By Beau Black
As we round the corner on a year of living with the effects of COVID-19, it may be helpful to look back at the changes the past year has brought and to look forward to what life will look like post-pandemic. Many of us have spent the last year wondering how the novel coronavirus will change the world – and what will happen after the threat has passed.
The negatives of 2020 are obvious — people have gotten sick and died, lost jobs and homes, and seen their normal patterns of life upended. But there’s also cause for optimism, as many have found in a year of shutdowns and changes an opportunity to re-order their priorities in positive ways.
Perhaps most notably, the pandemic has given millions of us a reason to re-examine our lives and adjust our priorities.
Aside from the more obvious effects of COVID, our mental health has suffered. According to a report from the Cleveland Clinic, “The pandemic has triggered a wave of mental health issues. Whether it’s managing addiction, depression, social isolation, or just the general stress that’s resulted from COVID-19, we’re all feeling it.” The Clinic, along with Parade Magazine, commissioned an Ipsos survey to explore the effects of the pandemic. Some of the findings:
- 55% of those surveyed encountered mental health problems during the past year. The number rose to 74% of those aged 18-34. (Numbers were consistently higher for the 18-34 age group.) Those surveyed reported experiencing stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness/isolation.
- 41% said they were “so overwhelmed by COVID-19 news” that they’d stopped following it.
- 38% said they had postponed doctor visits for preventive care to avoid exposure, some (15%) for more serious problems.
- 78% anticipated they would not enjoy the holidays as they had in the past, with many cutting out church and holiday party attendance. [The survey was conducted in September 2020.]
But, these challenges aside, there were some positive developments worth observing – ones that may yield lasting benefits:
- 62% said they had made life changes geared toward becoming healthier (more time outside or exercising, improved diet). A third of respondents said they were eating better, and most of those said they would continue to.
- 78% said they valued their personal relationships more after COVID.
Perhaps most notably, the pandemic has given millions of us a reason to re-examine our lives and adjust our priorities. Positive changes include the ability for many to work from home, which may lead to permanent flexibility for many now-former office workers. Distance education has expanded out of necessity – which again may make the delivery of education more flexible and expand the choices available to families.
It’s also allowed (or forced) many of us to slow down. Schedules formerly crowded with school activities, work meetings, sports events or concerts, and hours spent commuting have suddenly opened up. Though such an abrupt change is partly to blame for the increase in depression, it has also created some opportunities.
According to Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz of the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, quoted in Time, slowing down “gives people a lot of time to review their lives and think about what life could look like moving forward. For many people, that’s not a bad thing, for them to really spend time taking an inventory of what their life is like currently and what they want it to be like.”
“People are realizing that life is short, and they’re reprioritizing,” says Northwestern University psychiatry professor Jacqueline Gollan in Time. Increased job and school flexibility frees many of us to think more deeply about where and how we want to live and work.
As we return to something like normalcy, it’s important to take what we’ve learned over the last year with us.
Looking forward, it’s probable that more changes are coming. ScienceNews asked a variety of experts for post-COVID predictions. Historian John Barry predicted minor changes if the vaccines are effective at triggering lasting immunity; these include more remote working and remote healthcare delivery. If the virus persists as a problem, he suggests more lasting changes in how people live and work – from the “interior design of buildings” to less reliance on public transport and more reliance on cars.
Sociologists Anna Mueller and Mario Small expect online learning will be expanded as an option, especially for students with disabilities that make coming to the physical classroom difficult, Mueller says. And historian Christopher Nichols predicts an increase in group activities and recreation post-COVID, comparing the post-COVID era to the roaring 1920s a century ago, which followed a pandemic and world war.
As vaccines are proven and re-proven to be effective and are administered to more and more people, and as infection rates decline, it’s a relief to look forward again with hope. As we return to something like normalcy, it’s important to take what we’ve learned over the last year with us.