Brave New World
Kaiser Health News reported recently that even once a COVID-19 vaccine has been deployed and there’s good uptake in the community, the lives of people age 60 and above likely will have been disrupted forever. Not that we’ll have to quarantine forever; just that we’ll live in a somewhat different “next normal,” rather than in the remembered normal whose return we’ve been awaiting.
Younger folks will live there too. That’ll be especially true for those who have some of the same complicating factors that are common among older people, e.g., a less-robust immune system, obesity, or chronic diseases such as heart or respiratory ailments. All of those can put people at greater risk of severe disease, no matter what their age. Some—like immuno-compromise and obesity—may also interfere with the immune response to the vaccine, making it less effective among these individuals.
So—what are people thinking the next normal will look like? Here are some of the predictions:
- Remote work will be commonplace, and people will make fewer business trips.
- Sports arenas and performing arts venues will remain shuttered—or host drastically reduced crowds—for a long time.
- Outdoor and small-group gatherings will supplant large, indoor get-togethers.
- Home delivery of almost all goods will replace in-person shopping.
- Telemedicine will replace in-person visits for perhaps one-third of all health care office visits.
- We’ll more likely travel locally or regionally, and less likely travel abroad. And if the trip is under 800 miles, we’ll more often drive than board a flight.
- We’ll choose more spacious surroundings on the flights we do take—e.g., flying business class, or purchasing the middle seat between ourselves and our travel companions.
- There will be lots of “safety theater” to watch, in the form of hotels assuring us there are doctors on-site or at least on-call, and hotel staff engaging in conspicuous disinfection routines. Cruise lines will feature similar “shows.”
- Public restrooms will undergo major transformations, making everything from the entry door to the sink touchless. (What’s not to love about that?!)
- We may stick to small, local eateries because the owners are known/trusted individuals. Safety will be featured there, too, with prominently displayed inspection certificates, and highly visible staff constantly cleaning and disinfecting surfaces.
- Families may become—literally—closer, moving to live near or even with one another. Some folks in assisted living facilities may move out to live, instead, with family.
Some of these changes sound pretty appealing—I mean, who doesn’t want to have all one’s needs delivered to the front door? Or get comfy during that flight? And others sound tolerable—though it may be hard to give up entirely that trip to Europe we thought we were just postponing and look around instead for a nearby destination.
But there’s another anticipated impact that is distinctly unappealing: Some fear that by the time the next normal arrives, we will have become habituated to isolating and will continue to pull back from engaging in society. We may be tempted to continue our new, cloistered lives, believing we’ve found relative safety at home. That sense of safety could be a hard thing to give up.
But it will come at a cost: disengagement may also lead to depression, as we continue to isolate from family get-togethers or avoid social gatherings. And depression—like COVID-19—can be lethal.
So—what to do?
- Get vaccinated, once a safe, effective vaccine is available.
- Begin to take small steps toward re-engagement, choosing companions who also have been vaccinated. Try a low-risk activity, such as walking outdoors with one friend. Or eating take-out on another friend’s patio or screened porch with just a few physically-distanced people.
- Continue to exercise the precautions we’ve adopted during pre-vaccine times: wash our hands often; don’t touch our faces; wear a face mask— especially in indoor spaces.
- Devise ways to negotiate moderately risky situations where we can’t know if everyone has been vaccinated. Grocery shop at odd hours; attend an outdoor (v. indoor) church service. Ramp up the precautions and re-engage with the pre-pandemic things we miss the most.
There will be risks in our post-vaccine next normal. But there were risks in the pre-pandemic normal, too. We must find ways to mitigate those risks and once again leave our homes. A life spent sheltering in one’s living room is not a great deal less confining than one spent lurking in the closet.