Hard and hot days, lonely and abnormally long nights, hopelessness, emotional disconnection or that sense of imagined abandonment and uncertainty, is how I remember my first coronavirus lockdown.
As of 2200 hours Friday June 18, 2021, Uganda entered a second Covid-19 lockdown with 68,778 cases and 542 deaths since the outbreak last year.
Once again, as in March 2020, Ugandans will have to spend another long, agonizing 42 days working from homes with little or no interaction with friends, work colleagues and the general public.
The second lockdown has reawakened along sitting beast of depression and loneliness that eats you up from the inside and everything around you becomes a vacuum-interaction with books and movies which becomes a detached routine.
Isolation, or detachment will become the order of the day and sadness from minimal or no interaction with friends or company will slowly creep upon most, robbing them of the little joys of life or driving some to depression.
Human interaction is magical, let us agree, we are social beings.
As social media in Kampala city became awash with speculation about a pending second lockdown, I interfaced with some of my bosom friends.
They concurred that one of the feelings (akin to millions of people out there) they are experiencing during the current coronavirus pandemic is loneliness.
Once more, we are torn between staying safe and saving lives on one hand, and seeing family, friends or just familiar faces on the other.
-watching helplessly as your world falls apart-
As F. Scott Fitzgerald rightly observes, the loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.
Such was what my protégé Naabi (not real name) has experienced for quite a while before she could fully grasp the fact that she was feeling lonely or experiencing loneliness.
According to her, some people are lonely but they don’t even realize that they are lonely or they are disconnected from work.
Her situation was manifested in not being aware of important meetings at work, not knowing very important updates at work first hand and only learning about these things from other colleagues, less or even no communication with the boss, among others.
“I became demoralized and demotivated. Since July last year, I haven’t been working and feel kind of detached from my bosses. I don’t hear from them and they too haven’t made an effort of hearing from me. It has left me broken and so demotivated. I somehow, even sometimes, think they don’t need me at all. This definitely affects my productivity. So, the same thing happens to those working from home. Some have had their salaries cut off or reduced,” she narrated.
Naabi’s situation is no different from that of my other favorite person Dimples (affectionate reference). The pain in feeling disconnected from the world around you and the loneliness that comes with it is what eventually causes suffering.
For Dimples, it was remote work (working from home) that forced her to feel detached. Hers became a bedroom-kitchen-table routine with less or even no Zoom calls from office (her managers).
“Hmm, when it comes to my experience, it was a bad one and really traumatizing. It was devastating. I know I have to cook for myself. I thought about my parents, whether they were experiencing the same. I started to feel very, very alone. The world was all quiet. There was no one on roads to talk to. Even when I took my selfies, I had no one to send them to. It was weird. I felt so sad because I was all alone.”
Dimples resorted to watching movies and series “because the only people I could talk to were movie characters”. She started reading books which sometimes made her even sadder.
“I just need to talk to someone. No one was calling me. I was even afraid of falling asleep because I was tired of sleeping.”
According to her, work was a bit okay because she could work online. “My work is phone-related but whenever you would call someone, instead of talking about work, we would end up talking about non-issues because everyone was bored.”
-coping with a zero-grazing syndrome-
I grew up in the western part of Uganda, specifically Nkore sub region, the home of cattle-keepers and pastoralists.
All we ever knew was a free-range system of grazing where animals were released to roam the large expanses of uncultivated land or farms and feed freely.
With modernization of agriculture and urban farming, a new system-zero grazing-was born where animals were kept in sheds on small plots of land.
During the lockdown, I felt like I had been confined to one little space like a zero grazing cow. As a media manager, interactions with your work colleagues, story sources, PROs of companies or government departments and the general public is a must.
Having to work from one place without any movement became a cumbersome adventure. There was no fun at all.
As Arthur C. Clarke clearly states, “two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”
So, with time, I just realized the pandemic was not going anywhere and one had to live with it. The best way to achieve this was coping, adapting and thriving.
Naabi told me a few months after the lockdown, her manager called. It was a surprise she didn’t expect it.
“He was like I just called to check on you, find out how you are doing and he also asked me how I was fairing on. This was a great encouragement to me. I was like yes they still think of me and I am important to them. I think this wouldn’t have been that easy if they hadn’t made any effort of finding out how I am going through the pandemic.”
Dimples, on the other hand, found movies a great help. She also found it important to interact with neighbors, gathering around them, interacting with them and sharing a few things here and there. She also took walks in evenings so that by the time she comes back home, she is tired enough.
“Sometimes I would work out very hard, sweat, shower and then have a good night sleep. Other than that, it is really hard. I stay alone and its hectic.” I share most of these feelings my friends expressed. The pain was universal, the hardships unprecedented and the effect almost unimaginable.
-unraveling the loneliness epidemic-
The world of work is suffering from a loneliness epidemic, says Scott Olster, the editor on the LinkedIn News team.
He further quotes researchers who discovered alarmingly high rates of employee isolation even before COVID-19 forced millions of people to switch to remote work. It is true indeed that such feelings can take a painful toll on employee health, retention and productivity.
To those dealing with loneliness and disconnection at work either as an employee or a manager, I understand because I have been there. But we cannot go on lamenting while work places ebb from memory, companies collapse and economies fall. We have to navigate our new normal and find ways of living through it.
My former course mate Priest (as I fondly refer to him) agrees with me on the need for consistent connection/virtual connection at least between workers and managers to keep their work going.
Managers should check on their workers so that the workers don’t feel or seem totally neglected in life. I tried it before to ensure my work colleagues don’t feel their only worth is just being recognized when they are at work.
“When home/alone, it is best to engage in alternative work/jobs to occupy you and kill the monotony. Learn and apply a skill or rejuvenate your old skill to kill the boredom,” Priest said to me in a tête-à-têteon the way forward.
He further cited financial loneliness, having hit workers so much and that apart from alternative sources of income, employers have to re-engage their workers in any possible (however small) financial assistance. “One is greater than zero-non monetary assistance should equally be fronted to workers,” he says.
As a media manager, I also concur with Naabi who suggests the need for managers or bosses to constantly assure the employees that they are mindful of them and they think about them. And this should not be by just words but also a few tokens of appreciation.
Managers need to keep communication between them and the employees as regularly as possible…through calls (zoom too), text messages, emails, WhatsApp groups, among others. This helps motivate the employees.
Naabi says employees too need to find fun ways of doing their work so that they aren’t bored, say, always communicating with their fellow employees. “A call here and there would save a frustrating day. A WhatsApp text would also save the day.”
In a modern work environment, employees form Whatsapp groups for employees only excluding bosses they term as “snitches or rats” and in those groups, they talk about anything freely. So, it’s one way to have fun at work (even in their homes), stay connected as employees and do away with disconnection from their work.
“Don’t die alone,” Naabi tells employees who have issues at work or about work. “Let them find a way of talking about these issues with the bosses. Atleast when you express your grievances it feels lighter and you feel you aren’t in this alone.”
Managers and team leaders can also venture into “virtual team building activities and games” to encourage the workers that it’s not the end.
“We can get through this if we change our attitude. Humans are created with ability to adapt. Sometimes what we adapt to isn’t that pleasant but then we need to adapt and keep a positive attitude and that’s how we will get through this less affected.”
Dimples, my mentee, advises taking some time off work to read a book and refresh your mind. “Don’t sleep a lot, write down all your thoughts, watch a movie when you feel lonely. People are not going to call you when you need them the most. So find your own way of fighting the loneliness and use it in a positive way.”
According to her, there should be morning zoom meetings, afternoons and evenings, to keep both employees and employers engaged.
This reduces on the time for boredom and being alone. So by the end of a work day, one is tired and in need of a good rest.
“Find something to do and keep yourself busy. If you have food in the house, cook. Do something. Yah!”
All said and done, I was told that talking to God in your quiet room could also make all the difference.