Burnout, desperation, and the human propensity for hope (Deeper #28)

This edition of Deeper covers a topic that’s been on my mind for a while now: burnout. It’s been a year since the first cases of the Covid-19 pandemic were announced in Indonesia—and most countries across Southeast Asia have experienced their own “pandemic anniversaries”. March has become a dreaded month for many.

Just a week or two ago, a reader told me about how an article about burnout I wrote in 2018 helped them realize that they were struggling with the condition. I was moved: my treasured colleagues and I have also been trying to deal with feelings of frustration, emptiness, and hopelessness.

There have been bright lights of hope during this time: people continue to truck on, and humans as a whole are being more creative than ever. Musicians continue to release new songs; artists are making comebacks; new online communities are springing up for us to learn and grow in.

Today, we’ll be talking about positioning ourselves as consumers and creators—and how we can balance our obligation to survive with our need for hope.

In any given year, China sees nearly 3 billion trips from Lunar New Year celebrants during the 40-day Chunyun/Spring Festival window. In 2020, that number fell by more than half:


This year’s Lunar New Year season was even worse. On the first day of the Chunyun period, Beijing Capital International Airport saw an 86% drop in departing passengers compared to 2020. China’s Ministry of Transport estimated that just 1.15 billion trips would be made in 2021.

Thanks to the pandemic, our social life has completely evaporated, and with it, everything that made life enjoyable. No more coffee talks with friends. No sleepovers. No nights out on the town. No concerts. No family gatherings.

We’ve been in panic-slash-survival mode for an entire year. Working-class individuals have been forced to either sacrifice their sources of livelihood or endanger themselves and others to earn a living. Others, slightly more well off, have been trapped in their homes for months on end.

With no clear end in sight, we have been forced to seek out our own solutions for the burnout and frustration and loneliness. Incredibly—and miraculously, even—people are continuing to create and inspire in the face of seemingly hopeless odds. The only way out is to identify the tiny things that bring us joy and hope and cling to them, and to one another.

TL;DR: With the situation looking highly bleak, we must allow ourselves to take breaks and seek refuge in small joys.

  • Poor government responses to the pandemic have us feeling hopeless
  • The pandemic has caused a lot of individual suffering
  • Governments aren’t doing so hot during the pandemic
  • Escaping from the constant onslaught of challenges
  • Keeping hope alive in such trying times

Poor infrastructural responses to the pandemic have us feeling hopeless

Let’s be completely honest. Many ASEAN countries handled the pandemic awfully.

A high-ranking police official who breached Covid-19 protocols in May 2020 became chief of the Philippine National Police (PNP) just six months later. Malaysia’s never-ending Movement Control Order (MCO), which was extended in early 2021, has been met with dismay from thousands of Twitter users. Even in Vietnam, a country that has been praised for its management of the pandemic, received coverage when top officials at Hanoi’s Center for Disease Control inflated the purchase price for a new coronavirus test system by 300%.

But wait! That’s not all. Indonesian Social affairs minister Juliari Batubara was accused of funding lavish expenses, such as personal flights aboard private jets and support for colleagues’ political campaigns, with money intended for Covid-19 assistance (Bansos). The total amount he received—17 billion rupiah, or SGD $1,580,484, could have been used to help or potentially save hundreds or thousands of Indonesia’s poorest citizens.

With all of these events comes the realization that maybe this world we’re living in isn’t ours at all. It’s the world of the wealthy, the powerful, the rich, those with access—and we’re just trying to keep up.

The pandemic has caused a lot of individual suffering

According to Microsoft’s Q4 2020 Work Trend Index report close to one-third of workers in APAC experienced increased burnout over the past six months. Erin Logan of the LA Times posted on Twitter:

And it seems that’s apt. The Microsoft report above cited that this burnout was the result of participants’ inability to separate work and life clearly.

A study by Savvy Sleeper done in 2020 reported that Asian cities dominated the list of locations with the worst office-related burnout. Tokyo took the top spot out of 69 cities from 53 countries, and Manila, Jakarta, and Hanoi took 5th, 6th, and 7th place respectively. Asian workers are clearly exhausted.

Dr. Daniel Fung, CEO of Singapore’s Institute of Mental Health, says that many people are facing record-breaking levels of stress while also being increasingly isolated from others in their own digital bubbles. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that about 81 million jobs were lost across APAC due to reversed job growth;


Like ILO mentions there are many who have not been able to earn an income at all over the past year. In their report titled The Inequality Virus, anti-poverty group Oxfam shared that the pandemic has caused inequality to rise in virtually every populated country. The report says, “The 1,000 richest people on the planet recouped their COVID-19 losses within just nine months, but it could take more than a decade for the world’s poorest to recover.”

Experts are estimating that 133 to 274 million people globally may fall below the poverty line because of the global recessions caused by the pandemic. About 20% of this number are estimated to be located in East Asia and the Pacific.

Many working-class civilians in Southeast Asia do not have enough income to save for emergencies or pay for social insurance programs because they survive on a day-to-day basis. As long as cash flows in, they’re able to make ends meet—but the minute they become unemployed, they have no way to support themselves or their families.

Students have suffered too. The pandemic has caused significant reductions in income, yet not all colleges have lowered their fees. Students around the world are also complaining about how, instead of actually teaching material, many professors are simply reading off slides, then assigning long-form assignments. This has resulted in an explosion of quizzes, assignments, and essays, with many reporting that their mental health “has plummeted”.

Governments aren’t doing so hot during the pandemic

Some governments have exhibited dangerously authoritarian behavior during this period. Despite a democratic election at the beginning of the year in which Miss Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won by a landslide, Myanmar’s military seized power, imposing curfews and limits to gatherings in a year-long state of emergency.

In the Philippines, the extra-judicial killings and press restrictions that have taken place during Duterte’s rule have also not stopped. Instead, the country’s economic condition worsened during the pandemic—with national GDP shrinking by 9.5%. The Philippines boasts the second-highest Covid-19 death and infection totals in Southeast Asia.

What can we, as ordinary citizens do? To tell you the truth, I’m not sure. Ideally, we must advocate and push for clearer workers’ rights. Business leaders must recognize that their employees are struggling from exhaustion; governments must protect their people and develop punitive measures for companies who take advantage of desperate workers. Steps like Indonesia’s Cipta Kerja Job Creation Bill–which would erase many existing workers’ protections in favor of corporations—ultimately lead us in the wrong direction.

Escaping from the constant onslaught of challenges

In our very human efforts to escape from these struggles, we have seen impressive demonstrations of creativity by people pushing the boundaries of art and content. Virtual concerts, virtual Youtubers, new community-based apps, and experimental art have all become more popular during the pandemic. (Virtual Youtubers are basically regular Youtubers, but rather than streaming their faces they stream a 3D persona).

Audio-chat app Clubhouse was launched in April 2020, but experienced explosive popularity in January 2021. The app, which allows users to make profiles and join rooms focused on specific topics, is on track to reach 11 million downloads by the end of March 2021—impressive for an invite-only, iOS only app.

Clubhouse is interesting because it allows users to connect with people whom they may have never met otherwise. It is exceptionally popular in Japan, but has reached #1 on Southeast Asian app charts as well.

Speakers talk about topics ranging from personal growth, to self-help, to LGBT issues, and more. Think of it like an audio-based LinkedIn—one slightly more facilitative for discussions. Regardless of whether the hype will last, it’s an example of how people are seeking out communities to find where they might belong.

Twitter’s user base also jumped by the millions during the pandemic, as did that of Korean social media platform V Live. (V Live allows users to listen in to Kpop stars’ livestreams and chat directly with them).

Most of these new V Live users came from the United States, Indonesia, and Japan—and purchases and sales of premium subscriptions and fan goods jumped by up to two times compared to earlier years.

Also increasing in popularity during the pandemic are online communities and groups such as the Milk Tea Alliance. This term in particular refers to an online transnational network of youth activists and journalists who profess to stand against authoritarianism. They are made up of young people from Southeast Asian countries such as Hong Kong, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Thailand, and are dedicated to speaking out against what they deem to be undemocratic behavior.

On a more creative note, Indonesian game When The Past Was Around won the global Best Game Award in Indie Arena Booth Online 2020 at Gamescom in June 2020. And though you may have heard of Korean dramas or Netflix hits such as The Queen’s Gambit, were you aware that the episodes of Thai LGBT show 2gether surpassed 100 million streams on the Thai-exclusive streaming app LINE TV in 2020? (In comparison, The Queen’s Gambit was watched by 62 million accounts within the first 28 days of its release).


Contrary to what outsiders might believe, there is much joy and excitement to be found in Southeast Asia—and the pandemic is allowing some of the most brilliant minds to make their mark in the region, and, indeed, on the global population. The key to note here: the heavy usage of social media over the past few months indicates just how hungry consumers are for ways to remain connected.

All this creativity isn’t for creativity’s sake. Rather, it speaks of our human need for connection and community. If you think about it, founders and users are essentially trying to innovate and solve for community in an online, digital space. We are all seeking out that warm feeling of belonging; the embrace of authentic interaction.

Keeping hope alive in such trying times

The online pandemic created an explosion of online content for consumers to enjoy, but as we’ve seen, it has also upped the pressure on—everyone. The incredible amounts of amazing shows, online activities, and content don’t actually solve the problems that lead to exhaustion and burnout.

These are systemic issues, many of which are caused by governments and workplaces that prioritize income and power over the well-being of their citizens, and it is important that we continue to pressure them to do better.

Sara Elder, Senior Economist at the ILO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, says, “Given the mounting evidence that social protection and employment policies save jobs and incomes, the hope is that the crisis brings about a more permanent and increased investment in elements needed to boost resilience and promote a more people-centred future of work.” Governments are encouraged to prioritize worker protections, investments into tech infrastructure, and social security that can help enterprises retain workers.

On a personal level, there are glimmers of hope. 30-year-old Singaporean Chiya Amos found himself as a Foodpanda driver thanks to the pandemic, despite having sterling experience as an opera conductor around the world. However, he doesn’t consider the situation completely negative.

He writes, “Because of the different perspectives and insights while encountering people in different situations and from all walks of life, I have grown more introspective, and developed a clearer sense of purpose. I feel more content knowing that I have continued to bring a little joy to people’s lives.”

As we wait with bated breaths for vaccine rollouts, systemic change, and an end to these trying times, perhaps that’s what we must cling to: the little joys we are able to give and receive.

It doesn’t matter what form that takes: fangirling over a favorite band, buying small things to look forward to in the mail, booking a therapy session, trash talking with a close friend, taking a long nap in the middle of the day. Corporations might be expected to stay resilient and tough, but we’re not brands—we’re humans, and our best is enough.

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