‘The end of the pandemic won’t be the end of all my problems’

Like a prisoner returning home, what if normality simply isn’t what I want it to be?

Dean Van Nguyen: ‘When the pandemic slips from being our top priority, it’s natural that our long-running fears and insecurities will snap back into focus.’ Photograph: Barry Kenna

Dean Van Nguyen: ‘When the pandemic slips from being our top priority, it’s natural that our long-running fears and insecurities will snap back into focus.’ Photograph: Barry Kenna

 

When I’m asked how I am these days – whether over the phone, via Zoom, or the odd occasion when I bump into someone I know on the street – instinct kicks in. “I’m good,” I say, as has been my custom for as long as people have been asking me the question. Recently though, I’ve been allowing myself to add a postscript to the familiar reply: “I mean, I hate it all.”

Because I do hate it. Covid living has been awful, even if I don’t always want to trumpet that very obvious fact. I’ve spent most of the past year caught between feeling low about how the pandemic has affected me personally and feeling like I shouldn’t be too vocal about it while others suffer more than me. Then comes the compulsion to choke everything down. “Ah, can’t complain.” I’ve come to accept that keeping a clear perspective on things can include letting yourself feel lousy.

With each lockdown, with each setback, the notion of Covid-19 being consigned to the past – of being bad memories and nothing more – has become harder to envision. Like everyone, I’m desperate to get to the other side of this thing, to taste what I remember as pure, undiluted freedom. But recently, this impulse has come with an attachment: the realisation that the end of the pandemic won’t be the end of all my problems.

When we talk about the vaccine being a silver bullet, it’s usually in societal terms – load that sucker into a musket, fire it into the bloodstream of enough people, and society will finally be liberated from the horrors of Covid-19. It’s tempting to see the vaccine as a great personal healer too. Once I take this precious antidote, my life will be normal. My life will be great. But “normal” and “great” aren’t typically thought of as synonyms. Normality has become a revered ideal – the weary public rhapsodise about getting back to it all the time. For most, there’s plenty to dislike about the status quo.

The belief my life will be perfect post-vaccine is simplistic and delusional 

I have to remind myself that I did sometimes get the blues before March 2020. I was sometimes bored, annoyed, fed up, even depressed. The belief my life will be perfect post-vaccine is as simplistic and delusional as the idea that if I could just change my body, all my insecurities would evaporate. The more I’ve pulled at this thread, the more I’ve become frightened by the concept of normality. Like a prisoner returning home, what if it simply isn’t what I want it to be?

After the fall of the Berlin Wall – “the end of history”, as political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared – there was a sense among Americans that they had won the ideological battle and achieved everything there was for a country to achieve. Much of the pop culture of that era portrays a nation that essentially felt it had completed planet Earth. So why wasn’t the population content?

In a way, the US had lost more than it had gained. The unifying spectre of a singular enemy was no more. Today, the country is more polarised than ever. No president has carried more than 400 electoral votes since 1988.

In a society inherently structured to pit people against each other by creating competition for jobs, housing, schools and cash, Covid-19 provided Ireland with collective purpose. When the pandemic slips from being our top priority, it’s natural that our long-running fears and insecurities will snap back into focus. 

Let’s go back to March 11th, 2020 and that feeling like we were on the edge of Armageddon. There was an eerie atmosphere in the air that day, like a movie when the locals batten down the hatches in anticipation of the demons coming out at night. I attended, of all things, a job interview. It was for a very cool position in line with new career ambitions that had been rising within me for some time. 

Before the meeting, I texted my WhatsApp group of Liverpool fans declaring that with a suspension of football likely coming, I was going to a bar that night to watch the match as if it was to be the final game the club ever played. As things transpired, I didn’t get the job, which was fine – a part of me washed down those ambitions with beer and whiskey that night. There were a lot more pressing things to worry about. The following day, it was announced schools, colleges and other public facilities would close.

I know that we’re human and that it won’t take long before we stop appreciating what will become familiar. That is true normality

I’ve been lucky this past year – my main employment is in music criticism, which has proved surprisingly resilient to Covid-19. Work has helped give my life a sense of purpose. Still, I know there’s dissatisfaction in me somewhere, waiting to surface once more. How many others have been forced to take the frustration they felt towards their careers, their living arrangements or their personal lives, and lock it away deep inside? With our existence in a state of stasis, so many feelings have been cryogenically frozen and stored in the big Indiana Jones warehouse in our souls. When thawed out, the same issues, many forgotten in the haze of it all, will be there, waiting.

When I was a kid our electricity went for what felt like an age but was probably no more than a day. Feeling desperate, I so clearly remember telling myself that I’d never take electricity for granted again. That probably lasted about half an hour after the lights came back on. Similarly, we are all telling ourselves that when the world flickers back into life, we’ll cherish every atom of life. We all want to think that this past year will put relatively minor frustrations into context for all eternity. In reality, I know that we’re human and that it won’t take long before we stop appreciating what will become familiar. That is true normality.

In some ways, it’s comforting. I’ve been thinking about what run-of-the-mill bad days used to look like and what a privilege it will be to feel terrible because of something – anything – that isn’t a viral pathogen. No inoculation can shield you from what Prince called “this thing called life.”

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