some might never want to step outside again.
The comforting embrace of a severely circumscribed social life became, for some, like myself I do confess, a safe place, a smaller domain of control in a world that often feels it has hurtled off the sanity charts. Ah, the joy of the 10pm curfew and the polite ushering of understanding guests towards the exit before the clock strikes and you risk breaking the law. No more unwelcome hugs and kisses for those less inclined to public displays of affection. A hundred and one excuses from which to choose not to go out and to commune with a mattress and a streaming service instead.
On a practical level, Heinrich found noise, too much visual stimulation and large groups of people, overwhelmed her for at least the first three months on her return.
Now we have tamed the Covid beast, employees are being coaxed back to workplaces and public points of social gathering which have reopened, together with schools. All this, while the economy still makes burdensome debit-order demands.
Psychologists identify two “speeds” of reintegration: those who can’t wait to re-enter three-dimensional reality after two years of meetings online, and those who seek to hold on to some of the boundaries set.
Anyone on Cape Town’s roads would have picked up enhanced levels of aggression and intolerance among drivers, as well as pedestrians who have forgotten how to cross roads or walk on pavements without electronic devices in front of their faces.
“I’ve had [instances of] walking down the street and I forget there are cars and traffic,” says Heinrich. “I’ve stepped out onto the road [without looking] and my sister has grabbed me.”
Psychologists say the most pressing post-Covid (PC) issue is reconnection of social threads, some of them severed for eternity, with friends, family and others.
Kimberley Norris, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Tasmania who specialises in extreme environments, notes, “Often [people] underestimate the challenges, and the reason they underestimate the challenges is because they thought lockdown was the hard part…
“It may mean people will take longer to re-establish strong ties after emerging from lockdown, and in some cases it could lead to unforeseen conflict.”
Teenagers in our orbit rushed out to claim back life the minute restrictions dissolved. A month later, the Boomer I am finds it difficult to let go, to end my love affair with extreme social distancing and solitude. I like it too much and it’s not good for me.
The good news is tentative explorations in the real world have yielded rich rewards.
Tramping the streets of my hometown I find a host of innovations (little shops and businesses everywhere) and a gentle interconnectedness below the surface that a collective trauma brings those who survive it relatively intact.
Norris’s advice is to hold onto resilience and values that revealed themselves in lockdown, like newfound hobbies, a better work-life balance, and slowly and incrementally “build up” a different life.
“There are many, many benefits associated with experiencing extreme environments,” says Norris. The trick is to internalise and understand what we have learned, not only about ourselves, but the world as it is now.” DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.