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Life after a pandemic

With vaccinations rapidly making their way through the US, a lot of people here are seeing light at the end of the tunnel.

By Amie M. Gordon

Published: Sun 28 Mar 2021, 8:38 PM

I haven’t had many pandemic dreams, but last night I dreamt I was in a crowded area and most people weren’t wearing masks. I then realised that I wasn’t wearing a mask either. I quickly reached in my purse to find it, but I had forgotten it at home. Maybe it was okay though? I was dimly aware that there was a new order in place that no longer made masks mandatory. However, I was also acutely aware of my discomfort at being surrounded by so many people, especially unmasked people — seeing so many faces at once felt wrong.

With vaccinations rapidly making their way through the US, a lot of people here are seeing light at the end of the tunnel. My university and my daughter’s school are planning to be in-person this fall, and friends who have been vaccinated are excitedly telling me of their air travel plans.

But how quickly will we actually feel comfortable going back to a pre-pandemic life? My sister asked me how long I thought it would take for people to be comfortable in crowds again. She thought it might take a long time. My hunch is that it will be much quicker than we think, thanks to our ability to rapidly adjust to new situations.

A year ago, I wrote about the psychological biases that affect how we reacted to the pandemic. The normalcy bias roots us in our current way of being and makes it hard for us to accept it when a huge change is occurring. But now we’ve come to terms with this unprecedented moment, and pandemic life has become our new normal. Sometimes it takes looking through old photos for me to really grasp how different my life is now than it was a few years ago.

If you had to predict how likely it was that a global pandemic would occur in your lifetime what would your answer be? What about the likelihood it would occur in the first half of the 2000s? Post your answers in this survey and I’ll report on the results (Go do it now and then come back here).

Whatever you predicted, it is likely a much larger number than what you would have reported if I had asked you to make those predictions two years ago. But now that it has happened, it almost seems as if it was inevitable (despite research utilising statistical modelling that suggests it almost wasn’t a pandemic). This is what our minds do, how they have adapted to help us make sense of and live in the world around us.

So once we do start going back out into the world and interacting with people again, it will probably feel a little uncomfortable at first. We might have a physical reaction when someone outside our household first tries to give us a hug. And I could see myself having a bit of déjà vu from my dream last night the first time I find myself in a large unmasked crowd. But, because of how humans adapt, I expect that very shortly after we start engaging in these activities again, they will begin to feel normal and most of us will lose that discomfort.

We’ve been living in a pandemic long enough that there might be a few behavioural changes that stick around (No more handshake? Better at washing our hands? I’d love it if people actually stayed home from work when they were sick). But time moves quickly and our memories are short as we adapt to new situations, so I expect that many of the lessons we’ve learned will quickly be forgotten as we readjust to post-pandemic life.

— Psychology Today

Amie M. Gordon is an assistant professor and director of the Well-being, Health, and Interpersonal Relationships Lab (WHIRL) at the University of Michigan

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