As we get closer to the end of the year, Insider has once again been in a reflective mood. Almost two years into the pandemic, and the associated restrictions, the cumulative impact of trauma and hopes dashed is having an impact on so many of us.
For Insider’s part, hia jaw muscles are aching from being constantly clenched for so long. Each of you reading this has also noticed the markers the pandemic has left on your body and soul.
None of this should be particularly surprising. We have lived through - are still living through - a generational trauma. Thanks to social media and a 24-hour global news cycle, reminders intrude even to those times and places when we should be able to turn off and forget for a while. That constant background noise exerts a psychic toll on us, as we do not have space to breathe and refresh.
Ever since Émile Durkheim's early sociological research on suicide in the 1890s, there has been scholarly recognition of the negative impact of uncertainty and crisis on individuals and populations. Durkheim's argument was that when society is thrown out of equilibrium by crisis - disturbing our expectations of what we can expect - it causes anomie, which in turn disrupts our ability to experience happiness and contentment.
An intensifying refrain, not just of opportunistic right-wing extremists, but also of some exhausted acquaintances, has been exasperated with uncertainty, and what they see as changing messages from public health experts and the Government.
Insider has his own frustrations - of which more later - but recognise that part of the challenge for analysts and decision-makers is the fluid nature of the crisis. This is a virus we did not know of merely two years ago. Like any virus it is prone to mutation as long as it continues to transmit and infect. This means the target is shifting, even as we figure out how to take aim at it.
Early messaging was predicated on models that presumed droplets were the main transmission vector. This supported the two meter social distancing standard, along with a focus on surface hygiene, and suggested a limited role for masks outside of this. We now know that aerosol transmission plays a much bigger role, meaning the virus can travel further, and linger for longer, than we had initially thought. Masks and ventilation are critical in dealing with this.
Similarly, vaccine development and roll-out (at least in the richer countries ) has been remarkably successful, but recent headlines about declines in efficacy levels can be both dispiriting and confusing. Probabilistic models are not particularly intuitive, and do not lend themselves to snappy headlines.
Reactionary figures thrive on this confusion, claiming that nuance is obfuscation, complexity is falsehood. We know - thanks in part to the work of those tracking our home-grown extremists - that right-wing extremists, many with links to neo-fascism and white supremacist movements, are working to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
Refusing to believe the truth
You may already have come across messages being shared on WhatsApp, or other platforms, that make unverifiable (if scary ) claims about masks or vaccines, or about Government plans. Unfortunately - and this is also something we have known from research for some time - we are susceptible to believing narratives that resonate with our prior beliefs, and to discount those that do not.
Indeed, when people are subsequently provided with evidence that a claim was untrue, they are likely to double-down, and become more invested in the claim. Insider saw this in action just this week, when a Twitter account that masquerades as an HSE consultant, spreading unverifiable (and often contradictory ) panic-inducing anecdotes about the pandemic, shared a story about an eight-year old being bullied for not wearing a mask. When one respondent expressed their concern, another user noted that the original account is 'fake'. The response: "Does it matter? I can well imagine this happening in the current climate”.
In other words, the anecdote reinforced the user's perception of an oppressive environment, and the truth (or otherwise ) did not matter, because of that reinforcement.
This is a serious concern for the operation of our polity. Insider has previously talked about the work of Cass Sunstein, who provided early warnings of the challenges online spaces posed for public discourse and society. Sunstein drew attention to the propensity of online spaces to drive 'cyber cascades' - essentially urban myths on steroids.
In the time since his early work, we have seen the emergence of platforms like YouTube, which have been shown to actively recommend ever more extreme content to viewers, seeking to keep them watching just a little bit longer.
We have seen WhatsApp, implicated in the sharing of conspiracies that have resulted in actual lynch mobs and killings. We have seen Facebook, which this week was sued for $150 billion due to its complicity in the genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar.
We are still dealing with Covid
So, back to our starting point: the predictable frustration and stress experienced by those living through the uncertainty of new variants, new restrictions, and new losses. The vista of lost income, continued social isolation, lives still on hold - even the potential for more death and illness. Psychologically, so many of us have adjusted to believing we were in the final stretch; that now that most of us were vaccinated, we could expect a return to 'normal' (or at least a 'new normal' that would not be too different from 'the before times' ).
Such expectations were fed by pronouncements by public officials and pundits. They were reinforced by the winding down of the PUP and EWSS income supports. They fit narrative models we were familiar (and comfortable ) with. As such, the latest round of restrictions have been particularly jarring.
However, the virus does not care for our feelings. Even as death rates decline, we are still dealing with that moving target. That requires continued action to keep transmission rates down - even as some of those restrictions are increasingly difficult to bear.
What Government must do
That psychological impact must, though, be factored into Government policy, along with the other issues that demand nuanced decision-making. As we near the end of the year, then, I have a wish-list, which includes:
1 ) Ireland to actively support a TRIPS waiver, ensuring that the majority of the world gets access to life-saving vaccines. This is a global crisis, just the type of situation the waiver is designed for.
2 ) The Government must support the cross-party 'Simon Bill' (being brought by Labour, Sinn Féin, and other opposition parties ) that will improve protections for those facing eviction who are deemed to be at risk of homelessness.
3 ) That the Government commit to extending comprehensive income supports and a ban on evictions for the duration of the pandemic - providing the predictability that Durkheim identified as necessary to our mental health.
4 ) An end to short-termism in our response. We are at a point where we should be implementing changes that not only tackle our short-term challenges, but which provide long-term benefits. Rather than shutting down part-time education offerings, our HEIs should be investing in, and promoting, blended learning as core to their operations. It offers flexibility to learners, it reduces concerns over yo-yoing of restrictions and risk, and it opens up new opportunities.
5 ) On a local level, the return of pedestrianised areas on a permanent basis, including the development of quality (sheltered! ) out-door recreational spaces.
6 ) Resourcing of mental health and public health services, to ensure people get the supports they need and deserve.