As a matter of epidemiology, there’s no clear-cut criterion that determines a pandemic to be over. “You can’t sign a treaty with a virus, so we have to settle for a kind of cease-fire,” says Stephen Morse, an epidemiologist at Columbia University. One intuitive end point is full-on eradication—meaning that the coronavirus no longer circulates in humans or animals—but that outcome is quite unlikely, in part because of how easily the virus could continue to reach still-susceptible groups of people anywhere on Earth even well into the future.
At any rate, a metric like that does not translate to straightforward guidance on when it’s safe for people to do certain things again. It will not, for instance, tell Maya Cade, a 26-year-old screenwriter and social-media manager in Brooklyn, when she should get her post-pandemic tattoo. Cade told me she spent some of her pandemic alone time reflecting on how she presents herself to others and on “the respectability politics I was knowingly and unknowingly internalizing as a means of survival as a Black woman.” Although this held her back from getting a tattoo before, now she’s resolved to get one as soon as it’s safe, though she doesn’t know when that will be—maybe 2022, she guesses.
Others I spoke with had similarly firm plans with similarly foggy timelines. Kelby Pierson, a 42-year-old who works in fraud prevention at a bank in Houston, told me he misses being able to bask in the variety of his city. “In Houston, you can go to a crawfish boil, and on the same weekend, you can go to somebody’s quinceañera,” he said. He’ll be at gatherings like these again as soon as he’s able to, but suspects that’ll be at least a year from now.
He and Cade said they wouldn’t be comfortable going through with their plans until a safe vaccine had been developed and distributed. They and many others think of an effective vaccine as a key that unlocks the post-pandemic future. It would indeed provide some relief, but as my colleague Sarah Zhang has written, “it certainly will not immediately return life to normal”; the availability of a vaccine would represent merely “the beginning of a long, slow ramp down.”
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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.