Coronavirus: A Grad Student’s Lament 

You won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t know any more than you do about coronavirus, or social distancing, or self-isolation. I’ve lived a pretty long time by now, and I’ve never seen anything like this.


I’ve observed a few things during this time, though. And I thought I would share them with you.

I’ve got CoronaEyes. Haven’t heard of it? It’s just a little something I made up to describe the way I look at everything now. I realized it the other day when my husband and I were watching Ozark on Netflix.  Just about every new scene that appeared would spark a reaction in me. For a split second, I would gasp at how close people stand to one another, how cavalier they are walking around in public places, how they shake hands and hug and NEVER WASH THEIR HANDS. Mostly, the thoughts pass through my brain too quickly to articulate. But occasionally, if you had been in close–and therefore objectionable–proximity with me, you would have heard me blurting out things like, ”Oh my gawd, Wyatt–do not touch her!” or “Just set the money on the table, Marty–don’t–aaaaugh!”

An interesting side note to this observation: this does not happen to me if I am watching something I have seen in the “before.” Episodes of The Office, which I’ve seen repeatedly, do not provoke such outbursts. Do not ask me to explain; I am only here to report.

We are all experiencing moral fatigue. I am so tired these days it’s ridiculous. Yesterday I finished one small task, and upon completion I collapsed on the couch as if I’d just saved the world. My fellow teachers and I got together for a ZOOM happy hour and they all expressed the same thing: we are so tired; my god why are we so tired? I read an article in Rolling Stone Magazine that gave a potential explanation of why this might be. According to the author, we Americans aren’t used to being in the position of thinking about other people so much. But now, we’re doing it all the time, and we are exhausted by it:

We’re faced with a lot of the same decisions from our pre-corona lives — except now, even the most mundane activities have turned into moral dilemmas. Whether it’s trying to decide if you should visit a sick family member, order delivery, take public transit, or take a trip to the grocery store, we now have to think through the potential implications of many of our totally normal, everyday actions and decisions in a way we never had to before, because of how they could affect others. (Yuko)

Moral dilemmas 24/7? No wonder I’m so tired.

We can’t do our fight or flight response. As you likely already know, humans have a built-in, primitive, fight-or-flight response hormone (cortisol) that is triggered when we feel danger. Right now, that response is being continuously triggered, but we can’t run, and we don’t know who or how to fight.

This hyper-focus is crucial in times of crisis. If a saber-tooth tiger is standing in front of you, you had better focus and run as if nothing else in the world matters. But if real danger is not present, we may become obsessed with the wrong things. If fear doesn’t have the proper target, it can become anxiety and paranoia. If you see danger on the other side of the world, the fight or flight response isn’t helpful, and your brain can get confused. And that is exactly what is happening right now. (Ritvo)

This explains a lot. It’s as if a saber tooth tiger is staring us down, all day long, every day.  We’re scared to death, but we can’t do anything but stand there and be scared. Last night my friend reminded me there can be a third part to the response: freeze. So, I wonder if that’s where we are now. Frozen in fear.

I can’t concentrate. Have you ever noticed that when you are anxious, you can’t think? Like when your boss is looking over your shoulder and you’re trying to do something on your computer but suddenly you have forgotten how to key and you look like an incompetent idiot, when you are actually pretty smart?

Ever since this whole coronavirus madness started, I am struggling to focus on anything, let alone have the brain power to do what my courses require of me. I bombed my Spanish exam, and totally flaked on a Faulkner reading response that was due. And I don’t do that sort of thing.

Emotions shut down our ability to keep track of our responsibilities, and to concentrate.

Concentration is best understood when it is compared to a person’s emotional mind; that is, emotion and concentration are contrary to each other because as emotional and temporary emotion increase, concentration decreases. (“Concentration and Emotions are Important Factors in Intelligence”)

Whether you are the type to show it or not, it’s likely you are experiencing a lot of emotions right now–some of them quite unfamiliar. What do we call the emotion that is connected to the fear of losing our jobs, our health, or worse: ours or our loved ones’ lives?

Maybe we should cut ourselves a little slack, eh?

Maybe that’s the whole point of this post. If you are like me you have experienced some frustration with yourself for being unable to work at your typical pace, and without your usual abilities.

Maybe we need to be gentle with ourselves and understand that what we are going through right now is nothing we were prepared for.

We are looking at life through wholly different eyes. We are morally fatigued. We are scared, and anxious. And look at us! We’re still functioning. We’re trying, and learning, and reaching out to each other in ways we never have before. We’re being flexible and creative. We are facing new challenges and finding solutions.

You know what? I think we’re doing pretty great.


By: Jamie Barker


Works Cited

Yuko, Elizabeth. “The Reason You Are Exhausted is Moral Fatigue” Rolling Stone Online  Magazine. March 27, 2020.

Ritvo, Eva. “Our Brains on Coronavirus: A psychiatrist’s tips for staying calm and focused during the COVID-19 threat.” Psychology Today. March 1st, 2020.

“Concentration and Emotions are Important Factors in Intelligence.” Open Textbooks for Hong Kong.


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