Do we have any control over what the post-pandemic world looks like?

As more of the nation becomes vaccinated, restrictions are lifting, and we’re beginning to imagine what our “new normal” might look like. 

There are some things we want to change for good after the pandemic, and other parts of our lives we want to return to the way they were in 2019. But, with so many of our expectations dependent on the actions of others, how much control do we really have over our post-pandemic reality? Are our plans doomed before the U.S. even begins to open back up?

Jordan Marie Good, a 24-year-old content creator from the D.C. area, wants to hang out with her friends inside again without worrying about spreading the virus. She wants to enjoy in-person shopping, and continue working from home, and keep up her cooking game, and get rid of the mask-induced eczema on her face. And she thinks that it’s pretty likely those things will happen.

“I think overall I feel hopeful, not just in the terms of ‘we defeated this thing,’ but I’m thinking of this phrase that got passed around on social media in the early months of COVID and that the Renaissance followed the plague,” Good told Mashable. “And that’s where I’m getting really excited.”

But she also wants everyone to continue wearing masks when they’re sick, and to keep having weekly movie nights with her friends, and to share food with acquaintances. And she doesn’t think there’s a shot anyone will actually do that — including herself.

“I think one of the big divides on whether or not we can control what happens is basically who’s in charge of that activity,” Good told Mashable. “For me, I can continue to make time when I have time to learn anything, and place a higher priority on stuff outside of the office. But I have no control over if my doctor offers telehealth appointments going forward.”

Will anyone want to Zoom again?

Image: vicky leta/mashable

Good isn’t alone. Tonya Simpson, a 33-year-old journalist in North Carolina who wants to spend an evening doing pub trivia, maskless and with her friends, and believes it will eventually happen. But Simpson also wants to continue having Zoom events with her long-distance friends, which she thinks is a lost cause. 

Matt Vaudrey, a teacher in California, told Mashable he is looking forward to attending in-person classes, but he doesn’t want to get his hopes up about feeling calm in enclosed spaces, like elevators and airplanes. 

And there are good reasons why, at least for some of our hopes, we should temper our expectations.

Can we ever rely on the group mentality again?

“I think there was a comfortable naïveté before COVID where you could operate in the world assuming that your neighbor, the person next to you at the grocery store, the person that you vaguely know through friends, or even close friends of yours, we all operated under the same assumption that we cared about one another as people, even if it meant slightly inconveniencing ourselves in order to protect the greater good and the greater population,” Simpson said. “And we’ve all been robbed of that.”

For a lot of the changes people would like to see stick, there needs to be coordination to make it happen. If everyone on flights continues to wear masks after the pandemic, you might be more likely to wear one too, even if they aren’t particularly comfortable. But if no one wears them anymore, will you still cover your mouth and nose? 

“The challenge is if it’s not coordinated, then you have this thing where it’s better off individually doing the thing that’s not as good for us as a group,” Katy Milkman, a behavioral scientist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and author of How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, told Mashable. “And the only way it really works is if the group coordinates and the way groups coordinate is through regulation and recommendations that come from a larger governing body.”

These are the classic economic dilemmas that governments exist to fix, Milkman said. When it comes to post-pandemic practices, the best way to ensure that what you want is done, if it requires coordination from others, is to call your representatives. And, if it’s something like having everyone continue to wear masks on flights, use your voice as a customer.

“If we want things like that to continue, it will be necessary to look to that kind of leadership, like to look for guidelines from the CDC and so on saying, ‘Hey, like maybe we’ve learned something and it’s actually recommended from now on that you do X,'” Milkman said. “And that’s how we would get a coordinating mechanism.”

Good worries that this will mean it comes down to how much faith you have in an organization — and if maintaining a new rule, or going back to a past rule, is in their best interest as well.

“It comes down to what is the cost benefit analysis, is the fancy word I would use, but it just really comes down to who’s to benefit,” Good said. “And does that benefit the people that are actually in control of the activity?”

“COVID has forced a lot of people to discuss consent for the first time, including groups who might not have thought about it before”

Vaudrey agrees with Good, and adds that it might be easier with a small group of people. For instance, he wants to go back to having his Dungeons & Dragons games in person, and he thinks that will happen — once everyone is comfortable with meeting in person.

“In a way, COVID has forced a lot of people to discuss consent for the first time, including groups who might not have thought about it before,” Vaudrey said, adding, “Until we have the enthusiastic consent of all parties, we will continue to meet online.”

“I think there will be like this collective wondering of who we can trust to live their lives as part of the society and who are just deeply individualistic, even at the detriment of the health and wellbeing of others,” Simpson said.

Focus on individual goals

We may not have total control over how society ends up handling the big issues, but one way to forge ahead is to pay attention to what you can control — your individual goals. And right now is the perfect time to do just that. 

While many of our post-pandemic hopes necessarily rely on others, there are plenty of goals we each have for how we’ll shape our own lives once the world calms down. And we have complete control over that — maybe even more than during normal times.

That’s because of what Milkman calls the fresh start effect. “It’s a term to describe a really interesting thing that happens as a result of the way people think about time,” Milkman said. “So rather than thinking about time linearly, we tend to think about it in chapters, sort of like our life is a novel. And those chapters are punctuated by meaningful moments, and sometimes small moments, in life that stand apart from the others.”

You had your high school years, and your years at your first job, and your pandemic years. This could be the opening of a new chapter: your post-pandemic years.

“Part of what happens is, as we step into that new era, we feel like we’re shedding an identity of who [we were] before, and taking on a new one,” Milkman said. “And we feel more distant from our past self, more separated.”

It can be difficult to think about our lives in this way, after such a traumatic year, though. Vaudrey said he’s a “pretty hopeful guy,” but, more than a year into the pandemic, he’s getting “hope fatigue.” 

“My privilege has insulated me from some of the worst consequences of COVID,” he said, adding that one of his teammates lost her parents and sibling to COVID-19, but had to return to school almost immediately after. “That takes a toll on people, and I hope this disaster might soften the way our country views K-12 education and the people who work in it.”

Simpson agreed, but thinks as the fog lifts there’s a chance for this new beginning to be stronger than ever.

“I think that all of us are undergoing what will be sort of a trauma hangover from what’s happening right now,” Simpson said, adding that she flinches when she sees people in large groups on TV shows without masks, or imagines being at a music festival. 

“I think eventually we will get back to doing that and not thinking about it,” she said. But it’ll just take some time.

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