[Photo Courtesy of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists]
Silver Spring, Maryland, United States | Nicole Dominguez

On March 30th 2020, the oxygen levels of Miquel Dominguez dropped to 85%. When his family admitted him to the hospital forty minutes later, it was teetering on 79%. Miguel was released from the hospital at the end of April, almost a month later, and was told that there might be lingering symptoms, such as shortness of breath, brain fog, fatigue and possibly more. His wife, Arlene, had also been diagnosed with Covid, nearly a week after his admission to the hospital. The first week after their recovery, they felt the normal fatigue that developed after an emotionally taxing illness. Physical aches were dismissed as the result of being immobile for nearly a month. Soon, brain fog, fatigue, and shortness of breath were all unwelcome guests that had overstayed their visit. It took nearly 2 months for Miguel and Arlene to fully recover from the residual symptoms.

My knowledge of their recovery is an intimate one, because I saw it happen. For three months, I saw my parents handle Covid and then confront the aftermath. This is more than a simple recovery period, but a phenomenon that is becoming the subject of deeper study. Unlike my parents, there are many people who still struggle with the lingering results of a Covid diagnosis. Dr. Peter Landless, the health ministries director for the Seventh-day Adventist World Church, discusses the long haul effects of Covid on this episode of ANN InDepth.

Three years later, and Covid is still throwing curveballs. Those who experience the lingering effects of having Covid, such as brain fog, depression, fatigue, shortness of breath, anxiety, and soreness, are called Long-Haulers. If experiencing the actual illness wasn’t enough, many must endure symptoms that leave you feeling less than your former self for years after. Depression is one of the main effects of long-haul Covid due to the emotional fragility of feeling weak after the initial illness. Landless explains that there are internal and external pressures to “get over it”. After spending days or weeks with the actual illness, there is often the feeling to make up for lost time; a push to be productive after falling victim to the virus. Yet attempting to return to life pre-covid can be difficult when experiencing intense brain fog and fatigue. In the wake of this, there is often a feeling of failure and shame.

In the requirement for masks, vaccines, social distancing and other precautions, some can feel a sense of guilt or embarrassment in getting the virus or sharing it with others. For some, even admitting to having had Covid can feel shameful, as though they have failed for falling victim to the virus. As mentioned, this sense of shame can extend to those who still feel shortness of breath walking up a flight of stairs, waking up in the morning with crippling fatigue, the inability to follow a conversation or focus on work, or the lingering inability to smell or taste. This vulnerability can lead to frustration or an onslaught of emotions, which in itself is a symptom of long haul Covid. 

The agitation that you are not back to “my old self” or that you cannot function as you used to can lead to a disembodiment of self. It is annoying to wear a mask everywhere, or accept that our stores, restaurants, or businesses are stripped to bare-bones is the “new normal”, but it is harder to accept the new normal that is a personhood so separate from who you might have been. If you once felt confidence in the workplace for your stamina, or pride in your physical health, or satisfaction in your intelligence and quick wit, becoming something outside of the personhood that you have placed your identity in can be demoralizing.

Even for those who did not get Covid, still experience the aftermath. For those like myself, the experience of watching both parents struggle with Covid, one of which being hospitalized, is harrowing. The long haul symptoms can come from losing a loved one, forever altering your life. Landless is pained to point out the reality that in spite of many people’s hopes that we are “nearing the end of Covid” that is far from accurate. The real truth is that Covid is here to stay through the presence of long haul symptoms. The psychological, as well as physical, impact is what will make it linger long after the virus itself is contained. 

Here is the silver lining: there are ways to confront it. Landless is quick to challenge the belief that such confrontation means trying harder or challenging ourselves to push past the effects. “We need to listen to our bodies.” Landless implores. “We need to take the time to heal, we need to take the time to recover, and we need to seek professional help in this business of sitting alone and saying ‘You know I've got to just pull myself forwards’.” This attempt to pull ourselves forwards is a valiant goal, however it is futile without sufficient grace towards ourselves and dependence on God. Landless states, “We don't have to prove ourselves, but we are living in a world where people expect and demand that we prove ourselves all the time. We don't do self-care to work harder. If we don't do self-care we cannot work adequately so there's an important role change which needs to take place.” 

The underlying shame, frustration, and guilt that can arise from long haul affects is ultimately a mourning of a former identity. The external and internal perception of self is challenged when it no longer abides by standards which convince us our worth is dependent on our usefulness. Here is where the gospel shines. When we allow God’s standard of our identity to be our definition, we learn to extend the necessary grace as we navigate the long haul effects of Covid.