The global pandemic has been with us for a while. Like an annoying house guest, it just doesn’t seem to want to go away.
I think part of the reason that it is easy to get frustrated with the pandemic is because we were not prepared for such a long event. A lot of the early conversations about the coronavirus focused on ‘flattening the curve’ which implied that, if we did the right things, the pandemic would have less impact. Many of us, myself included, thought that we’d get a payoff for self-isolating, wearing masks, and social distancing. But the payoff has been elusive. The pandemic is beginning to wear us down as our patience is tested.
When we emerge from the pandemic, the world will be different and we will be different too.
It is easy to draw comparisons between the coronavirus pandemic and the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918. The 1918 pandemic also came in waves as it rippled across the world for almost three years. But it eventually came to an end, just as the current pandemic will. While we do not know how long the pandemic will last, there will be light at the end of the tunnel eventually.
When we emerge from the other side of the pandemic, we will be different…
We will have new frames of reference
The global impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been unprecedented. We have had some close calls before, such as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and Ebola. But this is our first pandemic experience in a century. Our frames of reference for understanding disease and how we respond are changing. Part of our new way of thinking is our reassessment of risk. When risks and probabilities are low, we tend to discount risk and delay action. We may not totally discount the risk, but we simply do not prioritize action and push it behind other problems that are more important to us at the time.
The pandemic has changed that. We have new mental pictures of what a pandemic is, what responses — both good and bad — look like, and how we personally feel about them. With new experiences under our belt, we are primed to think, act, and feel in ways that we simply would not have before.
We will have re-valued what is important to us
The coronavirus pandemic is an existential threat to each of us. Simply put, the pandemic causes illness and death, not just somewhere far away, but everywhere, including our own homes, towns, and neighborhoods. This threat to our personal safety can create a strong psychological response.
The existential threat of death often reorients our value system. On one hand we may reduce the value we give to material things in our lives. There is a humorous saying, “Ain’t no U-Haul behind a hearse.” When facing an existential threat, we sense that we can’t take some things with us and they lose value to us. We often instinctively prioritize what we have in our lives, which means rethinking about what is important to us. We may give more value to different things, such as time spent with others or experiencing things that we enjoy and that bring us a sense of peace. As we emerge from the pandemic, we may have a profound reorientation as we discard some things and as we value other things that are, perhaps, more simple, meaningful, and personal to us.
We will look at work and education in a new way
The United Nations estimates that the coronavirus pandemic has displaced over 1 billion students from school. That is about two-thirds of all students worldwide. Although not all jobs are suitable for remote working, one industry estimate predicts that between 25 and 30 percent of the United States workforce will work from home several days of the week by the end of 2021.
The pandemic is shifting attitudes. I know a manager who was a vocal opponent of having employees who teleworked. He simply did not feel they made a contribution. But he has become a fan. His observation is that telework does not work when just a few people on a team do it. It is just too easy to shift the work to the in-office employees since they are readily accessible. But he has found that when everyone does it, things are different. The balance is even because the workforce, and team communication, is even. But his opposition was only reduced because the pandemic forced the use of teleworking.
I imagine that the pandemic will force many people to re-evaluate how they feel about distance work and education. My sense is that a lot of barriers have been brought down. Yet, I can’t help but feel that there will be a backlash after the pandemic has passed. I am not sure teleworking and distant education can meet all of our needs.
We will look at trust and togetherness in a new way
We live in a time where the unifying promise of sharing information, our thoughts, and our opinions globally through the internet has begun to fade. There is no doubt we have the ability to share information. The problem is that we are beginning to be suspicious of whether we can trust it. The age of misinformation, sometimes driven by internet algorithms, is making us increasingly distrustful of what we see. We are beginning to feel that we are being manipulated in some way. This feeling can be heightened in crises like the pandemic, where we are both highly sensitive to new information and where we feel that the information we see is being altered or tailored in some way.
The pandemic is also physically separating people, which runs the risk of us separating psychologically from one another. We see each other as a potential threat. And, each time we step away, avoid one another, or wash our hands after contact, we slowly reinforce the idea in our mind. What the cumulative impact on our ability to approach, connect, and trust each other will be is yet unknown. It may have a polarizing effect, bringing us closer to our close friends, and separating us farther from strangers. The problem is that the stranger of today is the potential friend of tomorrow. Will we lose that opportunity?
Being socially connected is necessary for human survival, personally and collectively. We have to resist the temptation to let the pandemic drive us apart. Gideon Rose, Editor at Foreign Affairs magazine, said it best. “In truth, what is killing us is not connection; it is connection without cooperation. And the cure is not isolation but deeper connection, the kind that can support collective action.”
Interested in more insights? See https://www.jamesmcginley.com.
This article was originally published at https://www.jamesmcginley.com/post/4-ways-we-will-be-different-after-the-pandemic.
James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in cross-cultural and applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life — whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.