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3 things I learnt from a 'wasted' two pandemic years

There’s More To These Years Than The Wallow Sofa – While The Pandemic Taketh Away, It Also Giveth

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PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: CEL GULAPA

If you have had contact with people over the past few months, and I don't mean to rub it in if you haven't, then there is a very high likelihood that you have engaged in small talk about the mysterious nature of the passage of time.

"I can't believe it's already (insert month of the year)," somebody would inevitably utter. And everyone would grunt and nod knowingly because, you know what, it really feels quite unbelievable that it is already (insert month).

There is actually some science behind this that I am not going to delve into at length because who has time for that when time is flying at its current pace.

Suffice to say our perceptions of time have something to do with our memories. If a lot of new, exciting things are happening, the brain makes a lot of new memories and we feel like a lot of time has passed.

If all that happens every day is that we roll out of bed, turn on our computer, type on it for hours and then roll back into bed, the brain doesn't bother cataloguing that as new memories. When we look back, an entire chunk of time is an indistinguishable blob where the days merge together.

It feels like no time has passed, but when we look at the calendar, shock horror, it's December, and we are staring at almost two years of living with a pandemic.

And if you are anything like me, you stare at the calendar and wonder: "Did I just waste two whole years of my life?"

After a momentary freak-out, I am assured that time that passes has a way of changing us, of teaching us things, even if we are too bored to notice.

And in the name of attempting to embrace the time passed during the pandemic, today I will attempt to reflect on what these past two years have taught me.

Lesson 1: Change is sometimes a one-way street

We all know the pandemic has caused a fundamental reconfiguring of how office workers do their jobs, but while this might seem like we all made a drastic shift to teleworking overnight, I think it actually played out quite gradually.

At the very start of the pandemic, most people, myself included, assumed that the work-from-home arrangement would be a temporary measure. We set up very makeshift workspaces at home on dining tables, closets and beds.

I was perfectly content back then to clear away all my work stuff three times a day so the family had a clear surface to eat on, and the child would not get Froot Loop crumbs on my laptop.

Perhaps because everything was quite makeshift back then and most people were still accustomed to spending half the day at a workplace, a lot of people hated work-from-home.

Surveys in mid-2020 - a more innocent time when words like Delta and Omicron did not strike fear into our hearts - generally found a majority of workers wanted to go back to the office.

In fact, some people really, really hated working from home. There were people pleading to come back to the office.

Yet, slowly but surely, things started to change. As the pandemic wore on, people started to transfer more and more stuff from their office desk to their home "desk". First the mugs came home, then the extra phone charger, then the little decorative action figure they used to give the workspace "personality".

Those who could, started buying office furniture for the home. Those who could not, stopped bothering to clear away work paraphernalia from the dining table - Froot Loops be damned.

Before you knew it, working from home became "the way". And now, just two years later, many people struggle to imagine how we ever spent 10 hours a day in the office.

Surveys that once found a majority intending to return to the workplace now show that the tables have turned. Even if Covid-19 miraculously disappeared tomorrow (please, Santa?), there is no going back.

Lesson 2: Information is not knowledge

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As the pandemic wore on, people started to transfer more and more stuff from their office desk to their home "desk". ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Much of the pandemic has been an exercise in learning new vocabulary. We've learnt concepts like "flattening the curve", "r0", "herd immunity" and "safe distancing" alongside an alphabet soup of acronyms: PPE, PCR, ART, SHN, HRW, VTL, Dorscon (whatever happened to that?) and of course, CB.

We've absorbed so much of this new information that some people might be tempted to think that they might actually know a thing or two about this whole Covid-19.

But how much of this information is actually very meaningful? Or at least, how much of this information is actually very meaningful to someone who is not an epidemiologist?

The dreaded Omicron variant was perhaps the best example of how having a lot of information does not always equal knowledge. Within days of it being discovered, people who have been following closely could give you a lot of details about it.

I, for instance, was very quickly able to spout multiple intelligent-sounding sentences about the Omicron variant.

Let me demonstrate: The Omicron variant, also known as B.1.1.529, is scary because it has 32 mutations on the spike protein. That is worrying especially since we've seen a lot of these mutations on other variants of concern.

Sounds pretty good, right? None of this information, however, translated into anything really meaningful to my life. I don't know whether it is more infectious, whether vaccines work nor what the probability is for either of those things.

Now, I am not suggesting for a moment that we should stop consuming information about Covid-19. (Well, okay, if I am being honest, maybe some people should stop doom-scrolling pandemic stories).

It is just that we should think that all this information necessarily qualifies any of us to be anything more than a kaypoh.

Medical advice should probably come from the people who have spent years studying it, not your cousin's uncle's Facebook friend whose daughter is an acupuncturist.

Lesson 3: When the pandemic closes a door, it opens a window

As we meandered through the different reopening phases these past two years, I often felt like I was living life in progressively smaller (and bigger) and smaller (and then bigger again) boxes.

I felt like every few weeks there was a new thing that I had to cut out of my life.

Under such circumstances, it is often easy to focus on that which was lost, give up trying to fight it and just lie down on the couch and wallow - sweating as I binge-watch a trashy TV show about selling houses because I'm too lazy even to get up and turn on the fan.

I want to stress at this point that while I am about to talk about some alternatives to this activity, there is nothing at all wrong with it. Some of my happiest days over the past two years were spent doing exactly that, so I am not one to judge.

Yet, sometimes societal pressure might make you feel like being a couch potato may not be the most productive way to spend all your time.

In those instances, I have found that while the pandemic taketh away, it also giveth.

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Sometimes societal pressure might make you feel like being a couch potato may not be the most productive way to spend all your time. PHOTO: UNSPLASH

For example, through large swathes of the pandemic, I was robbed of a pastime I love: dining with friends. What it gave me instead was the perfect set of circumstances for me to start dieting - an endeavour that I annually tell myself I will start next year.

For the first time in my life, meals had little to no social value. There was no impetus to try new restaurants; I was not stuck in a workplace that had easy access only to hawkers and fast food; and I had to consider the dietary preferences of very few other people.

My son is happy to eat Froot Loops for every meal, so he is easy and my wife is, shall we say, very supportive of the diet.

And my wife was the person in the household to first embrace the idea of the pandemic as an opportunity. She is a theatre practitioner and could be easily forgiven for joining me on the wallow sofa.

As it turns out, being placed in a box (sometimes a literal one drawn on the floor), is a very good way to get someone to think out of the box. She didn't let the ban on big gatherings slow her down and even came up with Singapore's first interactive online play on Zoom during the circuit breaker last year.

She showed me that when the pandemic closes a door, it also opens a window (which is good, because we need air circulation).