Even without restrictions, many don't want to go back to normal
There exists no clear scientific endpoint for the Covid-19 pandemic. As early as March 2020 it was apparent that the SARS-CoV-2 virus would never be eliminated, and would circulate indefinitely around the globe. Any end to the pandemic would, therefore, be a societal and a political decision — the choice to no longer regard Covid as an absolute priority — to instead allow it to fade into the background along with other viruses and pathogens. In turn, we could permit life to continue once again, unrestricted and unabated.
Eighteen months ago, reaching this stage seemed an impossible feat. However, a mixture of vaccinations, immunity, antivirals and medical advances have now brought us to a point that many have feared was forever out of reach. Countries across the world have started to announce the end of Covid regulations: from England’s decision to drop Plan B, to Sweden and Denmark’s to lift all Covid restrictions, and New Zealand’s announcement that it was re-opening its borders.
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But while some have responded to these announcements with joy, spare a thought for the Covid Never-Enders: those who feel far more conflicted about the end of the pandemic. In a survey of Danish residents, 80% said that despite restrictions being lifted, they would still continue to distance themselves from other people. Only 9% stated that they would not take the pandemic into account at all. This is a worrying sign of just how embedded the pandemic is in our collective psyche now, even as we are coming out of it.
What’s more, there is still considerable anxiety and fear among the vulnerable and immuno-supressed about moving on. Covid has not disappeared and for these people, a potential threat will always remain. As one shielder told The Guardian this week, “I worry that as people move on with their lives, they’ll forget I still want to be included”. How we move on without excluding these groups will be a crucial part of our recovery as a society.
Who can blame them? Following SPI-B’s concern in March 2020 that “a substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened” possibly due to being “reassured by the low death rate in their demographic group”, there was a subsequent recommendation that “the perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent”. In response, the government and media embarked upon a campaign of fear which targeted all. Such messaging left many with a heightened sense of anxiety over Covid, even after vaccines. It will take time for these people to feel comfortable with a return to normal life.
We need to acknowledge that everyone suffered as a result of not just the pandemic but the restrictions that came with it. That it has taken months — even years — to tolerate debate over the actual benefits and harms of restrictions is illustrative of the current climate of fear. Previously, the pandemic had been viewed as a pseudo war, with any questioning of policy being seen as undermining the collective response. This attitude resulted in the costs of lockdowns going unacknowledged, and the grief of those affected being disenfranchised. Those that have suffered and lost, may also not see the end of restrictions as a triumphant return to normal. Instead it may act as a bittersweet reminder of all they have silently endured.
Perhaps we can learn from our previous refusal to acknowledge this trauma. Maybe, unlike the pandemic itself, the recovery can instead be accompanied by an acceptance of our differing experiences, and an understanding that not everyone will find the same amount of joy in the prospect of a return to a pre-pandemic life. Even as it comes to an end, we cannot blame those who are simply not ready to let it go.