Why this stage of the pandemic may prove the steepest climb yet

·4 min read
Rising case numbers, ever-changing rules and seemingly no end in sight: The pandemic has taken its toll on many of us, and April could be the toughest month yet, experts say. (Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock - image credit)
Rising case numbers, ever-changing rules and seemingly no end in sight: The pandemic has taken its toll on many of us, and April could be the toughest month yet, experts say. (Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock - image credit)

So you managed to scrape through 2020, but now you're running out of steam, even as the promise of vaccination offers a glimmer of hope.

You've hit the COVID-19 wall, but you're not alone, according to sociologist Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute for the Family, a charitable research and education institute based in Ottawa.

Since March 2020, Spinks has been researching the impact of the pandemic on family life and experience, and has broken it down into three phases: March to June 2020 was all about adaptation and adjustment, a period marked by "sourdough and binge-watching," said Spinks.

This will be a hard month. It will be unpredictable. It will be challenging. It will be exhausting. - Nora Spinks, Vanier Institute for the Family

Then came the second phase, which spanned "roughly July [2020] to … early February [2021]." According to Spinks, that period "was more about slogging through it.... The fun and adventure was waning. It was harder work. Puzzles … were getting boring."

Now, on the heels of a sunny spring long weekend, here we are: Phase 3, perhaps the toughest challenge yet.

"Like running on fumes" is how Spinks describes our current collective psyche.

"This last hill that we have to climb over is steep and hard," she said. "This will be a hard month. It will be unpredictable. It will be challenging. It will be exhausting."

Dip into that reserve

The rules seem to change by the day. Case numbers are rising toward unprecedented heights. Younger patients are being admitted to the ICU. We have nothing left in the tank.

"It will be hard just when everybody is depleted," Spinks said, explaining that "self-regulation requires energy." When we lack it, we're more likely to make poor decisions on Twitter, during Zoom calls and behind the wheel.

The good news is, most of us possess a secret fuel reserve.

"We will get through it and we will come to the other side and [say], 'I had no idea we were that strong. I had no idea I had that much courage. I had no idea that I had a secondary reserve tank."

That secret store of energy can be primed "through connections, through friendships, through routine, and through self-care," said Spinks.

"For those of us who have reached the end of our ropes, there will be people who will be there to give us a hand, and then we will turn around and give it to the next person and the next person and we will all get up over this hill."

Earlier phases of the pandemic have sapped our energy, leaving little in the tank for the final push.
Earlier phases of the pandemic have sapped our energy, leaving little in the tank for the final push.(Shutterstock)

The other shoe

"The biggest issue is that every time there's a little ray of hope, there seems to be a 'but,'" said Ottawa psychologist Maggie Mamen. "Everybody's waiting for the other shoe to fall.... The vaccines are coming, 'but.' We see the end in sight, 'but.' It takes away people's hope."

The hardest part with this is that there's no clear end. People keep moving the final ribbon. - Maggie Mamen, psychologist

Mamen compares it to her experiences cycling through hilly countryside. "You'd be going up a hill and there'd be a bend and you'd think, around that bend is going to be the summit. Then you go around the bend and there's another uphill. And then around the bend, another uphill."

Or imagine you're in the final few kilometres of a marathon when suddenly, race officials tack on an extra leg, but don't tell you how far.

"The hardest part with this is that there's no clear end. People keep moving the final ribbon. You think you're on the final stretch and you're not," said Mamen. "That's morale-busting. That really is draining people's strength."

Mamen, who specializes in helping parents understand their children's behaviour and emotions, said adults have an enormous role to play in helping young people over this hump.

"I hope that parents recognize that they are very powerful in their children's lives. They're powerful to create hope. They're powerful to help manage the anxiety."