What lasting effects will the virus have on our society?
Will we ever go back to who we were before the pandemic?
With eight out of 10 COVID-19 deaths in the United States in people over the age of 65, there is more than a devastating loss of life, there is also a loss of family history that the older population carried with them, something that will affect those who remain after the pandemic.
“To lose a generation of the population, and in a way that you weren’t expecting them, I think that’s significant,” said Dr. Betty McCall, associate professor of sociology at Lycoming College.
The way in which deaths have been handled has also changed during the pandemic. The rituals and processes by which those deaths have been acknowledged and the lost loved ones mourned has been negated by mitigation protocols — no hugs or kisses, no gathering of friends and family to mark the passing of someone.
“Also how the death has occurred — the kind of the loss and the inability to acknowledge that loss. I think it’s been particularly difficult because of the pandemic,” McCall said.
“The lack of contact during that death process, I think has been particularly difficult. It’s kind of changed the way that we’ve mourned them in some way. So, in getting back to reality, your family gatherings aren’t going to be the same because those family members aren’t there anymore, but you didn’t have the opportunity to celebrate their lives in a way that you would have two years ago,” she added.
The pandemic has curtailed the way in which we celebrate milestones in our lives. McCall noted that over the past 10 years or so, there has been a trend toward what she labeled “weird celebratory kind of experiences,” such as elaborate gender reveal parties. The pandemic has altered that.
“We don’t necessarily know what our neighbors are going through. We don’t know about unemployment. We don’t know about their personal losses. We don’t know about those things in ways that we did before,” she said. McCall added that for some, social media has allowed some access into each others’ lives.
“But, I think in so many ways, because we’re so physically separated, it’s privatized some of that stuff and I don’t know if we’re going to go back to a time where we’ll define it differently, and behave differently. But, it’s definitely going to redefine our family structures,” she added.
McCall also sees a difficulty with life just getting back to normal too quickly without some type of transition. Apart from the fact that she feels it may be too soon medically to rush to open everything up too quickly, McCall said that it didn’t seem to be a productive way of doing things.
“It’s kind of a shock to the system. Families have been so isolated and insular in so many ways and now all of a sudden they have access to everything,” she said.
She compared it to having a spring break with your family where you “go wild and have a crazy time when things aren’t back to normal in a big way.”
During the pandemic, working virtually from home became more common, causing not only a change in how business was conducted, but also in the dynamics of the family. Parents, often the mothers, had to take on the role of not only a wage earner, but they also had to deal with children who were at home.
Referring to a class that she is teaching at the college, McCall said that “what my students have sadly learned is that men have stepped up to the plate somewhat over the last few years in terms of social expectations with those normative behaviors in the home. Women have reduced what they have been doing, but how men have caught up is not equal to what women stopped doing.”
“What we have found in the pandemic is that women are taking back on some of those responsibilities in the roles. And if you’re talking about low wage earners, women are the ones that are primarily doing that, so they’re still staying out in the workplace and doing that labor,” she added.
She cited jobs such as nurses, grocery store workers and those in restaurants as areas where there was no option to work from home and as yet, no studies have been done of the ratio of men versus the ratio of women who have been able to work at home and those who still had to work in-person. McCall noted that there could also be racial differences factored into that comparison.
“In terms of the family dynamic, I think it (the pandemic) just intensified what was already probably continuing to happen,” she said.
Other economic factors, such as loss of employment during the pandemic, affect the dynamics of a family, not only from a reduced income, but a sense of identity.
“I think the most devastating thing about the pandemic is how it’s affected work because work is so crucial to family lives and economics and our personal identity,” McCall said.
“For those of us who were our job prior to the pandemic, who are we now if that job is transitioned or threatened in some way? And then how do we redefine ourselves and how do we move forward with that?”
“I think work is going to change,” she continued. “I think it’s inevitable that work’s going to change.”
The Roaring 2020s?
Historically in 1918, more than 675,000 Americans died from the influenza, which is equivalent to 2.16 million today. Although the current pandemic hit an older demographic, a century ago, more younger people were affected by the illness. The country was also coming out of World War I, which had forced the United States onto the global stage.
Much like today, there were economic consequences too. The country responded with bringing more money into the economy. And with that prosperity came what was known as the “Roaring Twenties,” which culminated in the Great Depression bursting everyone’s bubble.
“We also had these kind of wild days, swinging days of craziness,” McCall said, referring to the time after the 1918 pandemic.
“You know those kind of crazy days might be upon us. We might have a decade where everyone kind of goes wild. You can’t blame us. It would be nice to go wild for a little bit. It might help the economy,” she added.
But, will some people still fear meeting in large groups and continue to have everything brought to their doorstep?
“I think we’re humans and I think that half of us are going to be fine going out and I think the other half of us are still going to be wearing masks in five years,” she said.
“I think the range is wide and I think there will be enough for all of us to some of us who are going to continue to be wary about shopping and do our shopping Friday night at seven o’clock but do that with our mask on, and then others can’t wait for Little League to open and for the parade to happen downtown,” McCall said.
She didn’t know if that could be attributed to a lack of fear or just an unwillingness to live like that any longer.
“I mean there’s COVID fatigue, but there’s also just ready to move on with life,” she said.