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OPINION

Shaking off pandemic inertia is harder than expected

A year ago, the loss of my old routine was something to mourn, while the new one felt claustrophobic. Now, the claustrophobia feels uncomfortably comfortable.

Paul Dudikov/

A body at rest tends to stay at rest. A body in motion tends to stay in motion. And a body in pandemic motion tends to move in a small circle, even after the mask comes off.

With the privilege of working from home comes a strange inertia. Shaking it off is the first big challenge, as the countdown begins to a return to the office.

Of course, taking time to fight off pandemic-induced paralysis is a luxury the rest of the working world does not have. Doctors and nurses, bus drivers and grocery workers — they had no choice. At the height of the coronavirus surge, front-line workers in every business and profession left the safety of home to tackle a strange and dangerous universe. With vaccines and a return to semi-normalcy, they can relax and wind down a bit. Meanwhile, the working-from-home crowd is just winding itself up.

For the past 14 months, I’ve been living in a small, small world. I stared into the same screen and wrote thousands of words from the same spot. Sadly, I never curated my backdrop or figured out when to speak or not speak on Zoom. During the day, I moved from office space to kitchen to back yard, and that’s about it. Several times a day, the dog walked me down the same stretch of street, resisting any effort on my part to change the route. For entertainment, I rearranged the silverware and Christmas decorations.

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Yet, as confining as that sounds, crossing the border back to pre-pandemic life is harder than expected. A year ago, the loss of my old routine was something to mourn, while the new one felt claustrophobic. Now, the claustrophobia feels uncomfortably comfortable. After going days without driving, getting behind the wheel feels like entering a capsule bound for Mars. Remind me, where’s that button that opens the gas cap? After weeks of rotating virtually the same clothes, simply adding or subtracting for weather, choosing an “outfit” is a big deal. So is fitting into one.

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What was an ordinary day like 14 months ago? I got up and got dressed. Stood on a crowded platform, and then jockeyed for a seat on the train. I walked down a busy city street to an office building. I bought a cup of overpriced coffee and carried it to my desk. I said good morning to co-workers, logged in, and started to work. During that same time period at home, I could write at least half a column, if not more. The trade-off is missing the sights, sounds, and inconveniences of life beyond the bubble. Yet as much as I know the sights, sounds, and inconveniences of life beyond the bubble are the essence of my job, the flowers in my yard look lovely right now. And yes, I know I’m lucky to have that yard.

A pandemic has serious, broad-based effects on society. As much as a health and economic crisis, it’s also a social crisis, experts say. COVID-19 “led to a dramatic loss of human life worldwide and presents an unprecedented challenge to public health, food systems, and the world of work,” notes the World Health Organization. Children, college students, and health workers are especially at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression. Increased alcohol consumption and substance abuse associated with the pandemic are also a concern. In this country, the coronavirus has deepened the political divide and further eroded trust in institutions. First, masks became a flashpoint, then proof of vaccination. Now, new questions about the origin of the virus are shaking up politics even more. Did it come from a Chinese lab? If so, does that validate a theory advanced by Donald Trump, if not the crudely racist way he presented it?

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To borrow from “Casablanca”: One person’s inertia doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Still, it’s a hill that must be climbed.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.