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Please Stop Telling Me to Be Productive During a Pandemic

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I was lying in bed on one afternoon, and it might have seemed like any other relaxing Sunday. Except the walls seemed to be getting closer and closer, trapping me in a grip of hopelessness. Breathing seemed like too much effort, depriving me of the last ounce of hope I had left. The world seemed too much, everything was a chore, even the mere fact of being alive. Just like any other Sunday, except we are in the middle of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and most of us face problems we never thought we would encounter before. This combined with my mental health issues has been a challenge enough.

And just like on any other Sunday I heard my flatmates talking in another room. They spoke about how the pandemic is the perfect opportunity to improve yourself. How not achieving something means you don’t want it enough. As if there was a way to fail even something as traumatic as a pandemic.

I want to be able to get out of bed. I want to be productive. I want to be optimistic. And more than anything, I want the pandemic to end. But is it enough to want?

The difference between feeling lost and being lost

My flatmate’s logic came down to a simple equation: desire to achieve + work = result. The problem is, it doesn’t consider other variables.

A few years ago I was overwhelmed by a difficult choice that felt like the end of the world at the time. I had just finished high school and was faced with a harsh reality of choosing university and career I wanted to pursue. Having a choice of two degrees made me feel completely lost and desperate. Was I lost? The truth is, I didn’t even have to go to university at all or decide about my future right at that moment. I could have stayed home and learned new skills. I could have done an online course. I could have started a business. I had endless options.

A lot of us are lost because of the ongoing pandemic. We struggle with the loss of jobs, health, death of family members, loneliness, poverty. Even if some of us are lucky enough not to be too severely affected by the pandemic, we still feel lost. The uncertain situation and sudden changes are enough to retrigger our trauma or lead to a new one.

And for most people, the reality of the pandemic is that it’s not just one thing we lost. It’s not solely a lost income or health we have to worry about. It’s the lost opportunities, moments, dreams, time spent with the loved ones. It’s the endless possibilities their life could have been. And it’s fear that the life we know might never be the same.

A banner promoting The Mighty's new Navigating Coronavirus Together group on The Mighty mobile app. The banner reads, Want to connect with others who are managing their health during the pandemic? Join Navigating Coronavirus Together now. Click to join.

Being able to be at your best during a pandemic is a privilege

On one hand, I’m aware of my friends unable to get out of bed and deal with the current reality, and on the other, I’m bombarded with slogans on social media. Suddenly, I’m convinced I should learn how to cook, practice yoga, ignore the loss of my job and start a business online in a completely different industry. Because apparently, I have lots of free time now. All of this while struggling with already exacerbated mental health problems and the fear of unknown. Suddenly, I feel like a failure. Suddenly, I realize there’s nothing in my life I did right including this pandemic. But should we assign people’s value to their level of productivity?

Even without pandemic, we are at different stages of our lives and struggle with different problems. Yet, a global crisis is an excuse to shame people for not working hard enough, for not being disciplined enough. Perhaps being productive is a strategy for some to distract themselves and deal with the lockdown. However, this distraction comes with privilege. They don’t have to work from home while looking after their kids. They don’t have to turn to sex work to pay bills. They don’t have to move back with their abusive parents to survive financially.
The notion that we aren’t good enough because we don’t achieve goals during a pandemic implies that our value depends on being productive.

Seeing the bigger picture

Since I was a kid I’ve been addicted to being productive. I’d fill my days with endless studying sessions that taught me the information I would forget right after exams. I did it to distract myself from the fact I never felt good enough. Years later, after acquiring lots of skills, I still struggle with being insecure. It took me a long time to realize that health is more important than being productive and bettering yourself. This is what we should pay attention to this pandemic, taking care of ourselves. Whether it means watching Netflix all day as a way to familiarizing yourself with the new reality, attending therapy or starting a project.

The pandemic isn’t a vacation; it’s a global crisis. We are already isolated by the restrictions and loneliness, and there’s no need for us to be isolated by the belief we aren’t productive enough. We witness businesses collapsing, our family dying from the virus, friends dying y suicide and the economy being severely affected. We are forced to work in the same place, which previously served as a relaxing space. We’re too busy processing our emotions to be at our best all the time. At the time like this, it’s OK to just be.

Getty image by Lesia_G

Originally published: November 13, 2020
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