There Won’t Be a Clear End to the Pandemic

The collective sense of closure we’re all longing for may never arrive. Instead, brace for a slow fade into a new normal.

(Gueorgui Pinkhassov / Magnum)

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 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.”

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.”

This sort of uncertainty probably will, in a way, manifest society-wide during the pandemic’s final stages, as a politically polarized nation bickers about whether it’s really over or not. “It’ll be just as much of a mess as everything else that’s happened so far,” Marcus, the Harvard epidemiologist, said.

This dispute won’t exactly be new: The country has been having a debate about whether the pandemic is over practically since it started. In late March, President Donald Trump said he’d “love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” and in mid-June, Vice President Mike Pence wrote an op-ed asserting that “panic” about a second wave of infections was “overblown.” (Since the piece was published, some 75,000 Americans are estimated to have died from COVID-19.)

When the pandemic is actually petering out, public-health experts may have even more trouble conveying the precautions people should take when going about their day. “The particular challenge of a lack of a concrete end is that there is … a much more complicated calculus of what people should be doing in their behavior,” Rachael Piltch-Loeb, a fellow at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, told me. In “a complicated, gray landscape,” she said, “there is more room for debate, error, and nuance in who should do what and when to protect themselves, their families, and their community.”

Perhaps people will get final confirmation that the pandemic is over not from the potentially conflicting messages of politicians and public-health experts, but from milestones that they have subjectively settled on themselves. For instance, Cade told me that getting a tattoo will mean that the pandemic is over for her. Acharya says his own subjective ending to the pandemic will come when he and his wife feel it’s safe to finally have a bunch of friends over for a housewarming party, complete with food and drink.

This suggests a different definition of the end of the pandemic, one based not on case counts or governors’ directives but on people’s individual experiences. Under this definition, the pandemic ends in one person’s head at a time. And as Marcus noted, “the pandemic has already ended for some people: There are people who feel that this was never a thing. There are people who decided it’s no longer a thing.” More of these premature mental endings—and more accurate endings later on—will arrive, but not all at once. Cade will get her tattoo at a different time than when Acharya sends out the invitations to his housewarming party and when Pierson follows a crawfish boil with a quinceañera.

When these personal endings come, they will be cathartic and triumphant, but their individualized nature might deny us a collective sense of closure. There will be no clear moment when we can all move on.