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Lessons from Covid-19, and why ‘going back to normal’ isn't for everyone

Image of poster urging community kindness
John Cameron | Unsplash

Opinion by Cecilia Astolfi

We've learned a lot about ourselves since the start of the pandemic – including whether a return to 'normality' is actually what we need.

What regulations, due to Covid-19 safety necessities, are still valuable in 2022, post-pandemic?

To what extent has the pandemic impacted our willingness to restrict ourselves for

the benefit of our community?

Could mask-wearing become a social norm that signals the wearer is taking responsibility over avoiding transmitting disease?

Where is the line between individual, social and organisational responsibility, particularly with regards to maintaining mental wellbeing?

These are just a handful of conundrums the Covid-19 pandemic has presented us with. Another is one that likely all of us have asked in the past, either internally to ourselves or to others: when can life return to normal?

The desire to return to a time when Covid-19 didn't exist is understandable, but by its very nature, this is a question that considers the circumstances of the individual rather than the collective. Because for many, a 'return to normal' is simply not possible, and in fact, their 'new normal' is far better suited to their livelihood. Of course, that isn't to say that the fallout of Covid-19 has been entirely positive. On the contrary, it is a generational event that has left us navigating a new and complicated reality.

A personal perspective

I started wearing a face covering in March 2020, before the then-PM’s advice to stop non-essential contact. I remember the day I realised that my best friend, who had experienced the avian flu pandemic, was correct in thinking that Coronavirus was a serious threat. After that, I regularly and thoroughly researched the latest scientific evidence to decide what precautions to take.

Although I have been working with hundreds of young people and adults indoors throughout the pandemic, I never got Covid-19. In addition, throughout mid-2020 to mid-2022 I have not gotten a cold, the flu, or any other infectious disease I would often get pre-2020. It has become clear that regularly wearing an N95 mask and avoiding crowded places has significantly improved my quality of life. In October 2022, I am still wearing an N95 mask whenever in public spaces, but I am often the only one. My personal experience of being much more cautious than most, and my continued use of face covering, has prompted this reflection on what regulations from the Covid-19 pandemic are still valuable post-2022.


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Who was most affected by Covid-19 regulations?

From the very start of the pandemic, some people have been against various forms of precautions and regulations aimed at reducing the spread of the virus. Such reticence was due to a variety of reasons, including concern over the effect of the regulations on our ability to connect, leading to increased loneliness and worsening holistic health. There is certainly cause for concern in those areas: people reported significantly higher rates of psychological distress during the pandemic, particularly during high Covid-19 rates and lockdowns.

However, as a whole, people have benefitted from the regulations, as they limited the spread of infection and therefore limited the number of deaths, illness, and widespread grief. It is also worth noting that in April 2022, the ‘behaviour of others’ was the most common worry for clinically, extremely vulnerable people who were worried about the Covid-19 virus.

When we think more deeply about vulnerable people, the impact of regulations becomes more complex. In fact, the definition of ‘vulnerable’ includes vastly differing populations: elderly in care homes; people with chronic illnesses; children with Special Educational Needs; pregnant people; and many more. Another definition of ’vulnerable’ could include East Asian people in predominantly White countries, as they experienced increased micro-aggressions and hate crimes due to the association of Covid-19 with China. It is inaccurate to consider vulnerable people as a monolith; instead, specific sub-groups should be considered. For example, the experience of an elderly man with dementia is likely to be different from that of a deaf child. It became apparent early on that the regulations necessary to limit the spread of the pandemic had massive negative effects on specific groups, while having significant benefits for populations as a whole.

To wear a face covering, or not to wear a face covering?

A 2021 study concluded that the decision to wear a mask is influenced by many factors, including public health recommendations and government mandates, racism and cultural norms, geography, household income, age, and personal attitudes.“

It is therefore unsurprising that the use of face coverings is widely different across and within countries.. In some countries, wearing a face covering is actually expected whenever a person is ill and possibly infectious. In Japan for example, it is culturally expected to wear a mask to protect others and is seen as a civic duty, which is likely responsible for the country’s relatively low death rate due to Covid-19.

During the worst of the pandemic, most people in the UK wore face coverings to avoid passing the virus to others. However, by summer 2022, most people in the UK had stopped wearing face coverings. This trend persists even though many continue to contract Coronavirus, and both infections and deaths due to it are rising. Those who had been vaccinated or already healed from the virus are often more careless. It appears that many people have decided that the discomfort of mask-wearing and following other precautions outweighs the risk of illness. Whether such an opinion is valid, it is left to the individual to act to maintain a higher level of protection for themselves and their loved ones.

With no regulations in the UK regarding containment of common contagious illness, the onus of responsibility falls solely onto the individual. So, those of us who are keen to avoid getting Covid-19 (and other contagious common diseases) are left to fend for ourselves amongst a majority that has decided to accept the disease, or forgets it exists. This can result in an atmosphere of distrust. On one side, there are those who think that mask-wearers are excessively concerned and make it difficult to move on from the grief related to the pandemic. On the other, the mask-wearers continue to feel unease and anxiety, and see others as careless. It is possible that individuals or whole groups may therefore feel isolated and socially disengaged – feelings that would be particularly significant if the two opposite views were present within families or friends.

Lessons from the pandemic

The world has been changed by the Covid-19 pandemic: working from home is much more common and online learning and training is pervasive.

In other ways though, the world has resisted permanent change. For example, initiatives to shelter homeless people are coming to an end: hotels that served as homeless shelters are changing back to their original business model, even though the “shelter in place” regulations brought significant benefits to a highly vulnerable population. Mental health services are struggling to cope with demand: while mental wellbeing is even more of a buzzword post-pandemic, the systemic changes to make it an actual priority have not taken place.

Most people are very unlikely to wish for another lockdown, but some Covid-19 regulations could be valuable in the long-term. While social distancing has been mostly considered a “necessary evil”, it may benefit individuals who experience anxiety or heightened alertness due to physical proximity of strangers. People are less likely to queue at a distance or leave a seat empty on a train now, and whilst that can help viruses thrive, it can also cause unnecessary stress. The NHS has in fact acknowledged that adjusting to changes post-lockdown may cause increased anxiety.

There might be a wish to forget that the pandemic happened at all; it can be enticing to think that the crisis is over, and we can now ‘go back to normal’. But, given that a number of initiatives implemented during the pandemic were actually beneficial, could instead a “new normal” be created?

The questions posed at the start of this article are unlikely to have simple or universally-agreeable answers. Nevertheless, as the world moves forward from the Covid-19 pandemic, we owe it to ourselves to consider what lessons we wish to take forward with us.


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