The Covid-19 pandemic has brought incalculable suffering and trauma. But it also offers ways for people—and even societies—to change for the better.
Existential crises can bloom out of the loss of a job or family member, or a shaking of your religious faith, or even a bad drug trip. Basically, you start to wonder: Who am I? What is my purpose? What’s the meaning of life? It’s a bewildering journey limited to the individual—or at least it was, until the Covid-19 pandemic shook the existence of all humanity.
We’ve lost loved ones, jobs, and any sense of normalcy for nearly a year now, thanks to our surreal existence in lockdown. The virus has claimed the lives of 280,000 Americans. Some Covid-19 survivors are still dealing with brutal symptoms, months after they contracted the disease. We’ve been trapped at home, many of us struggling with loneliness. Marriages and families have been pushed to the breaking point and beyond. And now, with several vaccines on the horizon and the end of the pandemic in sight, we face an existential conundrum: Who will we be when this is all over?
“It has been frenetic, unsustainable, and exhausting for a long time,” says clinical research psychologist Adrienne Heinz of the Stanford University School of Medicine. “And when we are forced to slow down and rest, it’s really just this interesting time to get in touch with our priorities. What do we really care about? Why do we want to get up in the morning?”
The people who may have the toughest recovery are those living through pandemic-related trauma. As psychologists define it, trauma is the concern for your life, bodily harm, or your own welfare—or your concerns for someone close to you. This might include people who have lost a loved one or who have survived a particularly severe case of Covid-19. “A very typical response to that is to feel like your worldview has been completely ripped apart,” says University of North Carolina, Charlotte, social psychologist Amy Canevello. “The lens through which you see the world and make sense of the world gets broken.”
This can lead to uncontrollable ruminations on the traumatic event. Think of the classic symptoms experienced by combat vets with post-traumatic stress disorder: flashbacks and nightmares. Even constant thinking about an event can bring constant stress. But some survivors of trauma end up embarking on what Canevello and other psychologists call post-traumatic growth. That uncontrollable rumination evolves into a more deliberate thinking about the event, in which the patient puts the pieces of their worldview back together—not to forget the incident, but to incorporate it into a new way of seeing the world. “Which is why it’s called post-traumatic growth, right?” asks Canevello. “You’re not the same person you were before, because you’ve had to figure out a way to incorporate this really negative thing into your sense of who you are and how the world operates.”
In an ideal world, during and after the pandemic every American would have free access to the kind of mental health care that helps guide this journey into growth. But that just ain’t America. The pandemic has made glaring inequities in our society more glaring than ever. And that means some communities have faced more trauma than others, and will enter recovery with fewer resources.
When the pandemic first took hold, some of the rich decamped to second homes in the country, and even many members of the white-collar working class could simply work from home and order food and other necessities in. They could wait out the chaos in relative peace, while lower-income earners in cities were forced to work their essential jobs in person, putting them at higher risk of contracting Covid-19. Researchers could see this in anonymized smartphone data: 25 percent more high-income earners stayed home when the pandemic hit, compared to 10 percent more among low-income earners.
Then consider that 43 percent of essential workers are people of color, according to Chandra Farley, director of the Partnership for Southern Equity’s Just Energy program. “We sometimes automatically characterize people as vulnerable, without saying they are made to be more vulnerable to certain things because of systemic racism and historic inequities,” Farley told WIRED in August. A study published in July by researchers at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine found that in poorer US counties, those with substantial nonwhite populations had eight times the number of Covid infections than those with substantially white populations, and nine times the number of deaths. Which is all to say: Who you become during and after the pandemic depends on your systemic privileges.
Age is a factor too. The elderly are more susceptible to severe Covid-19, but they’re also more susceptible to isolation. And isolation has its own risks, both for physical and mental health. “I must say that my take is quite bleak,” says Elena Portacolone, a sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco. Older adults living alone may also be struggling with health conditions like diabetes, cancer, or dementia.
Those on fixed incomes may have already been scraping by before the pandemic, and are now saddled with extra costs. For example, the price of food has soared during the pandemic. Money may be so tight, Portacolone says, that some elderly Americans can barely afford to buy masks. “So the suffering coming from being stuck and having very little money has been exacerbated by the pandemic,” Portacolone says.
At the same time, one of the few upsides to the pandemic is that it has opened doors for the elderly and other people to get care. “There’s been a big shift in telehealth and digital mental health,” says Heinz. That’s because mental health workers like Heinz haven’t been able to see their patients in person, so they’re turning to video sessions. After the pandemic, she hopes that this trend becomes permanent. “Working to access resources and care through digital means is a shift that I hope just keeps on going,” Heinz adds.
Videoconferencing can also help alleviate loneliness. In June, entrepreneur Cat Lee cofounded a service called Pace. It’s kind of like Zoom, but for group therapy. A mental health professional acts as a facilitator for therapy groups, be they for struggling dads and moms, or for those going through a divorce or separation made all the more difficult during the pandemic without access to support networks. (Heinz operates as a facilitator for Pace.) “A common theme is people sort of struggling in isolation, feeling alone and wanting to feel connected,” says Lee. “And these groups give people a chance to practice empathy with one another and vulnerability.”
Pace is not meant to be a replacement for one-on-one therapy, but a complement to it. The idea is to provide a way for people to talk through their problems and find a community in the middle of a pandemic. “You’re going through similar life circumstances or similar struggles, and that breaks the ice and sort of starts the trust going, and meets their goal of deepening connection with others,” says Lee.
And as awful as the past year has been, perhaps the pandemic can elicit change within ourselves and within communities. Maybe you’ve picked up cooking or a new hobby or finally started that novel. Maybe you’ve been more diligent about keeping in touch with faraway friends and relatives. Maybe you’ve gotten to know your neighbors better. “There’s been so much doom and gloom, and trauma and adversity,” says Heinz. “And I think what we sometimes forget in the midst of it, when we’re in the weeds, is that we’re capable of a lot of growth when we go through hard things. And sometimes, we come out as better versions of ourselves, both as individuals and as communities.”
Perhaps, too, this brutal year can bring about systemic change. The pandemic has further exposed how the negligible social safety net in the US disproportionately punishes women. Saddled with additional unpaid labor in the home due to the closure of schools, in September 865,000 women left the workforce, four times the number of men. “It’s made me hope that this attention that the plight of parents, and women in particular, have received will ignite conversations and action towards providing more support for families with children,” says Heinz. “And that means childcare, prioritizing schools being open, versus other types of institutions and businesses, and supporting women so their careers don’t have to take the back seat.”
“We can do better,” Heinz adds. “And now we know through this natural experiment where the pain points are.”
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