The growing number of narratives of those suffering from depression, anxiety, and trauma as the pandemic trudges on have convinced many psychologists that the pandemic is, and will be, a long-term mental health challenge. Even when vaccines are available, the experts tell us, we will not be going back to how we lived pre-COVID-19.
Throughout history pandemics have shaken society, from the Antonine Plague in the second century CE and the Black Death of the 14th century to the various plagues that ravaged London, Italy, Asian, and Russia in the 17th and 18th centuries. The SARS-Cov-2 virus is just the latest ‘plague’ since 1900, which has included the Spanish Flu, Asian Flu, Hong Kong Flu, HIV/AIDS, Swine Flu, SARS, Ebola, and MERS. One of the lessons we’ve learned from the history of pandemics, is that the more contact and interaction we have with others, the greater the risk and intensity of a pandemic. So even after surviving COVID-19, it is clear that we are still vulnerable to infections.
In other words, it appears that COVID-19 will likely result in a new normal. What will the new normal look like? We’ve all heard about those who are living their daily lives influenced mainly by fears of infection, treating others as if they are disease-carriers, facing financial insecurity, cleaning compulsively, and experiencing trauma-like symptoms, such as nightmares of contracting COVID-19.
We even have a name for this constellation of pandemic-related fears and negative experiences. According to Amundsen (2020, October 29),
Our research has identified what appears to be a network of interconnected symptoms, a COVID stress syndrome, with fear of the dangerousness of the SARS-CoV-2 virus at the core [Editor’s note: The virus that gives rise to the disease COVID-19], interconnecting to socio-economic concerns, xenophobia, traumatic stress symptoms and compulsive checking and reassurance seeking. The syndrome, in turn, is primarily associated with other negative mental health and socially disruptive consequences such as panic buying, excessive avoidance and unhelpful ways of coping during self-isolation.
We can add to Amundsen’s list the very real possibility that COVID-19 will result in widespread famine in many less wealthy countries and likely political destabilization in more fragile countries. According to Buheji (2020), “The chance of unemployment among the post-COVID-19 generation is expected to be twice as the pre-COVID-19 generation if not more” (p. 238).
Is this the new normal? Has the pandemic doomed us to live only with more anxiety and depression—innocent victims of Amundsen’s COVID stress syndrome?
What Will the New Normal Look Like?
Likely not. The obvious features of the new normal focus on keeping us safe from infection and the implications of that strategy. It’s likely that cheap flights are a thing of the past. Religious leaders will find new rituals to replace risky ones, such as the Christian “Passing of the Peace” (Kayyem, 2020, April 16). Perhaps the brick-and-mortar universities will no longer be financially viable. New businesses will open using new business models to replace those that went bankrupt as a result of the pandemic. One-way sidewalks are a real possibility.
But the history of pandemics has taught us that they profoundly influence many aspects of life, far beyond keeping safe from infection. Today, businesses are touting the importance of being more flexible, such as allowing workers to work from home and developing supply routes in different countries in case one country is locked down.
With so many people off work and seeking employment, Buheji and Buheji (2020) made a case for new employability standards that have arisen because of the pandemic: “It is an era full of challenges and instability, where agility, curiosity, risk mitigation, learning by exploring, learning by doing, but with focus, would be the norm for both survival and competitiveness” (p. 238).
There is a case being made in the media that the pandemic is an opportunity to address income inequality and sustainability. In the United States and other countries, there have been arguments to keep COVID-19-related benefits going as one method to achieve income equality. Mahmoudi (2020, Jun 29) describes how Dutch officials are planning a “donut-shaped model” to revive the economy after the immediate threat of COVID-19 passes. “Beyond economics, the model aims to better meet the needs of people and the planet, and to actively be more sustainable. Had the pandemic not occurred, such a decision may have taken decades to action.”
Localism is more powerful today than it was in pre-pandemic days, with businesses advertising “Buy local” and policy decisions developed to target specific geographical locations where the virus is most intense.
Many city dwellers appear to be rethinking what is truly important to them. Several Canadian suburbs, for example, are experiencing a boom in housing sales. Even in my little town of Powell River, BC, home sales have increased dramatically during the pandemic, with 80 percent of homes purchased by people from Vancouver. Being locked down in Powell River—where there is a hospital, exactly five traffic lights, no escalators, plenty of outdoor space, few line ups, and nestled between the mountains and the ocean—offers a freedom and security for those who feel stuck in their 700 sq ft condo in downtown Vancouver.
A UK group (More in Common, 2020) examined how the pandemic was affecting people beyond the negative symptoms. Surveys of residents in seven nations concluded, “The pandemic has created a new sense of togetherness.” Many of those surveyed reported that the pandemic has changed us into “more caring societies.” Not everywhere, of course, particularly in the sharply divided United States. But we often hear of community-minded residents buying groceries for their elderly neighbors or universities offering free online classes. Many respondents emphasized that the pandemic has helped them reconnect people to nature and environment. Others have touted that greater personal resilience and increased creativity will be part of the new normal.
Curiously, the population that continues to have the most mental health problems during the pandemic is older Generation Z people, between 18 and 23 years old. According to one recent study (Adam, 2020), more than a third of this population rated their mental health as significantly worse during the pandemic, compared with 19 percent of Millennials, 21 percent of Gen-Xs, 12 percent of baby boomers, and 8 percent of “older adults.” Some explanations of this phenomenon argue that young adults don’t have experience of financial crises and other challenges that develop resilience and work in entry-level jobs that have been lost during the pandemic.
The new normal, then, will of course mean taking various precautions to avoid infection. But it will also demand that we examine our values and beliefs to see if they need tinkering or an overhaul. The pandemic (like previous pandemics) will force us to develop new ways of making sense of our lives: (a) a flexible thinking to exist comfortably with uncertainty, (b) coming to terms with what it means to live a good life (such as working from home or balancing work with leisure), (c) openness to new ways of thinking (such as virtual healthcare, more flexible family relationships, and more cautious dating) and (d) caring for the other in spite of risks. This list is not, of course, complete, but it highlights that the new normal will be far more than simply infection control.
Of course, there are many unknowns as we peer into the future and make predictions. But history teaches us that the pandemics have always had a major impact on health, travel, trade and business, education, and human psychology.
Whatever the new changes are, we won’t be entirely comfortable with them. Still, they will be implemented regardless (remember airport security after 9/11). Winston Churchill is credited with the recommendation, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” If the pandemic is not to “go to waste,” then how well we fare living in a world will require a new way of making sense of our lives.
Adam, E. (2020). Why Gen Z is feeling so stressed. American Psychological Association [podcast].
Asmundson, G. J. G. (2020, October 29). COVID stress syndrome: 5 ways the pandemic us affecting mental health. National Post [online].
Buheji, M., & Buheji, A. (2020). Planning competency in the new normal—Employability competency in post-COVID-19 pandemic. International Journal of Human Resource Studies, 10(2), 237–251. Doi: 10.5296/ijhrs.v10i2.17085.
Kayyem, J. (2020, April 16). After social distancing, a strange purgatory awaits. The Atlantic [online].
Mahmoudi, M. (2020, June 29). Remote work is making us more innovative—so don’t dread the ‘new normal’. Grow Quarters [online].
More in Common (2020). The new normal? A 7-country comparative study on the impacts of COVID-19 on trust, social cohesion, democracy and expectations for an uncertain future. [online]