How lessons of endurance can be carried into the post-pandemic future, according to a social anthropologist

woman on couch looking at phone at home
The fight to keep something you love – including yourself – alive requires endurance, which we all need to have.

  • Social anthropologist Felix Ringel believes that endurance will get us through our post-pandemic lives.
  • Creating a sustainable post-pandemic future will depend on endurance, maintenance, and tenacity.
  • By nature, our ability to persevere through hard times allows us to adapt to new social situations.
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The coronavirus, or rather the measurements taken against it, changed our perception of time. For many, the attempts to prevent the spread of the virus resulted in a feeling that time had come to a standstill.

When the pandemic first hit, this notion of stopped time was at the core of a widespread sense of crisis. For a while, many existed in survival mode, reacting to the demands of the day while unable to plan ahead. However, around the world, humans also began to deploy what in my work as a social anthropologist I call temporal agency – the ability to deliberately restructure, speed up, or slow down the times we are living in.

Many of us learned how to trick time in order to get through the new COVID-19 way of life. People restructured their daily lives by establishing new routines. Many had to navigate the differences between home and home office time, when both were spent in the same place. Some of us even learned how to tentatively plan ahead in a reality where the future was uncertain.

Many lockdowns later, I’m still impressed by the creative responses to the pandemic, particularly the many ways in which families and friends learned to share time at a distance. However, the one feature I particularly believe we should carry into the post-pandemic future is not that COVID creativity, but perseverance itself.

Endurance, maintenance, and tenacity – the ingredients that make up perseverance – are under-appreciated even in times without crisis. However, they kept us going when life was hardest. Humanity surprised itself by quickly adapting to the new pandemic normal, but what counted more was the perseverance we deployed for more than a year without giving up. Creating a sustainable post-pandemic future will depend on it, too.

Missed opportunities

The pandemic taught us to appreciate, and even celebrate perseverance, not least the continuous daily work of all the heroic frontline workers (whose everyday work we’d taken for granted for too long). It also provided us with a chance to reconsider what’s important in our lives and how we want to organize our societies in the future. Many of us were made aware of what counts and what was missed the most.

Prominent amongst those things are the social relations that make us who we are – with family members, friends, neighbors, and colleagues, even those we had all those unnecessary fights with during lockdown.

In the post-pandemic future, we should never again take them for granted, nor all the hugs, kisses, and handshakes. We avoid doing that by appreciating the work that goes into maintaining these social relationships.

Apart from time for family and friends, we also yearned for other times – for travel and leisure, for example. We’d taken for granted the distinction between work and leisure, office and home time, and we’ll have to take time again to renegotiate these distinctions. Whatever we come up with in the end, this new work-life balance will also have to stand the test of time – whether it can endure in the future and we in it.

Endurance and exhaustion

During the pandemic, many people had to come up with new ideas and change their behavior. But once that change had happened, we were forced to maintain and endure our response to the pandemic.

The daily exercises, weekly Zoom calls with relatives or prolonged homeschooling efforts were all examples of endurance. In many places, perseverance shaped the latter part of the pandemic – it was all about making it through a few more dark winter days and resisting general exhaustion and lockdown fatigue.

Endurance is important to society in general. In a recent paper, I looked into why this matters in the context of urban decline in postindustrial cities.

As cities change, their inhabitants are forced to adapt their behavior to new social, economic, and political circumstances. Through this change, the fight to keep something you love alive requires endurance. Sustaining a social club that struggles to find new members or preserving your local community center from closure entails plenty of perseverance. Maintaining part of your urban infrastructure that suffers from funding cuts – your youth club or local park – is a revolutionary act, because it withstands the change others intended for it.

This work of maintenance and repair is at the core of our societies. It might look less interesting than attempts at making a difference, but without it, everything around us would collapse.

The end of this pandemic will not be a sharp cut. It will be gradual and, as humanity will have to pace itself, there will be more need for endurance. In the best case, the experiences of the pandemic will help us determine what this future should look like.

Although the pandemic will at some point be over, there are enough crises yet that demand our attention: economic, social, ecological, and political ones as well as potential future pandemics. The same sense of endurance, sustainability, and perseverance will have to characterize our responses to those, too.

It is not enough to wait for a shortcut out of climate change or a cure-all for economic decline. A truly sustainable solution to these crises will have to be maintained in new everyday lives and routines. It will have to work with a different understanding of what human agency is all about.

Like during the pandemic, we not only have to establish new ideas but make them work in the long run.

Felix Ringel, assistant professor of Anthropology, Durham University

The Conversation
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COVID-19 long-haulers are showing early signs of neurological disorders: at least 1 in 5 still report brain fog after months

COVID recovery
A COVID-19 patient recovers at home in Brooklyn, New York on November 21, 2020.

  • Around 1 in 5 coronavirus long-haulers still felt brain fog six months after their initial infection.
  • That’s according to a new preprint analysis that collected data from nearly 19,000 patients.
  • Doctors will need to keep tracking long-haulers to know whether they have neurological disorders.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

When people started reporting brain fog, dizziness, and vertigo following COVID-19 infections, doctors weren’t sure how long the issues would last. Were these symptoms the short-term byproducts of a viral illness or early signs of a neurological disorder?

Now researchers are getting closer to an answer.

A new preprint analysis, which is still awaiting peer review, found that one in five coronavirus long-haulers – people who’ve been sick with COVID-19 for roughly three weeks or more – experienced cognitive impairment at least six months after their initial infection. For many patients, this brain fog has led to memory loss or difficulty concentrating or making decisions. In some cases, patients have had to take time off work or even file for unemployment.

“Neuropsychiatric symptoms appear to be a big part of the syndromes experienced by some people surviving COVID-19,” Alasdair Rooney, a co-author of the analysis, told Insider.

Rooney’s research pooled nearly 19,000 adult patients across 51 studies, making it one of the largest examinations of neurological symptoms among long-haulers to date. The patterns were the same whether or not the participants had been hospitalized and regardless of how severe their illness was at the start.

But without knowing how long these symptoms last, doctors can’t yet classify them as neurological disorders, or even chronic illnesses. Data sets are complicated by the fact that different studies track long-haulers over varying periods of time, and from different starting points.

“Before you even get to the point of setting thresholds or a number of weeks after which you declare a chronic illness, you have to have agreements about where you’re starting measuring from,” Rooney said. “And in the studies we looked at, there isn’t any at the moment.”

Still, some evidence points to a potential link between COVID-19 and persistent neurological issues: A recent study found that 72% of coronavirus survivors who’d been diagnosed with brain disorders or damage first received those diagnoses within six months of their COVID-19 infection.

Insomnia and fatigue could be neurological issues, too

 brain scan COVID
Gabriel Cervera Rodriguez examines MRI images at the COVID-19 intensive care unit at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, Texas on December 10, 2020.

One of the challenges in diagnosing long-term COVID-19 symptoms is that doctors are still learning the underlying mechanisms of the virus itself. For instance, researchers haven’t figured out why certain long-haulers develop fatigue, while others have chest pain or trouble breathing.

“It’s almost like for long-haulers, there’s this whole batch of symptoms and they reach their hand in and pull out a handful,” Noah Greenspan, a physical therapist who runs a pulmonary rehabilitation center in New York City, previously told Insider. “For some people, it may be the gut. Some people, it may be the autonomic nervous system. Some people, it may be the lungs.”

In addition to brain fog, 27% of coronavirus long-haulers in Rooney’s analysis reported insomnia and 24% reported fatigue. Rooney said both symptoms can be rooted in neurological issues, but that’s not the only possible cause.

“The reason we included fatigue was because we see it very commonly in the neuropsychiatric clinic,” he said. “It’s well recognized that in some people, fatigue has a physical cause and other people describe mental fatigue. And we don’t know yet which it is.”

coronavirus long hauler
Maria Romero, a coronavirus long-hauler in Stamford, Connecticut, on December 22, 2020.

Around of 19% of coronavirus patients in the analysis also reported anxiety, while 15% reported post-traumatic stress. Rooney said it’s hard to know whether these issues were direct COVID-19 symptoms, simply related to the pandemic in general, or something else. But patients should take any persistent neurological or psychiatric problems seriously, he added.

“I would always advise them, if they were concerned about it, to ask advice – in other words, err on the side of caution and not minimize it,” Rooney said.

Future studies should also consider the severity of these symptoms, he added, since brain fog may be life-altering for one person but merely inconvenient for another.

“What we need now is essentially much more research looking at these particular issues to understand: What are the limits of these symptoms?” Rooney said. “Are they functionally disabling or are they symptoms that people can live with?”

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