'Why I'm Finding Lockdown In 2021 So Much More Difficult'

In another lifetime, the trappings of a desert-island lifestyle sounded nice. It promised peace and quiet, ears lulled by the crash of the sea. There would be trees to climb and coconut husks to drain to fight off dehydration. We would eat seaweed and reach for natural, gluten-free exfoliants, watching as grains of sand trapped between toes sloughed off dead skin and sunburn. Perhaps there would even be WIFI, if we ventured further inland, no doubt powered by a complex and hardworking network of untouched coral reefs.

Now, in 2021, irony could melt the old icebreaker. “What would you bring with you if you were deserted on an island?” feels less like a balmy exercise in escapism and more like a cruel jab at the root of our cold realities. Let’s face it: even if our backyard is the beach, there are only so many ways to exoticise a holiday at home.

A year ago, we Australians were the world’s North Star. A shining example of how to kick Covid-19 to the curb. We diligently checked in, masked up, sanitised and social-distanced, formulating multistep safety routines with the same attention to detail paid to our skin. We flashed the payoff of our efforts in the world’s face—broadcasting half-naked bodies splayed across Bondi Beach—and watched as the number of community-transmitted cases ground to zero. Then, just as we let down our guards, took a deep breath and redownloaded our dating apps, Covid’s Delta strain infected our shores and ever since, Olivia Rodrigo’s 'Déjà vu' has been replaying on the radio.

So, how does lockdown feel different in 2021?

For one, when we zoom out of Australia to get a view of the rest of the world, the image we’re met with now is starkly different to its original. In 2020, we slouched into feelings of isolation that swallowed everyone, taking a seat on a sofa that held the weight of a universal commiseration. We hoarded toilet paper, rationed hand sanitiser and bought out all of the bananas that had browned just so, to bake bread. We knew little about what Covid was and how it worked, but we were glued to each other by the gaps of knowledge we couldn’t fill.

We Facetimed friends and Zoomed colleagues near and far with an unspoken understanding that their top halves looked demonstrably different to their bottoms. Sweats paired with a stain of lipstick. Pyjama shorts teamed with a put together-feel blouse. All of us pressed pause on our lives simultaneously, watching as stretches of time flew by, no longer fitting in neatly, where and how we saw fit, into our lives. Together we juggled hypothetical holidays, wedding dates, goodbyes, fresh starts and reunions in the hope that one occasion would stick, before the pull of reality struck down an idea, and we disinfected it and stored it away for another time.

In a pre-pandemic world, where we moonlighted as global citizens who gathered at airports and divided along the fault lines of economy and first class, Covid-19 was in many ways an equaliser. Of course, the extremes of its impact were and remain disproportionately felt, but at least in 2020, we were all together inasmuch as no one was immune.

On Instagram—that boiling cauldron of aspirational content brimming over with potential for jealousy—we fostered meaningful connections through content that exposed our cracks, looking for posts that were radically different to those we flocked to the app for in the first place. Being stuck indoors established a new baseline for affirmative and relatable content. How were we expected to cope, then, when everyone abroad leapt off the sofa and suddenly got vaccinated, posting stories from Saint Tropez and Capri, and leaving the rest of us behind?

In the past two weeks, hordes of twenty and thirty-somethings have descended on New York City to celebrate Pride, and the 4th of July, mask-free. Fashion editors and models have travelled to Monaco, Ischia and Paris to take in new-season collections, and undoubtedly unpacked them over baked potatoes at Caviar Kaspia afterwards. The Kardashians have flown to Rome, the Biebers have travelled to Mykonos. Meanwhile, in Sydney, we are in lockdown with the exception of outdoor exercise, urgent medical care and field trips to the supermarket—old faithfuls we relied upon in an upside-down 2020, and now 2021, to demarcate our days and give us some sense of routine.

The upsides of lockdown in 2021...

But even in the midst of life once again lived out in limbo, there are upsides—with the benefits of hindsight chief among them—to gain from being locked down in a new year. We’ve mastered our mask etiquette; we’re better equipped with infrastructure in place and have greater access to supplies. We are, at least on our good days, less fearful because there are less unknowns. We may feel like we’re in the wars right now but compared to what we knew about the virus last year, we’re no longer quite so in the dark.

Thanks to the virus, we’ve also built up our resilience muscle. We can cope with more, and chances are, we can also cope better. This time around, it feels like we are more forgiving of ourselves and how we spend our time off. We’re more alert to the potential downsides of entertaining a 24/7 productivity mindset or persisting with a thousand-piece puzzle. Less sourdough starter, more reset.

Time at home has meant our professional, personal, public and private lives have leaked into each other like a Helen Frankenthaler painting, with the ripple effect that we have disclosed more and in ways we previously may not have. It’s been taxing on some relationships (we’ve weeded out tired friendships), but transformative, too (and seeded new ones). Faced with a standstill that stranded us all together in one place, we’ve had no choice but to bolster our emotional bandwidth to deal more effectively with people, and problems, as they arise.

We’ve also come to nurture relationships we may have otherwise discarded due to the nature of their long distance. This lockdown has forced us to rewire ourselves and how we perceive how we connect. Finding your angles on Facetime still poses an intimidating challenge, but Covid-19 has helped legitimise the value of faraway friendships in our lives even as they remain encumbered by time zones. When we cannot see friends who live down the road, physical proximity no longer cuts it as a precedent for emotional closeness, so anyone can enter the fold. Yet at the same time, without holidays booked in advance and borders still shut, this particular lockdown has also eaten away at what-if relationships whose status is harder to clarify online; relationships that hinged on developing in-person memories to test if they’d work in real life.

That bleeds into one of the hardest challenges uniquely posed by this lockdown: ceding control. A year ago, we suspended both time and belief, applying short-term thinking to a virus whose impact we couldn’t fully comprehend then. Buzz phrases we throw around today, like our “new normal”, still felt foreign on the tongue and like they had a use-by date.

This time last year, many of us naively projected that Covid-19 would be over by now and, even more optimistically, assumed it would be forgotten. Instead, we find ourselves exactly where we were one year ago, only more restless, Covid-fatigued and overwhelmed by a feeling that may or may not necessarily be valid, but nevertheless nags at us with constant anxiety. The unnerving feeling that not only have we been left behind, but even worse, we’ve stagnated.

Without the typical and often mundane markers of momentum (commutes to work and water-cooler chats; birthday blowouts; dates that don’t play out online), many of us have lost track of how we’re faring. Personal style, and identity, are harder to evolve when we’re home, half-dressed. Promotions feel different when a team is working remotely, just as lost jobs may seem less real when no one is working from an office anymore. Even friendships are hard to sustain and even harder to remedy when birthdays, engagements and pregnancies are commemorated via a screen.

If last year’s lockdown jolted us out of life as we knew it, this lockdown has called for an even greater acceptance that hasn’t been easy to internalise: give in (it is what is, at least for now), but don’t give up. This lockdown feels different because we know when we look back on our lives, we will inevitably recall this time as an inflection point.

Even if we’ve been walled into our new circumstances, this peculiar time has green-lighted us to reconceive new metrics to identify happiness, progress, love or even success. I don’t know what those are for you or what they look like—leaps in personal growth, for example, or bemoaning a scarcity of coconuts nearby—but this time around, I know we don’t have to choose. We’re still island-bound for the foreseeable, but I hope that helps soften the blow.

If you are concerned about your health, please contact a medical professional. If you or someone you know needs help, phone Lifeline on 13 11 14, or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. In emergencies, call 000.

Follow Jen on Instagram @jennurick.

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