The pandemic has rendered many activities unsafe, but thankfully it can’t stop us from fantasizing about them. A common balm that people reach for is the sentence construction “When this is over, I’m going to ____.” It seems to help, if only in a fleeting way, for them to imagine all of the vacations they’ll go on, all of the concerts they’ll attend, and all of the hugs they’ll give, as soon as they’re able to.
Unfortunately, the sublime post-pandemic period that so many are longing for will likely not arrive all at once, like a clock striking midnight on New Year’s Eve. If and when the pandemic is over someday—in the sense that it’s safe to resume normal life, or something like it—pinpointing its conclusion may never be possible. Internalizing that, and mentally bracing for a slow fade into the new normal, might lead to less angst.
Whatever the end of the pandemic might look like, the United States is nowhere close to it at the moment; week after week, hundreds of thousands of Americans continue to test positive for COVID-19, and several thousand die from it. But when the threat of the pandemic does eventually subside, the process will likely be gradual and incremental. “I don’t think there’s going to be, all of a sudden, one day when we can all go make out with people at the grocery store,” Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, told me. “Our concept of how the pandemic will end is just as oversimplified as the way we’ve approached everything else about it.”
As a result, although many people have a distinct memory of the beginning of the pandemic, they may not experience a single parallel moment marking the end of it. The break between the Before Times and the present was conspicuous, but the transition from the present to the After Times will likely be more piecemeal and less tidy.
The way that people process the end of the pandemic could have to do with how abruptly their life changes after it. One theory for how people mentally perceive transitions from one event to another is that they notice when their expectations of what will happen next start to get upended—“like the disorientation you feel when a movie abruptly shifts to a new setting,” says Lance Rips, a psychology professor at Northwestern University. Under this framework, if someone undergoes a big life change during the final stages of the pandemic (say, moving or getting a new job after a bout of unemployment), they might be more likely to register a turning point. But if instead they merely start going out more, day by day, that might not yield the same discombobulation that can mark moments of transition.
Even if people crave a swift restoration of normalcy, many have come to terms with the fact that they won’t get it. “Wearing a mask is just like making sure you pocket your keys at this point,” says Athul Acharya, a 34-year-old lawyer in Portland, Oregon. The pandemic “has now lasted long enough that I, at least, don’t find myself waiting for the end. Looking forward to it? Yes. But anticipating it as a thing that will happen in the tangible future? Not so much.”
But a gradual fade-out—one without clear indicators about the safety of resuming normal activities—might be particularly distressing for some people. “Those with generalized anxiety disorder, in which a person experiences uncontrollable worry over a range of topics, could really be suffering,” Sandra Llera, a clinical-psychology professor at Towson University, wrote to me in an email. “If we don’t have a clear-cut ending, those with a tendency to worry”—whether they have a diagnosable disorder or not—“might experience a lot of stress about when we can begin to safely return to business as usual.”
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