Can Covid-19 change us for the better?

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There is no doubt that 2020 will be a year to remember. A pandemic, national lockdown, social isolation, health risks, economic and academic disruption, and uncertainty, loss of control, fear, and panic due to information flooding are all ingredients in the perfect storm of the unprecedented ‘new normal’.

Due to Covid-19, we have become sensitised to the need to protect mental health and well-being among all members of society – not least, our caregivers. The plight of healthcare workers in the front lines has focused our attention on the threat of burnout (defined as emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and a sense of low personal accomplishment) as a result of increased stress, as well as the risk of depression and anxiety disorders.

Focus on becoming more agile and adaptable

But do we need to stick to the prescribed script that dooms us to global resignation of merely trying to survive? Is there an alternative response that uncovers unique strengths? Can we flip the narrative to resilience?

In the destructive wake of this global crisis, we could instead focus on how we have become more agile and adaptable. We could notice the coping strategies of those who do not succumb to despair, victimhood, or expedience. We could reimagine a world where the problems of the day do not define us; a world where we respond with intention, drawing on resilience forged in the fire of adversity, resolutely using our prior-established values to guide us.

Resilience helps us to not merely survive, but to recover, regroup, and reach new heights. Diane Coutu described the characteristics of resilient people: stoic acceptance of tough situations, creating meaning despite the current overwhelming circumstances, and an astonishing ability to improvise. The notion was reinforced in a recent perspective published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The authors eloquently pointed out that during the uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic, a sense of altruism and urgency seemed to catalyse restored autonomy, competency, and relatedness – three pillars considered supportive of intrinsic motivation and psychological well-being.

Adaptive coping strategies

Research among students and staff in the UFS Faculty of Health Sciences has shown that higher resilience (and lower burnout) is associated with adaptive coping strategies. Strength and growth through hardship were foundational to dealing with endemic stress and inevitable personal, academic, and financial challenges.

So, what are some of the qualities, skills, or resources that help us bounce back and grow our resilience?

Have hope. Far from blind, naïve optimism, it is instead a sober realism about reality, balanced by finding strength in the belief that in the end, you will overcome (the Stockdale Paradox). This ties closely with acceptance, allowing emotions a seat at the table of our lives but not giving in to their attempts at a hostile takeover. It happens when we choose to respond, rather than react, leaving space to be flexible enough to adjust our expectations from immediate gratification to the perseverance to sit out the discomfort.

Stay kind. In the face of extreme hardship, humans reveal the truth about themselves. Treating others with compassion, patience, and respect may not make the crisis disappear – but when we look back, are we not most inspired by those who have created meaning through extraordinary humility and sacrifice? When all is said and done, what story would you like to tell about the kind of person you were during the pandemic?

Be brave

Be brave anyway. Approaching the sixth month of the pandemic means that most of us are tired. Despite trying to be safe, innovative, and wise, there are no apparent solutions or a clear end in sight. This is the time to be insanely courageous, to step into the arena to find answers and offer alternatives, despite naysayers (often anonymous) criticising your best efforts. This is the moment in history when we need to overcome our fear with the kind of courage that shows up even when legs shake, the voice trembles, and the heart palpitates.

When we look back on 2020, may we do so knowing that we continued hoping (even while accepting the tragic reality), that we stayed kind (creating meaning in the midst of turmoil), and that we were brave (overcoming seemingly insurmountable difficulty with exceptional creativity). We have much to offer if we allow our resilience to stand this test of time. May Covid-19 change us for the better.

Opinion article by Dr Lynette van der Merwe, University of the Free State.