It is still unclear how much of a threat the fast-spreading Omicron variant poses, but fear and a sudden revival of restrictions have added to an epidemic of loneliness.

By Roger Cohen

A recent cartoon in the French daily Le Monde featured a bedraggled man arriving at a doctor’s office for a Covid-19 vaccine. “I am here for the fifth shot because of the third wave,” he says. “Or vice versa.”

His bewilderment as France suffers its fifth wave of the pandemic, with cases of the Delta variant rising sharply along with Omicron anxiety, captured a mood of exhaustion and simmering anger across the world two years after the deadly virus began to spread in China.

Uncertainty bedevils plans. Panic spreads in an instant even if, as with the Omicron variant, the extent of the threat is not yet known. Vaccines look like deliverance until they seem a little less than that. National responses diverge with no discernible logic. Anxiety and depression spread. So do loneliness and screen fatigue. The feeling grows that the Covid era will go on for years, like plagues of old.

Even in China, with no reported Covid deaths since January, some confess weariness with the measures that have kept them safe when so many others perished.

“I’m so tired of all these routines,” Chen Jun, 29, a tech company worker in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, said the other day. He was forced to take three Covid-19 tests in June following an outbreak in the city, and then had to quarantine for 14 days. Thumbtacks he used to pin on a world map to trace his travels have stopped multiplying. “I’m starting to think we’ll never see an end to the pandemic.”

This sense of endlessness, accompanied by growing psychological distress leading to depression, was a recurrent theme in two dozen interviews conducted in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas. After two years of zigzagging policy and roller coaster emotions, terrible loss and tantalizing false dawns, closing borders and intermittently shuttered schools, people’s resilience has dwindled.

That is sure to pose new challenges for leaders trying to protect their people and their economies. Will the weary obey new restrictions, or risk seeing family and friends after months of forced separation? The question of just how draconian leaders can be when people’s mental health has become so fragile appears to be a core dilemma as the pandemic enters its third year.

“I know it will only get worse, it won’t stop, the pandemic will only turn more life-consuming,” said Natalia Shishkova, a teacher in Moscow. “It is all chaos, like a fantasy film. You watch all these apocalypse films and realize their writers were real prophets.”

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