The Long-Term Societal Impacts Of Life After COVID-19

Will we shun handshakes? Sanitize around the clock? Just how long will it take to adjust to post-pandemic life?
Posted at 5:55 PM, Feb 05, 2021

"What is one thing that kind of gives you hope?" asked reporter Amber Strong. 

"That's really easy. Travel to see my family," replied Emily Bergman. 

The words "once COVID is over" have felt akin to saying "once I win the lottery." Now with three vaccine contenders and new over-the-counter testing, what was a distant dream seems closer.

But after a year of having to adapt to the reality of living under a pandemic, are we psychologically ready to get back to normal? And what does that even mean? 

"Hola," said Dulce Rodriguez, entering the Zoom chat. 

I brought together a group of college friends from across the country ...

"Emily Bergman and I live in Massachusetts."

"Jessica Berry and I live in Arkansas."

"I am Dulce Rodriguez, and I live in Illinois."

... to see how COVID has changed them. 

Bergman: "I now have hand sanitizer attached to everything, all my purses, all my bags, wallets, my kids."

Berry: "I am never, ever going to a buffet restaurant again after this pandemic. I'm done."

Rodriguez: "I wouldn't go to Chuck E Cheese anymore or even like the play place at McDonald's with the slide and everything. I'm just like, no."

The long-term impact of widespread trauma — and that's what living through COVID has been — can vary a lot, depending on how bad it was for you or whether you have a predisposition to mental illness. 

"For some people that struggle with anxiety or mental illness, such as OCD, it's going to make them even less likely to be engaged in some of those behaviors," explained Erlanger Turner, a psychologist and founder of Therapy for Black Kids.  

However, history shows us that some of the impact is universal — take the Great Depression.

"For many, many years afterward, people were still operating from the framework of being in need as opposed to having enough. And I think that is translatable to this situation where people might be operating for a while from a place where they are fearing death as opposed to celebrating life," said Dr. Flavia DeSouza, a clinical instructor at Yale University Department of Psychiatry.  

In recent history, the 2002 SARS pandemic led to a drastic increase in mask-wearing in parts of Asia, something that continues to this day. Changes may be headed our way, too. For instance, a December 2020 Harris poll for Fast Company showed 54 percent said they'd be happy to never shake hands again. 

The key to getting back to life is to take it slow and to recognize the differences between short-term behavioral changes to keep you safe from COVID-19 and when the changes become a cause for concern. 

"One of the biggest things to realize is when a response is useful versus when it's not useful. And if we're taking that useful response and not useful time, then that's something that we ought to pay attention to," said Flavia. 

And keeping hope is vital, so pay attention to the signs of lingering trauma — but make time to dream of the joys ahead. 

Berry: "I'm a church girl, I love church. And so I am ready for us to get back together, the whole church singing, and just meet up."

Rodriguez: "The parties and the weddings, a lot of stuff got canceled just because of everything that's been going on, so the family time."

Amber Strong, Newsy.