During the past few weeks, USF’s campus seems to have undergone a gradual shift in attitude as COVID-19 restrictions were lifted in the city and state. We are inching closer to the “normal” that existed before the pandemic began two years ago, and students are understandably eager to move on. Our staff discussed the implications of emerging from the pandemic without reflecting on the long-term effects of the stress it has caused us.
At this point in the semester, we feel comfortable walking outside without a mask, as well as in indoor spaces where there is room to distance ourselves from others. We’ve come to cherish things like going to a restaurant or bar with friends and meeting new people. Based on recent campus events like Day of the Dons, it seems like many students are in the same boat.
However, we don’t think that we can ever collectively return to the “old normal.” Some, as in the young, healthy, and privileged, can somewhat resume their old ways of life. But for those who lost loved ones, who are suffering from the long term effects of the virus, who have been displaced from their jobs, homes, and former stability, there is no returning to the “old normal;” they have been forced to adapt to the circumstances they find themselves in now.
What COVID-19 further highlighted was the social and economic disparities in our country, and across the world. In the U.S., it feels as though everything has gone downhill since the beginning of the pandemic. We were already inching toward a dystopia, but it feels as though the pandemic turned those inches into miles. We were disconnected from our neighbors, and perhaps a little too connected to the internet, where misinformation and propaganda have had a field day across multiple platforms.
Our mental health, along with that of students across the country, took a big hit due to remote learning and working, distance from friends and family, and witnessing the state of the world — people promoting unhealthy, conspiracy-based practices, the social disruption, and political and police corruption, among others.
The COVID-19 pandemic classifies as a mass trauma event because it affected populations across the globe. Whether or not people contracted any of the variants of the virus, the fear of contracting a deadly virus permeated everyday life. According to the BBC, this form of stress is called “interoceptive fear” and occurs when our body misinterprets normal processes as threatening and the source of stress is not in our external environment.
The BBC also asserts that unaddressed mass trauma can permanently decrease political participation across populations, as was the case in China. The sense of chaos and fear triggered by mass trauma events like the pandemic can create a “collective yearning for strong leaders, accelerating authoritarianism and fomenting the conditions for rash, seemingly decisive policy responses.”
While we were not personally affected by many of the challenges the pandemic presented, such as losing a loved one or being burdened by high medical bills, we do not want to forget the past two years. If we don’t process all of this trauma, and if we don’t act on the disparities that the pandemic helped bring to light, we will be unable to progress as a society.
We cannot ignore the last two years and everything that we went through, and everything we learned about those in power and how they handle these situations. Some people have had to process the effects of the pandemic more than others, and our staff has been fortunate enough to not have experienced the worst of it. But it does feel strange for some of us to witness people around us embracing a way of life so different from what we’ve experienced for the last couple of years.
We can begin moving forward by engaging in community conversations, supporting advocacy to remediate the effects of the pandemic, and working toward a better future by acting on the injustice the pandemic highlighted. We are in a “new normal,” even if it feels like we’re returning to old ways of life. If we don’t work to improve our “next normal,” we will continue to repeat the harmful patterns of the past.