Could the pandemic really be loosening its grip on us? This month, the majority of US states eased lockdown restrictions, rendering them living laboratories as the Biden administration races to vaccinate the country. We’re not nearly close enough to herd immunity to justify, say, maskless partying on spring break. But so far, roughly 1 in 4 Americans has received at least their first dose, inspiring widespread elation and relief. Long-separated loved ones are planning joyous reunions, and long-delayed plans are chugging forward at last.
Still, what should be a thrilling prospect — a return to some sort of “normalcy” — has left countless people reeling with anxiety and dread.
Dozens of respondents to a BuzzFeed News survey about post-pandemic life expressed excitement about that return — traveling, hugging, seeing family again, an end to mass illness and death — but also a slew of concerns. A 23-year-old X-ray technologist who asked to be identified as Mazzy is looking forward to reuniting with friends and taking a romantic trip if ever the pandemic ends. But “I'm worried that people will stop taking precautions before it's safe to do so,” Mazzy said. “I already have had patients that want to take off their masks during their exams, because [they say] ‘Aren't you already vaccinated? You can’t get sick!’”
Dispelling that misinformation gets exhausting. “Even though I'm vaccinated, I could still carry the virus, which scares me because my boyfriend is in a high-risk category and I just started seeing my parents again,” Mazzy explained. “People need to listen to exactly what the experts are saying, and not take advantage of frontline workers.”
“I'm scared that we might be living in a COVID loop indefinitely."
“I'm scared that we might be living in a COVID loop indefinitely,” said Lisa Russell, 62, a substitute teacher in North Carolina. She’s worried that the virus won’t get “under control in other parts of the world, where people will continue to suffer and die.”
“I'm really worried that [the pandemic] won't end, that something even worse will happen,” said Emily, a 32-year-old customer service representative from Illinois and one of several respondents who asked we withhold their last name. “I'm so scared that this is the beginning of a series of collapses.”
Consortium experts at Harvard are cautiously optimistic that vaccines can get us to herd immunity despite the concerning rise in coronavirus variants. But that will require an estimated 70% to 85% of the country to eventually be inoculated against the virus, and according to a recent AP-NORC poll, a full third of Americans are skeptical of taking the vaccine.
“I don't think there’ll be a ‘new normal’ without the virus entirely, especially when so many people in the USA are anti-vax,” said Amy Gijsbers van Wijk, a 28-year-old playwright who lives in New York City.
If the US does get a good handle on stopping the spread, millions of workers who’ve spent the last year working from home might have to return to the office — a possibility that dozens of the 172 survey respondents noted with dismay.
Hannah Merchant, a curatorial assistant at a museum in Boston, dreads resuming her daily commute. Before the pandemic, the 36-year-old used to spend at least three hours a day on trains and subways. “It was completely mentally and physically draining,” she said. “Since we started working from home, I can sleep two hours later each day. My husband and I are both in better moods without our commutes and have enjoyed the extra time together.”
Kris Kelley Majors, a photographer from Philadelphia, also reported improved marital satisfaction after her husband’s demanding job shifted to remote work. Without his commute, “we have been able to spend more time together, and he has been able to help with the housework,” she said. “There is no word yet when he and his colleagues will return to the office, but I am scared. We have become so used to having more time together, and splitting the household chores was so needed. When all of that goes away, I am not sure how we will handle it.”
"I realized so many things I was chasing are pretty meaningless. I worry that when I return to the office and competitive environments, I'll lose that perspective."
The worldwide shift to remote work hasn’t only improved the lives of commuters and their families: “The pandemic has mainstreamed tons of new accessibility technology that I, along with thousands of other disabled people, have benefitted from,” said Lillie Calman, 24. “In college, it was an exhausting and expensive fight for classroom accommodations which are now just standard for remote learning … While the technology has quite a ways to go, it's let me begin a graduate program that I otherwise wouldn't have dreamed of applying to.” If in-person interaction becomes the standard again, Calman’s worried that continuing to work, learn, and socialize primarily online will be stigmatized.
And some people don’t want to return to work as they once knew it at all.
“Why on earth am I spending all my time either at work or thinking about it?” said a 25-year-old researcher from the tristate area who asked to be identified as KB. “It sure as shit doesn't think about me. As cliche as it sounds, I realized [during the pandemic] that I care so much more about seeing my family, working on my hobbies, etc., than I do about a career. I've definitely reevaluated what success means to me.”
“I'm worried about losing my new lease on life,” said Jane, a 26-year-old digital strategist from Louisiana. “Before the pandemic, I lived in a stressful city and dealt with a competitive work environment. I got so caught up in the rat race and trying to get ahead that I was burning myself out. After my office went remote, I decided to go back to my hometown. This has allowed me to spend time with family and reflect on what's important to me in life. I realized so many things I was chasing are pretty meaningless. I worry that when I return to the office and competitive environments, I'll lose that perspective and the sense of inner peace I've had over the last couple of months.”
“I never want to work for another corporation again,” said Nicole Peevy, 33, a student and entrepreneur in Los Angeles. She was fired from her job during the pandemic, a crushing blow following a couple of deaths in her family. “I was so angry [about] how things were initially handled and how employers literally don't care if you work yourself to death, and that really depressed me and caused me to question the purpose of living. I want to work to live, not live to work.”
Getting back to some kind of “normal” has social implications as well as professional ones, and those can be just as nerve-wracking.
“The pandemic has shown me there [were] a lot of people in my life before that I spent time with out of fear of not having enough friends or never seeming busy,” said KB. When the world opens up again, she intends to leave that behind: “I see my friend group changing a lot and I see myself spending my time much differently.”
KB is far from alone in shifting her social priorities. Some respondents aren’t sure their relationships will stay the same after seeing what others weren’t willing to sacrifice for the sake of the collective good.
Lauren is a formerly unhoused gig worker who recruits for a ride-share company in Seattle. “I will not have many friends anymore,” she said. “A whole generation of elders was lost in my family. It has been stressful to have 7 family members die while rich white people I know bragged about jumping the COVID vaccine line and used this time to travel instead of following CDC guidelines. I cannot keep people in my life who didn’t follow guidelines as people died.”
“I don’t trust people as much as I did before."
“I don’t trust people as much as I did before,” said Nicole R., a paralegal in New Jersey. “I’ve had friends and family lie to my face about not being in contact with someone who has had COVID, just to see my child.”
Katrina Ehrnman-Newton, a librarian in Portland, Oregon, said “I've lost a lot of the little confidence I had in other people to do the right fucking thing when it counts. Between the rise in racist violence, anti-maskers, and failure to do simple helpful things in the face of death and suffering, my Christian charity is running real low.”
After a year of social distancing, masking up, and avoiding crowds, those with lingering anxieties about getting sick are also wary of resuming close contact with others. Dana, a 35-year-old analyst from Indiana, is nervous about “letting people back into my home. It's my office now, so my spaces are even less defined than they were before when I'd work from home once or twice a week. Plus, I don't like the idea of someone just coming in — I don't know where they've been and who they've been in contact with.”
Maggie A., a 22-year-old law student, expressed what turned out to be a common concern among respondents: “I expect I’ll be terrified about being around large groups of people for a long, long time.”
Given the horrifying surge in anti-Asian violence since the start of the pandemic, some Asian Americans find crowds daunting for another reason. “I don’t go out by myself because I’m always looking over my shoulder hoping that nobody attacks me,” said Jasmine, a student in Texas. “I shouldn’t have to be living in this world afraid.”
“The burden of racism that we ... face due to COVID-19 will make my life different,” said Eunice Kim, a 25-year-old New Yorker. “I don't want to go to areas where it's predominately white, and I will avoid areas where I know I won't be welcomed because of my race and ethnicity. Being called the Kung Flu, corona, Wuhan virus, and the Chinese virus, I don't think I'll feel safe going back to the life we once had given that so many people make us, Asians, feel guilty.” Even if the pandemic ends, “I think I'll be in full survival mode,” Eunice said.
The Atlanta spa shootings also served as a reminder that hatred and mass murder are nothing new in America. The country was just absorbing the tragedy when another shooter killed 10 people in a Boulder, Colorado, grocery store.
“I’m extremely worried about more mass shootings against people of color,” said Lauren, the ride-share recruiter in Seattle, expressing concerns many have shared in the wake of this most recent spate of gun violence. Until the Atlanta shootings, there hadn’t been a large-scale shooting in about a year. Enduring two mass shootings in a single week might be as good a sign as any that we’re “getting back to normal” — and that “normal” in America, as one respondent put it, “ain't shit” to begin with.
“This year has highlighted our selfishness in some ways, and it makes me nervous that we won't have learned from it."
Jamie H., a 29-year-old physician assistant in Illinois, is worried that despite the losses we’ve sustained, we haven’t properly heeded the pandemic’s warnings. “This year has highlighted our selfishness in some ways, and it makes me nervous that we won't have learned from it,” Jamie said. “We were also able to focus more on human rights and social issues, such as race, poverty, domestic violence. I'm afraid that those will be tossed aside as well. This would have been a chance to grow and change things as a human race, and we'll miss it.”
The pandemic has only exacerbated long-existing inequities in this country, and recovery, even considering Biden’s historic relief bill, is going to be extraordinarily difficult for many. Abigail Dalverny, who works in retail in western Maryland, is worried that “the people who struggled during the pandemic will be expected to just live like normal even though they are still struggling.”
“Just because it is over doesn't mean the struggle to pay bills or rent or mortgages is over, especially when you are already so behind on those payments,” she said.
“I think the lack of distractions (sports, movies, travel, etc.) has forced a lot of folks (mainly white and privileged) to face uncomfortable realities,” said Rae, a 37-year-old who works in customer support in the Bay Area. “I hope this is a transformative event rather than a blip in a continuation of trying to ignore or bury the heck out of our societal issues.”
It can be difficult to celebrate short-term wins when much remains to be done — just one of the reasons why the eventual end of the pandemic is sparking anxiety for so many. Katrina, the librarian from Portland, noted that “it's hard to feel good about moving forward when there's this massive ocean of grief around you, and what seems like mountains of struggle ahead. It's just more work — different work, but more work.” ●