What Will Life Look Like After COVID-19?

The Psychological Repercussions of a Global Pandemic

May 1, 2020

It seems like only yesterday we were walking around our school hallways, preparing for spring sports, and casually meeting with friends—all things we had clearly taken for granted. Sitting at home under quarantine, with no end in sight to this global pandemic, many predict it will be the sort of traumatic event that today’s youth will tell their children about, like our parents’ 9/11. And while the most pressing issue at hand is how we, as a society, will come out of this disaster, not many have stopped to consider what our lives will look like after the coronavirus, many clouded by the notion that things will ‘return to normal’ soon enough. But as with any major global event comes a paradigm shift, a change in the way we interact as a society and go about our daily lives. 

After 9/11, terrorism reached its peak, and the wave of fear it sent throughout the country determined the new mindset of a generation. A fear of terrorism would forever be tied to immigration and airports. However, whatever life will look like after coronavirus, we can expect that the role of social interactions in our society will take the biggest blow, long after the now-shattered economy has built itself back up again. 

As we sit in quarantine, boredom growing by the day, it’s hard not to contemplate how much we had taken for granted. Parks. Going to the supermarket. Handing in assignments face-to-face rather than through Google Classroom. But most of all, it is the social isolation that gets to us—not being able to touch, hug, or even be near our friends and family. 

Chances are, the danger we now associate with physical contact won’t leave along with the virus. Reporting for Politico, Deborah Tannon suggests that we may never regain our ‘pre-corona’ innocence, writing, “How quickly that awareness recedes will be different for different people, but it can never vanish completely for anyone who lived through this year. It could become second nature to recoil from shaking hands or touching our faces—and we might all find we can’t stop washing our hands.”

Will people be eager to hug their friends and finally hold hands—making up for lost time—when the government tells them they can, or will they refrain, knowing that just because our country is no longer shut down does not mean coronavirus is gone? And for those who contracted COVID-19 or knew someone who did, could their trauma make them more cautious?

Alongside health anxiety and germaphobia, there is a slew of other psychological ramifications to reckon with.

This is a stressful time for everyone. Anxiety and uncertainty, paired with isolation and a disruption of schedule, can be very off-throwing, especially for those with preexisting mental health issues or those trapped in a toxic home environment. Some people will feel the effects firsthand by becoming sick or losing their loved ones to COVID-19. According to NBC’s “Could you get PTSD from your pandemic experience? The long-term mental health effects of coronavirus,” experiencing a pandemic can also lead to serious psychological trauma. The article references the 2003 SARS pandemic and how it triggered PTSD-like symptoms on frontline workers and patients. Moreover, according to the Fox News’ “Doctor tells Dallas City Council the city should prepare for a mental health crisis after COVID-19 pandemic,” psychologist Dr. Madhukar Trevedi advised Dallas City Council to watch out for a decline in people’s mental health. He predicts that there will be a 20% increase in mental health diagnoses and suicides. 

Evidently, COVID-19 will sabotage people’s mental health to varying degrees, even if it does not reach the threshold of a clinical diagnosis. 

But in the same way that our social and mental health could be negatively affected, they could also be positively affected. Having gone so long without it, individuals may come to appreciate human touch and seek it more often than before the virus, having been enlightened by the reality that these everyday actions are clearly quite precious. 

On a similarly positive note, seeing a mere virus touch every aspect of our society and radically redefine the norm has been an indication of the sheer extent to which we rely on each other. NYU professor Eric Klinenberg proposes that the virus has served as an attack on individualism, ensuring that society will not return to a weakened sense of community but a stronger one.

“The cheap burger I eat from a restaurant that denies paid sick leave to its cashiers and kitchen staff makes me more vulnerable to illness,” Klinenberg says, “as does the neighbor who refuses to stay home in a pandemic because our public school failed to teach him science or critical thinking skills. Seeing how heavily we have relied on each other in a time of panic, some argue, will promote an appreciation for the bonds that tether us to the same fate-only with everyone’s cooperation will we overcome the virus.”

This concept of relying on one another and falling back on a support network is called interdependency. Although “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is a pervasive message within society, people are far more dependent on another than we’d like to admit. In psychology today, psychologist Miki Kashtan writes that interdependency is a fact of life that we should all embrace. 

“If I go to the supermarket and buy a loaf of bread, I can pretend to myself that I am attending to my needs without depending on others and on the rest of life, and without having an impact on others and the rest of life. The reality is quite different: people toil for the bread we buy, which makes us dependent on them for our well-being. At the same time, topsoil is eroded and workers are exploited by the practices of growing most of the wheat in the world, which means that our choice about whether and which bread to buy has impacts beyond what we know and see,” she writes. 

Perhaps the greatest lesson to be imparted by this pandemic is that of gratitude for what we have. People are expressing appreciation for friends and family that they can’t see face-to-face. Socialization has been taken for granted, but the quarantine forces us to examine how lonely and difficult life is when you can’t physically reach out to your loved ones.

No one can predict the future, especially in the case of such an unprecedented experience. But what we can do is speculate, and ensure that whatever world we are left with in a ‘post-corona’ era, we will be prepared to battle the psychological repercussions.

“What Will Life Look Like After COVID-19?” first appeared in the spring 2020 print edition of The Communiqué. To view the edition in full, please click here.

 

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