COVID-19 Won’t Change Us Forever

Let’s give ourselves some credit.

Rebecca Norris Webb / Magnum

Soon after COVID-19 struck the United States, prognosticators began sharing a dreary vision of America’s post-pandemic future. Workers will trade mass transit for their cars and abandon cities for “the hinterlands,” proclaimed a contributor to The Washington Post. Sports fans will swap stadiums for man-cave bunkers and music lovers will watch concerts on their screens, predicted a writer for ZDNet. “Coronavirus Could Make Us Wary of Hugs,” a CNET headline warned, and might “change friendship forever,” The Wall Street Journal pronounced. In June, news stories suggested that the pandemic will “forever” change livestock shows, life insurance, banking, the cannabis industry, the beauty industry, college dorms, the NBA, and golf carts. A writer for the Athens Voice in Greece declared that the hunger for safety will destroy individuality. “We will have lost our human character and the characteristics of humanity,” he wrote. “We will live like amoeba.”

Amoeba? Really? I have to say that I find these unending “how coronavirus will change us forever” stories insulting. The assumption is that fear will guide our post-coronavirus lives, not for a few years, but forever. The scaredy-pants prophesying in these stories underestimates humanity’s historic toughness—our plague-defying, atrocity-surviving, don’t-mess-with-me grit. Humanity has endured fires, droughts, civil wars, world wars, earthquakes, terrorism, famines, floods, killer bees, Honey Boo Boo, and near nuclear annihilation. We may be greedy, shortsighted, and violent, but we’re resilient little creatures too. So the idea that we’re destined for a hug-free, homebound future seems, well, offensive.

Let’s give ourselves some credit. No matter how horrific the disaster, no matter how damaged our psyches, we wounded humans always bounce back. We rebuilt San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. We rebuilt Chicago after the great fire. We rebuilt Dresden, Warsaw, Hiroshima, Nagasaki. We grieve, adapt, endure, progress. And frequently we thrive. The Black Death was followed by the Renaissance. The 1918 pandemic was followed by the Roaring Twenties. So why are we destined to become the United States of Agoraphobia, hiding from friends and disinfecting our Amazon packages for years to come?

“Trauma like this pervades our subconscious for generations,” an Ad Age writer opined, but Americans are adept at shrugging off societal stress and re-embracing normalcy. In an online chat, Thomas Boswell, a baseball authority and columnist for The Washington Post, noted that in 1919, the year after the flu pandemic killed roughly 675,000 Americans (and 50 million people worldwide), Major League Baseball set an attendance record.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a Washington Nationals fan, and while I’d love to watch Max Scherzer and drink an overpriced beer at Nats Park, there’s no way I’d attend a game this year, even if the stadium reopened. I don’t make that decision out of fear. It’s just common sense. We’re only in the second inning of the pandemic, as multiple health experts have stated—and autumn could be worse. But does that mean I’ll avoid the ballpark forever? Will most face-painted fans hide in their homes, particularly if there’s a vaccine? Not likely.

Clearly people are suffering—mentally, physically, economically. In a May survey conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Harvard Medical School, 55 percent of Americans said they were more stressed than they were before the pandemic. But while our fears can be intense, they’re not necessarily world-changing. As Ruchir Sharma, the chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley, wrote in The New York Times, crises rarely change anything. They simply accelerate existing trends. Predicting our long-term future now, when we’re still in the early phases of COVID-19, is like predicting the postwar world three weeks after Pearl Harbor (or, to use the baseball analogy again, like predicting the outcome of a season on opening day). And let’s not forget: Prognostications are an irresistible exercise for many journalists, futurists, and intellectuals, but they’re usually wrong. Remember when the Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and others predicted “the death of irony” after 9/11?

The September 11 attacks were supposed to change everything about daily life. Our airport experiences were certainly transformed, as we all know from walking beltless and shoeless through security lines, but within three years of 9/11, the airline industry set a record high for passengers, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. While we collectively work to prevent similar tragedies from happening again, we also discover that our desire to explore the world is stronger than our fear.

Trauma can even be transformative. Most people are familiar with post-traumatic stress, but the more common reaction is post-traumatic growth (PTG), when people thrive after enduring a negative life-changing event, according to Thalida Arpawong, a faculty member in the Resilience Lab at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. In one study, more than half of trauma survivors said they felt stronger after their experience and had gained a new appreciation for life. In another, survivors of traumatic injuries (primarily from car accidents) viewed their struggles as “a springboard for growth.” PTG can spur people to reconsider priorities, improve relationships, and take bold actions, such as traveling abroad or changing careers. After disasters such as the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri, and the 2017 fires in Paradise, California, some survivors found that their pain provided new perspective on what’s important.

A desire for growth—not the lingering effects of fear—may ultimately fuel our national and personal recovery. COVID-19 has provided an agonizing reminder: Life is precious. Life is short. A long human life lasts only about 650,000 hours, Bill Bryson wrote in A Short History of Nearly Everything. How will we use our time? Before the pandemic, Americans spent roughly three hours and 30 minutes a day on their phone, 90,000 hours of their life at work, and an average of 54 hours a year in traffic (103 hours a year if you live in the Bay Area). But traumatic events are often a personal wake-up call, Arpawong told me. We will likely emerge from the pandemic craving richer, deeper lives, not more screen time or seclusion. To adapt the words of the great American philosopher Ferris Bueller, life moves pretty fast. If we don’t put on a mask and look around, we might miss something.