We’re Burnt Out – and Unless We Demand a New Normal, We Will Be Forever

We must imagine worlds that don’t wear us or our planet down.

by Sophie K Rosa

22 July 2021

Youtube/ UK Parliament

Pandemic restrictions have lifted – but while lockdown has ended, Covid-19 hasn’t. In one potentially contagious breath the government is telling us we have to go back to normal; in the next, it insists “this pandemic is not over”. We are now permitted – if not compelled – to return to ways of life we may only hazily recall, some of which we may not want to go back to at all. At the same time, Covid-19 cases are high and rising, and the collective emotional toll and trauma of the pandemic continues to unravel – and mount – unprocessed.

From ‘freedom day’ to ‘build back better’, the Tory government is pursuing economic ‘recovery’ at all costs, pushing a return to life as it was. But our personal and societal recovery is incompatible with how we used to live. Pre-pandemic, many of us already felt that neoliberal life conflicted with our wellbeing, let alone our flourishing – whether or not we were resigned to it. Others may have been stuck in a toxic relationship with frantic drudgery, believing it to be the inevitable price of being alive, our only chance at happiness. But such prolonged distance from what was has made it impossible to claim there is no alternative.

Returning to the rat race as if the past year didn’t happen, as the government would have it, is not our only option – rather, it isn’t an option at all. Though we may not be able to admit it to our bosses, or even to ourselves: stepping back into the status quo, while processing the pandemic, is surely impossible. How can we work out what ‘recovery’ means for us as individuals, as communities, as a society, while being hurled back on to the treadmill, living under a government that only cares about profit? Burnout will take on new meanings.

We must refuse to reconcile ourselves to the unfolding dystopia, and instead imagine worlds that don’t wear us or our planet down: Covid-19 was an offspring of capitalism. Rather than normalising death and destruction in the pursuit of capital, we could normalise communality and care in the pursuit of life. 

Let’s allow our utopian imaginations to run wild, and ask ourselves what needs to happen next. How do we heal our nervous systems while existing within – and resisting – the economic system that we know, perhaps more viscerally than ever, is destroying us? How do we move beyond the pain of the past year, and build a better future, with the pandemic still coursing through us?

‘Recovery’ means demanding a new normal.

Over the course of the past year, we may have worked a lot less, or worked from home, or worked just as much under even harsher conditions. Whether through more spacious lives allowing time for reflection, or through the terror of intensified toil and oppression, the pandemic has hastened reckonings with the injustices of the systems we live in. The dramatically different terrain has forced us to encounter our lives in new ways, question ways of being we once saw as inevitable – and excavate our desires from the rubble of capitalism.

At the same time, the full extent of the personal and collective harm the pandemic has wrought is yet to be seen. None of us know how our minds and bodies will respond to this experience over the coming weeks, months and years – how could we? But however our trauma reveals itself, there is so much healing to be done.

‘Recovery’ means demanding a new normal – one that has space for us to witness and tend to our pain; enables us to discover what healing together means. ‘Build back better’ for the Tories means nothing more than economic growth: what could ‘build back better’ mean to us?

In order to move forward, we must acknowledge what we have been through.

The state has failed to keep us safe during the pandemic – and now it is reneging responsibility entirely. One aspect of moving forward must be trying our best to keep each other safe by incorporating Covid-19 harm reduction into our everyday lives. Minimising the risk we pose to each other, including by wearing masks when the government says we don’t have to bother, is solidarity.

In terms of mass political education, living through a pandemic has done what hours of Marx reading groups didn’t. The past year has prompted many to join unions – in 2020, the grassroots trade union United Voices of the World’s membership doubled; the London Renters’ Union saw a spike in memberships. People have been organising against brutal, precarious working conditions and landlords, and rising up against racism and draconian laws in the Black Lives Matter and Kill the Bill movements. As we are propelled into post-lockdown life, healing must also mean continuing to raise our collective consciousness – radical learning projects such as the Antiuniversity, that remind us another world is possible, will be crucial. We must strengthen our movements for a world that allows us to heal.

In order to move forward, we must acknowledge what we have been through: a year replete with loneliness, fear and grief, yes – but not one bereft of connection or joy. Communities quickly united to protect and provide for each other where the government didn’t. We were forced to face our vulnerabilities, confront the reality of our relationships, and rethink intimacy and kinship. The pandemic threw the alienation of neoliberalism into sharp relief: it forced us to confront our interconnectedness, and how sorely we need each other. We can harness our changed collective emotional landscape and social infrastructures to build power from below.

A nihilistic return to normal would involve denying what we have been through. Such mass repression – ‘keep calm and carry on’ – would likely come at a disastrous personal and collective cost. Healing from the trauma of the pandemic and building resilience for the crises to come are one and the same. ‘Freedom day’ is anything but; recovery and building back better mean resisting the unfreedoms of before.

Sophie K Rosa is a freelance journalist. In addition to Novara Media, she writes for the Guardian, VICE, Open Democracy, CNN, Al Jazeera and Buzzfeed.

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