COVID has changed the world, but it’s not the reason for every bad thing that happens.
A couple of months ago in a session with my therapist, I was recounting a frustrating situation with a friend. “The pandemic is destroying our relationship,” I said. My therapist nodded sympathetically. “But weren’t you having problems with them before the pandemic?” he asked. “Yes, but it’s worse now,” I explained.
“I know everything is worse now,” he said, “but I think it’s important for you to tease out whether there’s a real difference between the issues you had before the pandemic and the issues you’re having now. Blaming everything on the pandemic does not seem to be helping you deal with what’s happening.” He was right, but I was mad about it.
I know that it may seem wholly lacking in compassion and awareness to suggest that the pandemic isn’t the root cause of all our problems. This global disaster has changed everything about our daily lives and the resources we have to deal with them. And yet, that moment in therapy marked a revelation in both the way I think about my own problems and also how I see the current state of the world. The conclusion I’ve come to is that blaming the pandemic for all our woes isn’t serving me anymore. And it’s problematic.
On a social level, imagining that COVID is behind all the ills of society obscures the reality of systemic inequalities that existed long before the pandemic, and on a personal level focusing on the pandemic may allow us to ignore issues that we might have regardless. While at the beginning we definitely needed to acknowledge this new reality in order to learn how to deal with our issues in the context of the pandemic, it is becoming increasingly clear that we may now need to learn to deal with the reality that COVID is probably not going anywhere and we can’t wait to deal with important issues until some pandemic-free fantasy future.
“This pandemic has pulled back the curtain on critical societal issues like our inadequate social safety net and systemic inequality,” says Jessica Dubron, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist. “It isn’t constructive to blame all of our woes on Covid,” explains Dubron. But, she adds, ignoring the pandemic or downplaying the very real toll it’s had on our communities isn’t productive, either. “It is important to recognize that it is reasonable to feel deeply distressed by what is likely the single biggest negative event of our lifetime,” says Dubron.
In other words, it is true that the pandemic has changed the world and that we are all feeling its effects, but it is also not productive to imagine that it is the raison d’etre for all our woes. The pandemic has definitely created new problems, Dubron explains. “For many this pandemic has caused food insecurity, lack of childcare, profound loneliness, illness, and death,” she points out. I agree with this wholeheartedly, but I still suspect that systemic inequality, not the pandemic, is the root cause of these problems.
Imagining that COVID is behind all the ills of society obscures the reality of systemic inequalities that existed long before the pandemic.
For example, we may be more aware of the fact that Black Americans are disproportionately affected by our insufficient healthcare system, but the reality is that that has always been true. And food scarcity has always been a problem for people living in poverty. Obviously the pandemic exacerbated these problems. Food supply chain disruption and mass unemployment have impacted millions. That is real. And yet, I can’t help but point out that the reason why we are more aware of these issues now is that they are now affecting more people of different socioeconomic backgrounds.
To be blunt, we started noticing that unemployment, healthcare, and food distribution were problems in this country when they started being a problem for privileged white people. None of these problems are new for people from under resourced communities. It is worse now, but it is not new. If we want to actually solve these problems, we have to think systemically and intersectionally, not situationally. We are going to have to look at the ugly truth that the systems we have created this country to run on are unfair.
On a personal level, blaming everything on the pandemic has allowed a lot of us to press pause on dealing with our problems. “I don’t think it’s about getting past seeing COVID as all-encompassing—in some ways it is. Instead, it is helpful to look at what is within our control and what isn’t.” The pandemic has created a lot of new issues that are outside our control — separation from loved ones, widespread sickness and death, and deep reservoirs of grief that most of us aren’t equipped to deal with.
Dubron says it’s important to acknowledge the ways that the pandemic has affected our relationships and emotional lives with care and awareness. “I think it is important to give ourselves grace and self-compassion as we navigate through the darkness together,” says Dubron. “For my patients who are grieving loved ones who’ve died, dealing with chronic COVID symptoms, struggling to keep their businesses afloat, or who just feel absolutely exhausted from trying to maintain their sanity while staying healthy, I would absolutely not pathologize their pain and invalidate their experience by saying they are using COVID as an excuse.”
I absolutely agree with this, and I am also aware that the ways that I have personally used the pandemic as a catchall reason for negative feeling states has often become a crutch that isn’t helping me heal. “If your problem predates COVID it is not something you can solely attribute to the pandemic,” says Dubron. That doesn’t mean that a pre-pandemic issue hasn’t been exacerbated by this global disaster but it does mean that it isn’t the root cause. And if there’s anything I’ve learned in therapy (or yoga) over the past three decades, it’s that you have to pull up weeds by their root.