One day, the coronavirus will no longer be a pandemic. What will life after the pandemic look like, though?
The effects of it will likely be with us for years, says UCI Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing Professor Alison Holman, PhD, who studies the health effects of collective traumas like terrorism and disasters, and the role of media in spreading stress that may affect public health.
“I anticipate that 2021 will be another challenging year for all of us in terms of health, for many reasons,” she says.
The uneven impact of the pandemic
COVID-19 has not affected everyone equally, owing much to health disparities in the United States that leave some vulnerable to more serious forms of the disease.
“Not only have people lost their lives, some people have lost loved ones. Some people have survived COVID, but have very serious, debilitating conditions because of it.”
Those individuals will have to rework their entire lives, Holman says. Many who live with the aftereffects of COVID are often fatigued, and unable to breathe or talk normally.
People who never got COVID will also experience difficulties. The pandemic touched every single American in some way, and it created an immense amount of stress, she says.
“I expect to see more stress-related illnesses like cardiovascular issues and high blood pressure over time,” Holman says, noting that these can occur in the years after the pandemic.
“Will people go and get them diagnosed? There may be people who choose not to see a doctor and wind up not getting treatment.”
Rising stress in America
Her research focuses on the impact of stressful events by surveying a nationally representative sample of Americans about their heart ailments before an event — in this case, a lockdown — then again months or even years later.
Stress in Americans has been on the rise for years. The stress of a society that experienced an economic crisis, lockdowns and loneliness, and hundreds of thousands of deaths has only worsened the pandemic, says Holman.
“As that stress rises, so will stress-related health problems.”
Much of the turmoil Americans have felt owes to the fact that our sense of a future has been disrupted, Holman says.
“I think it’s especially true for young people who were planning to go to college or start a new job. They ended up having a lot of that put on hold or significantly altered. It’s not the experience they expected it to be.”
Hope in the vaccine
Holman is hopeful that the vaccine will gradually bring a return to some sense of normalcy.
“If a large enough majority get it, we should see the negative impact of the pandemic start to go away. People will get back to work, get back to school. And that will help their mental health.”
A return to normalcy will also mean an end to the isolation people are experiencing, she says. That will also improve feelings of well-being and reduce depression.
The pandemic has led to a lot of terrible things, but Holman sees some bright spots.
Telehealth has been a boon to many people who have access to internet. They now have more access to healthcare and mental health services.
Holman also believes that the pandemic has created a new awareness of the risks of spreading germs. “I really hope, even if it’s only a little bit, a slightly higher consciousness of this issue of contagion and disease spread in the public.”
Most of all, she sees hope in more people having an understanding of their role in the social fabric.
“I hope that people can take from this experience how important it is to work as a team, as a people and not as a person.”
We are not lone wolves, she says.
“Our lives inherently depend, in part, on other people, whether it’s the essential worker at the hospital, at the grocery store, or working in the fields. We all need other people to survive.”