How long before I can feel normal around other people again?

Even as we emerge from lockdowns, socialising still feels like something from a past life, writes Kareem Shaheen

Human puppets each in it's own glass bubble expressing love while being apart from each other
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The coronavirus pandemic and its lockdowns have affected us all differently. With everything slowed down, some have found opportunities for renewal and personal growth. Others continued to crave human contact, or burnt themselves out at work. Some struggled to keep up with the demands of their home and work lives, while others found meaning in reconnecting with their children and families trapped under the same roof. Some got divorced, and others’ marriages thrived. Some lost their jobs, others made money. Some lost loved ones, others gained an appreciation for the finite time we have together in this world.

I burnt myself out with work, terrified that opportunities as a freelance contractor would, for the most part, dry up, and I would not be able to provide for my family. Those fears have since proved to be unfounded, but they still overwhelm my thoughts. The effects have manifested more recently in the form of melancholy: an inability to find joy and meaning in daily work, to-do lists that once would have taken a couple of hours to complete not getting done in a week, a wariness of contact with people and an addiction to sweatpants.

This all seemed to evaporate for a few hours on Sunday when I put on some decent clothes and pinewood cologne to go to my vaccine appointment at the Olympic park in Montreal.

After some initial stumbles in its vaccine roll-out – caused by the lack of local vaccine production capacity, delays in shipments and some vagaries in government contracts – Canada’s inoculation programme finally seems to have hit its stride. At least, that’s the situation in my home province of Quebec, where the public health system’s virtues are on full display. A smooth and efficient booking and vaccination system is hitting its targets with alacrity, to the point where appointments were opened for the general population earlier than anticipated and the province’s plan to give at least one dose to three quarters of residents before June 30 will be reached ahead of schedule. Cases and deaths are down, and a plan is in place to lift all lockdown restrictions.

My own appointment went smoothly enough – I was handed a new mask, my health card was scanned and after a 10-minute walk through the halls and a short conversation with a nurse, I was given a Moderna jab. I experienced some muscle soreness and fatigue, but it was nothing some strategic napping could not fix.

My father-in-law had been vaccinated a month and a half earlier because he is in his 70s, and my wife was vaccinated a week before. My mother, who is in Egypt, where caseloads are thought to be underreported, has yet to be vaccinated. I am worried sick about her every day. For a brief moment in the drizzle outside the vaccination centre, though, it felt like tomorrow might be a little bit better.

I am fortunate to live in a country wealthy enough to procure vaccines to cover its entire population several times over. Friends and family all over the world are not so lucky. They still wait with bated breath for deliverance.

People gather next to the Lachine Canal on a warm spring day in Montreal, Saturday, May 15, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world.  (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press via AP)
Even as gatherings in parks have become more common, the pandemic's impact on social life in many countries has been severe. Canadian Press

Still, and as a journalist I am ashamed to admit this, I remain wary of people, overwhelmed by the possibility of the world opening up again. When your world is shrunk for so long to the confines of your home, to a horizon that stretches to the limits of your neighbourhood supermarket, it is difficult to contemplate the world beyond that. I am both excited and anxious by the prospect of meetings in coffee shops again, by seeing the world from above through the cabin windows of a plane, by reconnecting with friends, by the possibility of going home and my mother seeing her two-year-old grandson for the first time. I am anxious, but cannot wait for meandering dinners at a busy restaurant and the energy of crowds.

It all feels like it belongs to a past life, and I feel like I will have to relearn how to be with people again. A few weeks ago, we had a small birthday gathering for my son with a handful friends at a nearby park. The Sun was shining and the conversation easy and vibrant, but I felt overstimulated, and had to tear myself away to recharge, quietly observing him going up and down the slides. But I savoured every moment, like someone quenching his thirst after a long march through a parched desert.

Winter is over, and the days of sunshine are more numerous than the overcast days again. My son has started going to day care now that we feel safer. I know that we’re not at the end of the tunnel yet, but the light is growing brighter, more defined, its glow warm and welcoming.

I don’t know how long it’ll be before I can feel normal around others again. But I know that every time I walk to the park and see people enraptured by the melody of a street musician, it brings a joyful tear to my eye. And for now, that is enough.

Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National