Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA 4.15.20
The entire world is experiencing the effect of this global pandemic. We have been paralyzed by a silent, invisible, stealthy threat that has crept its way to every corner of the earth on one way or another. Some of the changes in the world around us are affecting a majority of people in similar ways. Our new normal, nearly across the board, includes being more cautious when out in public and maintaining more distance between ourselves and others. Most people are washing or sanitizing their hands more frequently and more thoroughly. Most people have a greater awareness of trying not to touch their faces. Most people have had to sacrifice time with friends and loved ones. Most people are worried, at least on some level, about the state of the economy and the future for our country and our world. Most people are grieving over the losses being experienced broadly.
While there are many additional common-ground new normals, there are plenty of new normals that are different from person to person and place to place. The new normal for a health care provider in an overwhelmed city hospital is very different from the new normal for a small-town grocery store clerk who is trying to keep up with demands from anxious and occasionally rude customers. The new normal for parents who are trying to work form home while figuring out how to help their kids manage school from home is different from the new normal for retired grandparents who can no longer see or hug their grandchildren. People in cities with high numbers of infections are looking out their windows to eerily empty streets. People in smaller towns and more rural areas might not have the same dramatic visual effect when they look out their windows, but they are experiencing a difference with how they get their groceries and what they are allowed to do. Right now we are in an acute phase of adjusting to extreme circumstances, and the conditions are not the same for everyone. For some people these conditions may change every day. What is true is that everyone is affected, everywhere, in some way.
Much of what we are experiencing is very difficult. From the most extreme cases of hardship to people who have simply worked from home and not been able to get out and do things as much, it has been, for most, difficult. We miss our families and friends. We miss being able to have the freedom to walk into a store without worrying about wearing a mask, putting on gloves, sanitizing our hands incessantly. We miss being able to rely on finding toilet paper in a store when we run out, without a worry. It really is a dystopian world right now.
Let’s not forget though, that there are some positive things we can focus on right now, during this acute phase of unbelievable circumstances. People have found ways to stay connected. Remember Italians stranded in their apartments singing from their balconies? Here in the States we are Zoom meeting like crazy for work and for fun. Online resources for shared interaction abound. We have seen a surge of support for critical workers, and a lot of people searching for ways to help in their own communities with jeopardizing themselves or others. People have been intentionally seeking ways to support local businesses and restaurants by using takeout, curbside and delivery options. Even our governments – federal, state and local – are providing unprecedented resources to help individuals and businesses through this crisis.
The big question is: How much of all these new normals will stay normal, and for how long?
I’m not going to try to predict the timeline here. Although I have been tracking the charts and found myself remarkably interested in epidemiology the past 8 weeks, predictions about when things will start to resume some semblance of life before COVID-19 is way beyond my expertise. As for what to expect regarding interactions and behavior, a lot of this will depend on what is happening in the medical field. Without highly effective treatments, a vaccine, or general herd immunity, it is likely that our public and social interactions will change. I would imagine that large gatherings will be less appealing, and therefore, less large. While returns to small gatherings with close friends, going to local restaurants and smaller venues could return sooner, it’s possible that people will be more cautious with distancing even in those space. Hand-washing and face-touching habits will hopefully improve for the better. People may wear masks out in public for a long time.
If there are big advances for treatment options that work well, our fear will go down quite a bit. If we have an effective vaccine, our fear will go down dramatically. However, even with good prevention (vaccine) or intervention (medications), it is possible and perhaps likely that as a result of this profound experience we may maintain a sense of caution over the long term. This could play out by being a little more distanced in general, a little more careful around others, and a little more compulsive about washing our hands. It could also mean greater efforts at preparedness – storing extra food and essentials, getting better at saving money for a crisis, or following the news more closely when there are various disease outbreaks even on the other side of the world.
Whatever the next weeks and months bring, let us hope together that we will be able to acknowledge and accept the multiple shared experiences of coping with a global pandemic, while recognizing that the new normals of today are not the same for everyone.