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Forging Ahead

Dec. 20, 2021
A look back on what has been and imagining what could be.

Ever since my 2022 planner arrived in the mail, my mind keeps wandering back to December 2019. Specifically, I have been thinking about my last day in the office before the holiday shutdown. It’s still strange to think about how quickly everything changed.

I can’t recall the first time I heard of SARS-CoV-2, but I remember wondering (and perhaps naively hoping) that this novel coronavirus would be quickly contained so I could go back to my regularly scheduled life. We all know how that went.

Still, I was surprised to find a story in EHS Today from June 2020 that people were already thinking life would never go back to normal. According to a survey from the University of Phoenix, 86% of Americans were “concerned” about the outcome of the pandemic on their everyday lives.

Even so, I doubt many people would’ve been able to predict how things would unfold.

The U.S. has seen five waves of the pandemic. As of publication, there have been more than 50 million cases reported and 802,000 deaths in the U.S., the most of any country worldwide. COVID-19 is once again on the rise, still fueled by the delta variant, but the omicron variant is close behind.

Experts continue to update their models and forecasts as new information is available, but it’s difficult—if not impossible—to predict what will come next.

“Every morning, I scrape five inches of mud off my crystal ball,” said Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, to The New York Times. “Any effort to predict a future course beyond 30 days relies on pixie dust for its basis.”

At some point, though, the World Health Organization (WHO) will downgrade its rating from pandemic to endemic. We won’t know how that will change our everyday lives, though. It’s possible we may live somewhere or work for an organization that requires us to continue or resume COVID-19 measures if there’s an outbreak.

“Pandemics are messy in how they end, and the ending is sort of arbitrary,” said Steven Taylor, professor and clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia, Canada, and author of The Psychology of Pandemic, to the BBC. “The WHO will announce one day that we’re entering a post-pandemic period, but what does that mean? The coronavirus is still around, infecting and killing people, but the rates are low enough that it’s OK to open up the economy.”

Experts say the longer the pandemic draws on, the less likely it seems we can eliminate COVID-19. Instead, we must collectively learn how to live with the virus. That also means learning to live with the loss, trauma, grief and other physical and mental difficulties brought on by COVID-19.

“We tend to think of pandemics and epidemics as episodic,” said Allan Brandt, a historian of science and medicine at Harvard University, to The New York Times. “But we are living in the COVID-19 era, not the COVID-19 crisis. There will be a lot of changes that are substantial and persistent. We won’t look back and say, ‘That was a terrible time, but it’s over.’ We will be dealing with many of the ramifications of COVID-19 for decades, for decades.”

As an example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than 42% of people reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, according to a survey by the U.S. Census Bureau in December 2020, up from 11% in 2019. These mental health challenges will persist until situations change for people. They can be assisted by therapy and medication, but those also take time.

“I don’t know that most people have even processed how extraordinary this year was, how extraordinary the demand placed on individuals has been,” said Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, a professor of law and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania to NPR-affiliate WHYY in July 2021. “And so, it seems to me that everybody should get this enormous grace period for trying to figure out what’s OK with them,” Wilkinson-Ryan said.

It’s not possible for me to return to The Before Times. Too much has changed. I’m not the same person I was or the living the life I had in 2019, and that includes working for EHS Today.

COVID-19 has altered my plans, and it’s also shaped how I look at the future. I’ve reassessed priorities, kicked bad habits and formed healthier ones. I’m putting my safety and well-being first more often. I’m being kinder to myself and not putting myself down as much. (I’ve also learned some new bad habits, but I’m working on those.)

And, for the first time in a long while, I am excited about long-term future possibilities. It may not ever be back to normal, but I wouldn’t want to forget the things I’ve experienced during these past two years. Instead, I want to carry them with me to build a different future, a better future. It’s never too late, or too early, to start. 

About the Author

Nicole Stempak

Nicole Stempak is managing editor of EHS Today and conference content manager of the Safety Leadership Conference.

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