Peter Brindley: Covid-19 fatigue and “masking” how we feel

Covid-19’s second wave is upon us, and it could easily turn into a tsunami. I want patients to know that healthcare professionals are still here for you. Use whatever maritime analogy you like, but we’ll baton down the hatches, we’ll grip the helm, and we’ll make it through to calmer seas. Just please excuse us if we take a moment to moan. You see we are already “weary”, “dog-tired”, and dare I say it “knackered.” My guess is you are too. People often ask what it’s like on the frontlines, so let me offer a little relatable candour and catharsis. During bedside rounds I have lost count of the number of stalwarts who admit they are “done with this (insert your expletive) virus”. Our frustrations are not unique, but they are likely heightened from longer periods of “masking” how we really feel. 

I’ve heard similar frustrations from patients, families, neighbours, and the proverbial man and woman in the largely deserted streets.  At the time of writing, in Canada, we are still allowed to visit third places such as pubs, shops and gyms, and I bet those places are centres of grumbling as much as places of relief. Regardless, I seem to do little nowadays other than drive to and from work and home, or retreat to my sofa. I feel exhausted, though not even from overwork. Instead it’s the accumulation of nine months of disruption, where everything is a fuss, and there appears to be no end in sight. Add to this the dread about heading into flu season and winter. Added to that is the worry about surge capacity now that we are back to full hospital occupancy. Add that government largesse is drying up and the public is fed up. Add the daily threat of school closures just when we finally got rid of our kids. It’s enough to make you open up and say “arrrrrrrgh.”

I’m a generally positive chap, but, for those with less of a megaphone, I’d like to acknowledge that life really is a drag. I would like to distract myself by heading to the shops—they could use the business—but the restrictions just tire me more. I want to get back to casual dining, but I don’t want to share personal information just to have some dinner. I ought to go to the gym but I’ve had quite enough experience of sweating (underneath PPE). The point is not that we can’t go on—of course we will. The point is that you and I could use a name for how we’re feeling. I could throw out a DSM-worthy diagnosis, but perhaps I’ll borrow a North American expression, and acknowledge that “life just sucks.” 

I want my ordinary life back and I bet you do too. I want to hug friends, colleagues, and distressed patients. I am tired of a soggy bum crack due to constantly wearing personal protective equipment. I hate that I can’t travel, but I fear being “that doctor” who spreads more than just best wishes. I am bored of the constant covid watercooler chatter, especially as the watercooler has been removed. I also can’t take distressed patients a cup of tea because the cups have been removed. Just walking past others seems foreboding because you can’t help but wonder: “Have you got it? Have I? Obviously, I accept and support the need to mask, wash, and distance, but I am irked by all the self-appointed “covid-cops” and “super heroes.” Masks are obligatory, but leave your cape at home. 

I used to keep up on the latest news. Instead the radio is rationed and its mostly classic rock and silly comedy. I was never big on sports, but don’t expect me to care about millionaires playing to empty stadia. I also fear it’ll be masks for evermore. As a parent, I worry that the lockdowns are akin to kicking the player, not the ball. I worry about the groupthink and how easily we’ve forgotten about noble causes such as childhood literacy and overseas aid. My upbringing tells me to stop the pity party and fight back “old-school.” However, you don’t so much “fight” a pandemic, or mental distress, often you just endure.

Not every complaint needs or deserves an official label, so let’s just acknowledge that people are suffering. Let’s also offer them more than empty homilies about “keeping calm and carrying on.” For example, where I live, in affluent Western Canada, we’ve had more overdose drug deaths in the past few months than covid-19 deaths. Moreover, if tsunamis are valid comparisons, then mental health issues persist for years after the rubble is cleared. Healthcare workers are here to help, because we know it’s hard. We know that because we are also struggling to “mask” how we feel. 

Peter Brindley, Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Medical Ethics, Anesthesiology at University of Alberta, Canada, and Scholar, Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, UBC. 

Twitter: @docpgb

Competing interests: None declared.