How the Pandemic Has Changed Us Already


By Joe Pinsker

During the past five months, many prognosticators have prognosticated about how the coronavirus pandemic will transform politics, work, travel, education, and other domains. Less sweepingly, but just as powerfully, it will also transform the people who are living through it, rearranging the furniture of their inner life. When this is all over—and perhaps even long after that—how will we be different?

For one thing, we’ll better understand the importance of washing our hands. When I interviewed roughly 20 people from across the country about their pandemic-era habits, most of them planned to keep aspects of their new hygiene regimen long into the future, even after the threat of the coronavirus passes. “I will more regularly wash my hands throughout my life and I will never be anywhere without hand sanitizer and a mask,” Leah Burbach, a 27-year-old high-school teacher in Omaha, Nebraska, told me.

Those I interviewed said they imagine they’ll continue to be conscientious about how viruses spread and what they can do to protect themselves and others. “I think I’ll wear a mask if I’ve got a cold, now that I understand it’s most effective in keeping me from spreading germs,” said Josh Jackson, a 48-year-old in Decatur, Georgia.

Others foresaw themselves avoiding many activities that are currently risky, possibly for the rest of their life. “I’ve heard wonderful things about Alaskan cruises and had always hoped to go on one someday. No more,” said Jaclyn Reiswig, a 39-year-old homemaker in Aurora, Colorado. “Packing so many strangers together just gives me the germ creeps now.” Also on the list of destinations that made people wary were gyms, indoor concerts, public pools, and restaurant buffets.

Though people may feel as if their habits have been changed forever, these careful behaviors may not persist once they’re less urgently necessary. Katy Milkman, a behavioral scientist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, told me that habits are more likely to stick if they are accompanied by “repeated rewards.” If the threat of the virus is neutralized, she said, “the reward for scrubbing your hands won’t endure, and I think the average person will go back to a simpler routine.”

The pandemic “looms large right now because it’s our everything,” Milkman said. “Certainly there will be some stickiness [in people’s behaviors], and no one’s ever going to forget going through this, but I think people are overestimating the degree to which their future actions will be shaped by the current circumstances.”

But even if our behaviors do fade, perhaps our mental landscapes will remain changed. Some people I reached out to said that the pandemic had infiltrated their dreams, possibly lastingly. “These days I have ordinary dream problems, only they happen in an environment where doing ordinary things will kill me,” said Jane Brooks, who’s 54 and works at a software company in Seattle. “I touch a dream hand railing and know the clock is now ticking on my death.” She fears that these scenarios will populate her dreams even after the pandemic is over: Growing up during the Cold War in a small town in Alabama, she was haunted by nightmares that blended apocalypses both nuclear and Christian. The dreams started when she was about 5 and didn’t recede until well into adulthood.

The pandemic may also alter the way we think about social interactions. Alyssa, a 17-year-old high-school senior in northern Indiana, said that it “was a rather extreme wake-up call to the fact … that the things you hold on to dearly can be taken away nearly instantly.” She expects that this lesson will give her heightened FOMO—fear of missing out—and make her more likely to say yes to social invitations well into the future. (I’ve identified her by only her first name to protect her privacy.)

The flip side of this renewed appetite for socializing is that more than one person told me that they expect to be less trusting of strangers. “I’m generally more fearful of people,” Burbach said. “Men on the street have demanded that I take my mask off. People get too close to me.”


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