Claudia Finkelstein, Michigan State University

It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for … or is it?
We were cautiously optimistic about the end of the pandemic given the increasing availability of vaccines and falling case numbers after the peak in January.

Then, whether due to variants, pandemic fatigue, or both, cases and case positivity rose again – questioning whether the end was as near as we thought. This is just one of the most recent of the many reversals.

I am a doctor and associate professor of medicine in the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University. In my role as Director of Wellness, Resilience, and Vulnerable Populations, I speak to staff and faculty members who may need to listen or have problems.

In the midst of the happiness and relief people feel, I also see confusion and some fear. Some people are cautious about going out again, others are eager to throw a party. Some have learned that they like to be alone and don’t want to stop nesting. I think this is all normal from a year old, which I call the zigzag pandemic.

Change after change

Awareness of the novel coronavirus rose for most of us between January – when the first cases were reported in China – and March 11, 2020, when the World Health Organization officially declared a pandemic. Since the declaration, daily uncertainty and conflicting information have become the norm.

First, no masks were needed. Then you had to wear a mask. Hydroxychloroquine looked promising and received emergency clearance, but that was revoked pretty quickly and officials said there was not only no benefit, but potential harm.

We were temporarily afraid of food, packaging and surfaces. Then data surfaced that surfaces weren’t as dangerous as previously thought.

In the absence of a coordinated national policy, states began to defend themselves and develop their own policies regarding shutdowns and masks.
Even now, there are state-to-state differences in what companies can be open and in what capacity and whether masks are required or not proposed.

Both inevitable and avoidable factors played a role in the back and forth. Part of the whiplash trauma is due to the “novel” part of the novel coronavirus or SARS-CoV-2. This virus is new and many of its characteristics are unknown. As a result, policy changes will be required as more becomes known.

Part of the zigzag is due to the nature of the clinical trials and the way scientific knowledge is generated. Learning a new pathogen takes time and a willingness to question initial assumptions. Part of it is due to the lack of a reliable source of information that can be trusted to act in our collective interest and unwillingness to do so.

Given the reversals behind us and the uncertainty ahead, we need to examine both the individual and societal responses that will arise in the future.

Different experiences

There is no question that our whole life has changed. However, the way in which they have changed is very different. The variation depends initially on our jobs – think of the differences between grocery stores, technicians, and healthcare workers – our living situations, our underlying physical and mental health, our financial situation, and our personalities.

For example, some introverts have been fortunate enough to work remotely in comfortable clothing with broadband internet and not raise children, while their extroverts craved more social connection. Your co-workers with young children and jobs that couldn’t be done remotely got confused. Many have hit the wall and find themselves driving and unmotivated, while others have apparently successfully carried out projects that have been postponed for a long time.

Almost everyone is affected in some way. An up-to-date systematic review
concluded that the pandemic is associated with high levels of psychological distress, especially in certain higher-risk groups.

What can help us as individuals?

What we can do for ourselves

First, we can make a fearless assessment of our present reality – the present state. Sometimes it can help us make an actual list of our needs and assets in order to prioritize next steps. Steps can be visiting a community health center, a virtual therapist, a job fair, or even something as simple as carrying a printable wallet card with tips on how to reduce stress.

What might work for you might not work for your spouse, partner, or best friend. We must do all that is known to build resilience within ourselves and our family members.

This includes making human connections, moving our bodies, and learning to regulate our emotions. Looking back at how we dealt with previous difficulties can help us. Mental health problems have become more common and evidence is still being gathered of the general mental health impact of the pandemic.

Public awareness of these issues has been increased and telehealth has made it easier for some people seeking help. Our society – both individuals and institutions – must continue to work to ensure that people receive psychiatric care without worrying about stigma.

Deciding which of your normal activities to resume and which to let go can help prepare for the future. Also, keep in mind which new activities you want to stick with. These lists might include attending family or sporting events, traveling, going to the gym, or live church services. You can choose to continue cooking at home or working from home if the choice is yours. Of course, all of these decisions should be made in accordance with CDC guidelines.

And then there are things that we may not want to do. This can include behaviors that we learned about during the pandemic that do not make us feel good or serve us well. This can include watching too much news, drinking too much alcohol, and not getting enough sleep. And yes, maybe there are some relationships that need to be changed or reworked.

Then we have to think about what we can do on a level greater than the individual.

Social and state changes

For many people, there is no point in dealing with individual resilience without dealing with what feels like a manipulated system.

The pandemic occurred at a particularly politically polarized time and at a particularly unprepared time. This was unfortunate as fighting a common adversary – like polio or a world war – can unite a population.

In contrast, the coronavirus has been subject to several conflicting interpretations and even doubted its severity. Instead of rallying together against the virus, our adherence to mandates became a substitute for our political convictions.

After highlighting long-standing inequalities in terms of differences in infection, hospital and death rates by race, political and public health officials can begin a careful analysis of the gaps in health care by race.

Examining how to effectively address long-standing inequalities is crucial, as is preparing for the next pandemic. A coordinated, impartial, science-based health infrastructure prepared to implement emergency response procedures quickly, as well as consistent, clear messaging would be critical. However, without a population willing to consider the collective good before individual freedom, we run the risk of repeating history.

The conversation

Claudia Finkelstein, Associate Professor of Medicine at Michigan State University

This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.