Introductory note: I am fully conscious that COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the lives of countless people, with thousands dying and losing loved ones, and millions losing their jobs. I am in the fortunate position where I do not know anyone who has lost their job or even has been infected. Therefore the following article is based on the limited, second-hand exposure I have personally had to COVID-19, and is by no means meant to downplay the undoubtedly heavy psychological toll some events are taking on people more directly affected.
The vast majority of people alive today have not witnessed anything like the effects of COVID-19 on our society before. And, sadly enough, the handful of people who have lived through what’s the most similar occurrence in recent history are the ones most at risk right now due to their age—like the oldest victim of COVID-19 in the UK, who actually lived through the Spanish Flu in 1919.
And while the Spanish Flu took a death toll 100 times higher than COVID-19 at the time of this writing, the main difference from an analytical perspective is actually the speed of spread, both of the actual virus, as well as the information about it. For one, only the incredible achievements in modern-day travel have made it possible for COVID-19 to essentially spread around the entire globe in a matter of weeks. Had it taken the first infected person many weeks or even months to get to another continent—if they would have taken that trip at all, that is—the spread of the virus would potentially have been a hundredfold slower than what it has turned out to be in 2020.
Having said that, there is a classic Catch-22 here: while the spread would have been slower, the transmission of information required to do anything about it would have been just as slow. In other words, yes, the virus spread faster than it likely would have ever before due to our unprecedented rate of travel, amounting to an average of over 3.8 million people traveling internationally each day of the year, but we were also able to warn the majority of the global population about it as promptly, either. And while the upside of a globalized warning system is undeniable, that same system also subjects us to a never-ending stream of information about the pandemic, regardless of any immediate relevance to our lives.
Which brings us to a less-discussed impact of COVID-19: media overload. Even for someone who purposefully “cultivates selective ignorance”, as Tim Ferriss describes it in his 2012 debut bestseller The Four-Hour Workweek, I find it exceedingly hard to not be confronted with a never-ending stream of news about the virus. From radio to online news, to both analog and digital billboards along the freeways,COVID-19 news is omnipresent. And, while there’s certainly immensely valuable and potentially life-saving information to be circulated, such as the recommendation to wear a mask and maintain social distancing, a lot of the news out there seems either repetitive, politically biased, or simply irrelevant to the wellbeing of ourselves and the people around us. The old journalist maxim “if it bleeds, it leads” rings truer than ever—and there certainly is a lot of bleeding going on right now.
Chances are you’ve heard even hard-core media junkies around you complain about the amount of negative news lately(I know I have). And, while the real effects of this media overload most likely won’t become measurable in the short,or even medium-term, it does seem that there is a limit to how much bad news the average consumer is willing to accept. If anything, the twenty-four hour coverage of the virus has heightened a collective awareness of how much stress-inducing news we can truly watch or read before our psyches become permanently impacted.
And, once we realized we cannot, or should not, fill all of our spare time with reading negative news, and given we cannot distract ourselves by going out, or engaging in social interaction, what have we turned to? We have turned to Netflix, which hasesulted in a doubling of new subscribers during the first few months of the initial quarantine period. But, again, there’s only so much binging one can do before, eventually, boredom sets in once again.
While it holds a negative connotation in a contemporary society that craves audiovisual stimuli, boredom is not actually not that bad for us humans. In fact, there’s overwhelming evidence that kids actually benefit from being bored, and, even for adults, boredom tends to provide some much-desired results in the realm of creativity, mental relaxation, and innovation that might not be obvious at first.
Upon taking a closer look, it seems like a classic battle of passive versus active. In our regular, appointment and task-filled days with oh so many things to do and see, most of the time, we end up reacting to external stimuli in a passive way. Passively, we return another phone call, answer another email, reply to another proposal;all the while we continue to consume advertising and social media material, oftentimes without even noticing it anymore. And then, to give our brains some quiet time, we “relax” with Netflix. Ironically, trying to round up a passive day with some exciting Netflix show actually increases our level of boredom instead of making us less bored, as Dr. Sandi Mann describes in her 2016 book titled The Science of Boredom: Why Boredom is good:
“Not only is being passive inherently more boring than being active but the expectation that our boredom can be solved through passive means that simply confounds the problem. […] It is not just TV that’s passive; our use of the internet is passive too. Studies show that people spend, on average, far more time passively scrolling through news feeds than they do actively engaging with content.”
Could COVID-19 be the jolt we needed to get pushed over the cliff of passiveness? What happens after we’ve scrolled through all the feeds and binge-watched all the shows we cared about on Netflix?
Maybe: we get active. We get creative in whatever way creativity manifests within our individual skill sets and passions. During this lockdown, my wife started painting and drawing more regularly. My kids created more crafts than ever before. Just yesterday, I heard a friend mention how he and his wife finally got around to cleaning out their garage and putting in some proper shelving(I have never heard anyone talk about cleaning a garage with so much excitement). It is too early to tell, but I pray that at least some of the newfound activities are going to stick and replace the built-in passiveness that seems to dominate large parts of our regular lives.
But who do we share all our newly discovered creativity with? Zoom fatigue quickly became a thing, and even though restrictions are being loosened in many areas by now, we’ve all spent weeks, if not months, pretty much isolated from other human beings. Enter loneliness. With most of our daily social interaction cut off quite abruptly, loneliness and many associated mental health issues have quickly become an issue for people around the globe. And while there are some excellent guides for coping with those feelings, we have to acknowledge that the current situation is testing the very fabric of humanity on a level not experienced in decades.
But as hard as it may be in the moment, this forced change in social interaction bears significant potential for positive long-term changes. People have come up with lovely random acts of kindness, anything from helping elderly people get groceries to giving away free toilet paper. We all can find small, helpful things to do for people in need during this extraordinary time. And, if you are personally struggling with feeling isolated, try just making a simple phone call. We might not be able to see the people we usually see, but we are able to call someone we don’t usually call. Pick up your phone, have a voice,or even better, video, call with someone that played an important role in your past and whom you have not been in touch with in a while. Not a talker, more of a player? Organize an online game night with some friends!
There is no question about it: not being able to see many of the people we love and cherish is tough. On the upside, this situation not only clearly shows us who really is important in our lives, and who we miss the most, but also gives us a unique chance to reach out to some people we’ve neglected, and rekindle relationships that have gotten buried under the burden of everyday stress and distractions.
Undoubtedly, the immediate impact COVID-19 has had on life is sobering and painful. But, as humans do, we can still try our best to find some good amidst all of the bad.. I can’t help but think of one of my favorite quotes by Helen Keller:
“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”
Media overload can lead to a healthy selective ignorance; boredom can lead to creativity; loneliness can lead to appreciating existing relationships and rekindling old ones.
Let’s look for the light at the end of the tunnel, and emerge from it stronger, more clear-headed, and with an improved focus on what really matters.
Markus Scharnowski is an entrepreneur, problem-solver, husband to an amazing wife and father to two beautiful daughters. Currently living in a small coastal town near Melbourne, Australia, he likes to experiment and constantly ask “what if”. He loves anything outdoors, considers himself a minimalist and is currently doing a plant-based experiment you can follow at plantbasedexperiment.com.