A year ago, we were a country frozen in time. Empty planes flew across the sky, life took place on Zoom. We cleaned our groceries, left deliveries outside for days, and debated whether going to the store was really worth the risk. But what a difference a year makes! We are a country in which more than half of Americans are fully vaccinated, and air travel is almost back to pre-pandemic levels. Like it or not, life is getting back to normal. And largely, we don’t like it.
Of course, we will never be “normal” again. The scars of a pandemic will be indelible, will shape us in ways we can’t even begin to guess. The worldwide death of millions will linger in our collective consciousness forever. My grandfather, who died in the 1990s, never got over the flu pandemic of 1918. He developed small habits shaped by his fears. He never took the bus. He walked to work every day. He took handfuls of vitamins. He never got over the miracle of surviving the thing that killed so many of his siblings, his friends, his peers.
We are a country of mourners now; more than 596,000 Americans have died of coronavirus. According to an AP/NORC poll, one fifth of all Americans have lost someone they know to COVID. We aren’t the people we were in January of 2020 and we never will be. And we Americans are the lucky ones: COVID still rages across most of the world. Countries like Colombia and Argentina are seeing their worst death rates so far.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, our new normal is upon us now. Employers want us back in the office, and people want to travel. They want to go back to the rituals of normal American life—weddings, funerals, birthday parties, graduation celebrations. Various media outlets have predicted a roaring 2020s.
But the problem with “getting back to normal” seems to be two-fold. One problem is that some people don’t want to go back to normal. As Anders Melin and Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou noted in Bloomberg, “A May survey of 1,000 U.S. adults showed that 39% would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work.” Working from home has created a culture of families that eat lunch together, of pets that enjoy midday strolls, of life that is just a little bit calmer. My husband, who used to spend one week a month in California for work, no longer makes his regular cross-country trips. As Sigal Samuel writes for Vox, “The pandemic has proven that remote work is totally feasible for many jobs, validating people’s suspicions that our standard model of office work is arbitrary, unnecessarily taxing, and ultimately exploitative, sometimes forcing people to choose between their well-being and their career.” Why go back to the elements of normal life which were, in themselves, completely pointless?
And then there’s the question of people still being cautious—especially those who worked on the front lines, and not just in medical fields. A study from the University of California found the highest mortality among “cooks, line workers in warehouses, agricultural workers, bakers, and construction laborers.” The Brookings Institution points out that, “low-income and minority populations face a higher risk of dying from COVID-19 due to structural conditions, health inequities, and a higher prevalence of preexisting health conditions such as heart disease, asthma, and diabetes.” Now we’re wondering why these people aren’t more enthusiastic about going back to the same jobs that nearly killed them?
And the other problem, it seems, is that people seem to have shifted the concept of what “normal” even is. Take air travel: Before the pandemic people used to submit themselves to what we assumed were the standard indignities of flying: delays, crowds, an extra dollar for a drop of water or a place to stash your bag. But unless you found yourself on the last flight out of Miami on a Sunday evening, unruly passengers weren’t the problem they now seem to be. The president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, Sara Nelson, recently told CNBC that she and her colleagues were facing “an environment that we just haven’t seen before, and we can’t wait for it to be over.” Passenger behavior, she said, has become “complete nuts.” After a video of a Southwest Airlines attendant having her teeth knocked out by an unruly passenger, both American Airlines and Southwest Airlines have stopped serving alcohol in their main cabins for now. The Federal Aviation Administration said it has received approximately 2,500 reports of unruly passenger behavior this year; nearly three-quarters of them have to do with a failure to comply with the federal mask mandate.
This week, the data company Morning Consult released a poll that said three in five Democrats felt comfortable returning to normal. That’s the highest it’s been during the pandemic, but it’s still not five out of five, or even four. How do you tell people to go back to normal when you aren’t 100% sure about the very thing that is going to allow you to resume regular life? The mRNA vaccines are new, and so far they have amazing efficacy (95%), but we’re learning as we go. We don’t know exactly the rate for breakthrough infections; the New England Journal of Medicine thinks it low, but it’s not zero. So far the vaccines work on the variants, but every mutation is a roll of the dice. After more than 15 months of telling people to err on the side of caution, public health officials now need to figure out how to tell those very same people a different message: how to balance lingering caution with a limited but highly optimistic data set.
Look, we’re all freaked out. We’re scared. We’ve been through the kind of thing that happens in movies, in hour-long TV dramas, in books. Since I’ve been vaccinated, I have been on airplanes and to dinners and to birthday parties, and it’s been weird and strange and abnormal. Sometimes I look at the person I’m talking with and all I can think about is how uncomfortable I feel. Sometimes I fantasize about just getting up and walking out of the restaurant. Sometimes I wonder what the point of these social interactions even are. Coming back after a year-plus of not socializing, of not participating in the acts of everyday life, has been jarring and somewhat upsetting. And I say all this as someone who had a pretty easy time in lockdown. I can only imagine how hard and complicated and guilt-inducing this is for people who have lost parents or siblings or co-workers. No one said coming back to normal would be easy, and in fact it’s not. Most of us can’t just flip a switch on our feelings, especially when they are connected to trauma, and what we went through this past year—what much of the world is still experiencing—is trauma on a life-altering level.
Originally Appeared on Vogue