Credit: Jack Corban

Coronavirus, climate crisis, and cognitive decline: Happy New Year!

By Hailie Pentleton

At a time of year reserved for new beginnings, Editor-in-Chief Hailie Pentleton reflects on the personal and collective hopelessness many of us were infected with throughout 2021.

In the hour before the bells conjured up a clean slate, a friend suggested that we all shared our favourite moments of 2021 with one another. I felt an all too familiar panic clutch at my chest and left the room to sit in an empty bathtub and cry. A little theatrical, I know, but at that moment, all I wanted to do was walk out into the street and catch the first Uber available. Anxiety has usually been my plus one at Hogmanay, but this year, I was hers. As if struck by temporary amnesia, I couldn’t think of a single “happy” memory from 2021 in which misery hadn’t lurked behind me. 

One of the first questions a psychiatrist is likely to ask you during an evaluation is whether you think your life is worth living. It’s a question I’ve wrestled with as far back as my memories stretch, present even in their cavities. At seventeen, leaving a long-term relationship with Mormonism behind me, my nihilistic, new atheist self was resigned to the belief that human life is inherently meaningless, devoid of any purpose or promise. Having left my copy of The God Delusion in my granny’s attic, and trying to reserve such a loaded question for my ethics seminars, I am trying to embrace some version of absurdism and enjoy the little life I have carved out for myself. However, with the world literally caving in around us, moments from bursting into flames, this last year has pushed my tolerance for uncertainty to its breaking point. 

And despite believing so in more melancholic moments, I am not alone. These last two years of living through a global health crisis have drained our collective emotional reserves, burdening each of us with new challenges, demanding more energy than we can often muster. By now, it feels as though burnout is an inevitability. With four in ten adults having reported symptoms of depression and anxiety throughout the pandemic, it feels as though everyone has been affected by the plague of misery that Covid-19 has so kindly bestowed upon us in, some way or another. In the workplace, we are being asked to hustle with every muscle, with 50% of work-related cases of poor health being related to our mental wellbeing. These rates are especially prominent in the lower-paid positions that we tend to find ourselves in as students. As toxic productivity culture continues to leer at us from TikTok and LinkedIn, course chats and staff rooms, the urge to yank up the drawbridge and disappear from the day-to-day can be unbearable. 

I decided to quit my job in the summer without a contingency plan. Working in housekeeping isn’t advertised as a health hazard and yet I was finding myself throwing up in freshly cleaned bathrooms every single day from the stress and the heat (but mostly the stress). When my mental health landed me back in the hospital, my friends begged me to quit my job. But the angry sign on the notice board that threatened the termination of our 0-hour contracts if we asked for the day off made me dread admitting to my boss that I was struggling. Eventually, with a little coercion, I gave up folding towels and threw them in. I don’t blame my managers, who seemed just as frazzled as I was. In fact, I felt guilty about leaving on such short notice. But in this climate, it’s every person for themselves. 

“Working in housekeeping isn’t advertised as a health hazard and yet I was finding myself throwing up in freshly cleaned bathrooms every single day from the stress and the heat (but mostly the stress).”

It’s no secret that we’ve all become a little more individualistic over the course of the crisis. Some of us more than others, avoiding masks and vaccinations in the name of liberty, treading all over the freedom of disabled and vulnerable people as they do. Whilst focusing on the self is important to maintaining a good standard of mental wellbeing, an individualistic culture can significantly damage our collective quality of life. As explained by Professor Shilpa Madan, “as people become more independent and more individualistic, more self-interested, it becomes more difficult to take collective action.” She continues, “The challenges the world is facing right now – the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, discrimination, bias, and inequity – need collective action.” However, as Conservative Christmas parties rage on, and billionaires blast off into space just for the hell of it, individualistic ignorance feels inescapable. Gone are the days of swearing we’re all in the same boat. Some of us are drowning, and we’re running out of life jackets.

And the planet is drowning too, in case you’d forgotten. Thousands of people flooded into Glasgow this Autumn to attend or protest the United Nations Climate Conference. COP26 took over the city like a second virus. Cited as our only hope to save the planet, politicians, diplomats, and scientists alike took to the SSE Hydro to strategise their way out of the end of the world, a mean feat, of course. After several flashy conferences, extravagant meals, and performative gestures from world leaders, the results of COP26 were disappointing. Across the bridge in the city centre, thousands of us heard from groups of climate activists from all over the Global South, who recalled various instances of loss and destruction that the climate crisis and the actions of the Western world had caused in their homes and families. Speaking to The Glasgow Guardian about her campaign, Andrea Ixchiu, an indigenous K’iche activist from Guatemala, noted the individualistic attitude we have in the West towards the climate, calling on world leaders to stop “[ignoring] indigenous voices and to stop lying to the people.” Standing amidst that Fridays for Future protest, I remember hearing the woman next to me gasp in horror, saying that “she’d never thought about what we were doing to them”. I believe her ignorance was innocent, as is the case for most of us. It isn’t good enough, no, but when your house isn’t physically burning down, your children aren’t dying in front of you, and world leaders refuse to acknowledge the impact that Western consumerism is having on our climate, why would you think about it? Especially when it feels as though you can’t make too much of a difference, anyway. 

When all we hear is doom and gloom, if you’ll pardon the Rolling Stones reference, it’s hard not to feel despondent, especially going into the new year. In all honesty, it can be difficult to see any point in bothering with things at all. Why not just let those dishes pile up, ghost your friends until they’ve had enough, and spend your money on frivolous nothings until you’re in the pit of your overdraft? I’ve been asking this of myself a lot lately. But I’m not seventeen anymore, and I’m a firm believer in carving out our own purposes. There are reasons for persevering, but if they’re not apparent to you right now then that’s okay. And so, as I welcome in the new year, bogged down by burnout and laden with worry, I’m choosing not to view 2022 as a slate wiped clean. When the last two years have been miserable, we shouldn’t be trying to force ourselves into having a happy new year. If all you do this year is focus on healing from the last, that’ll be enough.


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