Normal Won’t Feel Like ‘Normal’ For a While

Even though we're all desperate to go shopping and eat out safely, history shows a lot of us will feel anxious even after the pandemic is over.
Anya Zoledziowski
Toronto, CA
March 23, 2021, 5:20pm
People physically distancing in new york city
People practicing social distancing in white circles last summer in New York City's Domino Park. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

You haven’t been to a concert in over a year, you can’t remember what the inside of your favourite bar looks like, and there’s no telling when you’ll be able to dance in a crowd while TLC’s “No Scrubs” blasts and younger club-goers stare at you for being embarrassing.

Dreaming about house parties and faces smashed into strangers’ sweaty armpits at crowded shows finally feels reasonable again, now that vaccine campaigns are ramping up around the world. The U.S. has administered at least one shot to a quarter of its population, more than 40 percent of people in the U.K. have been jabbed, and even Canada, with a much slower rollout because it can’t make its own vaccines, has vaccinated nearly 10 percent of its population.

But how do you go from repeating “phone, wallet, keys, mask” and avoiding hugs at all costs to close contact almost overnight? The tragedy is many of us won’t, experts say, and it might take a few months for everything to feel “normal again” even once the pandemic is finally over. Not to mention, we’re still quite a ways away from enjoying freedoms we once took for granted, as many of us head into a third wave, marked by new COVID-19 variants that are deadlier and more contagious. 

Here’s what transitioning back to normal will look like—and feel like:

Where are we at right now?

Many places worldwide have restrictions in place or are in some stage of lockdown. In some areas, shops and restaurants are open but have limited capacity—you’re asked to to sanitize your hands or get your temperature checked before entering and wear a mask except when you’re eating. Some restaurants offer plastic or plexiglass blinders between tables (although experts say their effectiveness is limited and they don’t actually prevent people indoors from breathing in the same circulated air). 

Even as the number of vaccinated people increases, we likely won’t see restrictions disappear entirely until the pandemic is over, said University of British Columbia epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Hoption Cann. “It depends a lot on the numbers—how effectively the measures in place are lowering infection rates and how quickly we get vaccinations done,” he said. “A lot of the spread is indoors.”

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Temperature checks, for example, aren’t the best for determining whether a person has COVID-19, but they do dissuade sick people from venturing out. “If they know their temperature will be checked, that may keep (symptomatic people) at home,” Hoption Cann said. 

Can I ignore restrictions once I’m vaccinated?

It’s possible that vaccine passports or certificates will be used domestically, not just for international travel, to signal who is safe and who isn’t. Israel, for instance, with the fastest vaccination rate in the world (60 percent of the population has been jabbed), has a “green pass” app that says if Israelis have been vaccinated or have presumed immunity because they had COVID-19, the Guardian reported. Malls and museums are open to all in Israel, but gyms, concerts, theatres, indoor dining, and hotels are exclusive to green pass holders. It’s a fine balance between restarting the economy and keeping people safe while the virus threat continues to loom large.

Other countries, including the U.K. and Canada, are currently mulling over the vaccine passport idea, but they’ve acknowledged the ethical concerns around equity and privacy. Many people will undoubtedly be left out until they get vaccinated, including those who can’t access the vaccine early on or are allergic to it. 

Data coming out of Israel suggests that the more people get vaccinated, the faster the drop in new COVID-19 cases. But just because you get vaccinated, it doesn’t mean all COVID-19 risks vanish. “Some people who are vaccinated can still get infected, but generally have milder illness,” Hoption Cann said. 

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Conversely, if you’re the only unvaccinated person in a room, your safety isn’t guaranteed, either. “Once vaccinated, you can still pick up the virus and potentially spread it, but it is likely you would be infectious for a shorter period of time after being vaccinated as your body would eliminate it much faster,” Hoption Cann said.

For now, Hoption Cann recommends vigilance. “It’s safer to stay put and just to get takeout as there have been some vaccinations, but the greater population hasn't been vaccinated yet.” And until the entire world is vaccinated, which is expected to happen in 2023 or 2024, everyone has to worry about the rise of vaccine-resistant COVID-19 variants. 

What will a return to normal be like?

History shows it might take some time for many of us to ease back into life as it once was.

Dr. Richard Amaral, a registered psychologist in Ontario who specializes in trauma, said there are a lot of people struggling to adapt to all the changes brought in by COVID-19. Many of them might have “adjustment disorders,” Amaral said, a collection of disorders that can afflict people after they experience a significant event, like losing a job or a loved one.

“In my opinion, there are a lot of people with adjustment disorders walking around. A lot of people who are struggling to adjust to a life during the pandemic—no social contact with friends or family, not being able to do activities in an enclosed space,” Amaral said, adding some people with adjustment disorders often feel anxious or depressed, while others could experience sleep deprivation or simply worry more.

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After more than a year of living in a “new normal,” we’ve had to shift the way we act in our daily lives—wearing masks, moving all social contact outdoors, for example. The result is that many of us will need time to feel safe and comfortable restarting activities that we once took for granted—like eating out in a busy restaurant. 

After the 2003 SARS epidemic, businesses in Toronto reopened quickly, but people were still afraid of catching the illness and many opted not to go out. "So many restaurants suffered because of that," Rodney Nelson, a business professor with Carleton University, told VICE World News previously. He said that businesses will likely see the effects of COVID-19 for years to come. 

9/11 also ushered in massive changes to the way people travel, and it took a few years for people to instinctively take off their shoes when moving through security or to avoid liquids in their carry-on luggage, Amaral said.

According to Amaral, it could take up to six months for some people to transition back to normal life after living through the pandemic. But there are ways to overcome nerves, anxiety, or discomfort by slowly adjusting what Amaral referred to as our “tolerance of uncertainty.”

“We progressively increase and expand comfort levels,” Amaral said. “If it’s a fear of going to a restaurant with 40 people, I can go to a cafe with 10 people; if I’m afraid of going to see Pearl Jam at the arena, maybe I go listen to an acoustic guitar performance in a small cafe; If I don't want to shake everyone’s hand I meet, I first start to hug the people I trust.”

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Some behaviours might linger, too. Face masks, for example, even if no longer mandatory in cities where they are currently, could stick around as a way to prevent spreading disease in the future. SARS outbreaks partly led to the consistent mask use in places like China, Taiwan, and South Korea that we see today.

The pandemic was worse for many people—does that matter?

It’s also possible that the people who experienced the worst outcomes of the pandemic and had to make the most sacrifices—the elderly, racialized people, immunocompromised people—may need more time to ease back into normal. In Toronto, Black and brown people made up a staggering 83 percent of all reported positive COVID-19 cases.

“It's a fact that people of colour have suffered the most, statistically,” Amaral said. “If you’re a person of colour who is gainfully employed, and have a supportive family, and are generally physically and mentally healthy, and you have good protective factors, you will adapt. Those who were directly affected by COVID—they’ve experienced death, and saw a loved one in hospital and couldn't grieve—they’ll be much more apprehensive to return to normal life.”

Part of the reason, Amaral said, could be the delayed grief many people will need to process when the pandemic is over. “Once some of the grieving is healed, then, I think, there will be readiness to return to normal life.”

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In the meantime, patio season is finally upon those of us in the northern hemisphere. So, while we all wait patiently for normalcy, there are ways to have fun and socialize—outdoors, socially distanced, and, in my case, with a cold beer in hand. 

What about states that didn’t have restrictions in the first place?

While provinces such as Ontario and British Columbia swiftly shut down the economy last year, and have consistently underscored the severity of the virus, U.S. states like Florida and Texas have downplayed the risks, even opting to keep businesses open and public health measures to a minimum. The way leaders have responded to the virus likely influenced how scared people have been during the pandemic—and how reckless.

“If people don’t believe they’re at any personal risk they are much more likely to engage in risky behaviour,” Hoption Cann said.

Amaral pointed to the COVID infection rate in Florida, where 9,364 people out of every 100,000 contracted the virus, versus the rate in Ontario, where about 2,224 people out of every 100,000 have tested positive.  

“The disparity in statistics is a reflection of what happens when one’s perceptions is highly dissonant with reality (Floridians), as compared to those who have a more accurate perception of reality (Ontarians),” Amaral said. That means, it’s possible Ontarians could be more likely to suffer from adjustment disorders than their Floridian counterparts, who are less stressed out about COVID-19. 

 “But the consequence of having a perception that is very inconsistent or dissonant from reality is that you risk putting yourself in greater danger than the individual who has a more accurate perception of reality, but feels more stressed,” Amaral said. 

The upside is that there are many people who won’t struggle with adjustment disorders—including those who have been more stressed.

“Maybe two-thirds of the population...will reintegrate more quickly than others,” Amaral said. “For those on the outside—marginalized groups—it might take them a bit longer, but eventually, everyone will get into that normal.”

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