One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Our attitudes about the pandemic may have changed, but the nature of the virus has not.


photo by D. Crickets

Empty staircases at NASH remind students and staff that the pandemic is still overshadowing normal life.

Kristen Kinzler, Co-Editor-in-Chief

In the days that followed March 13th, the world felt uneasy. We didn’t know what was safe, if schools and businesses were going to close, or what kind of impact a pandemic would have on our country. For a lot of people, it was a stressful and chilling week full of uncertainty.

Eight months later, with coronavirus cases higher than ever and new shutdowns happening around the world, it feels a lot like March again. Only this time, things seem to be worse.

The pandemic obviously never ended, but there were some bright spots. In mid-June, Pennsylvania was averaging only 300 to 400 new COVID-19 cases a day. It felt like we had gotten through the worst of it. Now, Allegheny County alone reports more than that many daily cases.

However, our attitudes haven’t really adapted to our new circumstances. In March, we were naturally afraid of the virus. Today, it feels like we’re treating it with a haphazard sense of acceptance. Or, at the very least, we’re all pretending to be okay with it. 

From a public health standpoint, that’s a whole different problem that our nation’s top health officials are trying to solve. But I’m sure that, for our mental health at least, ignoring the pandemic isn’t going to help.

Sure, it may provide some short-lived moments of relief. In the long run, though, pretending that we’re all fine is going to do more harm than good. I’m not saying we should have more anxiety or let the coronavirus incessantly plague our thoughts, but it should be acceptable to admit that, even in November, peace of mind can still be challenging.

In the long run, pretending that we’re all fine is going to do more harm than good.”

Maybe it’s not cool to be nervous about the pandemic anymore, or maybe it feels like we should all be over it by now. There are no more cheesy commercials about how we’re all in this together or signs hung in windows thanking front line workers. Much of the situational compassion and patience we had for each other is gone. But our circumstances are still stressful. In fact, right now may even be more nerve-wracking than last spring for millions of Americans.

Experts say that this year was traumatizing for people around the world, and, as a result, the pandemic could cause post-traumatic stress disorder. Those who are most at risk are people who have recently lost a loved one, had COVID-19, suffered financially, or were front line workers.

And while there are certainly people more vulnerable to trauma right now, almost everyone is experiencing unusual levels of stress. Studies have found increased rates of suicidal thoughts, depression, and anxiety across the country. Dentists have seen a major rise in jaw pain, migraines, and cracked teeth in recent months, and the only contributor seems to teeth grinding caused by stress.

Because there was a period of recovery before a massive resurgence of the virus, people who thought their suffering was behind them may feel shock at the recent turn of events. They now are painfully aware of how ugly this pandemic can get. 

Eight months ago, we were perhaps understandably naive. Most of us figured our lives would change for two weeks — a month tops. Now, our country knows what it’s walking into, which naturally leads to more exhaustion and worry.

To be clear, my life has been relatively easy during lockdown. I have a loving family and a safe home, and the only struggles I dealt with were internal ones surrounding my mental health.  I would say my trauma was thankfully limited.

Yet, when North Allegheny announced on Monday that it is transitioning to all-remote learning until at least December 1st, I knew it was bound to happen at some point, but my brain immediately jumped to last spring. I thought about when a two-week closure in March turned into the rest of the school year being cancelled. I thought about how nice it was to be back at school, especially my senior year, and how I desperately didn’t want that to be taken away from me.

In spring, it was just one temporary closure after another. There was always a far off date when we thought we could go back to school, but every time, our hopes were crushed. It was an emotional rollercoaster, and going through that again doesn’t sound fun.

I recognize that is an extremely privileged, and somewhat selfish, example. Remote learning is obviously not the same as unemployment or sickness or losing a family member, which is why I can’t even imagine how terrified people who truly suffered in recent months must feel right now. 

For every person currently showing apathy towards the pandemic and its consequences, there are just as many people who are more scared than ever before.”

My point is that the coronavirus made us vulnerable. No matter how big or small our problems may seem, our lives are still being upended. Everything feels so delicate, like it can disappear in an instant. Unfortunately, that vulnerability will most likely stick around for a long time to come.

As University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist Michael Baime told The Washington Post, “We’ve lost a kind of innocence.”

So, for every person currently showing apathy towards the pandemic and its consequences, there are just as many people who are more scared than ever before.

Grappling with those emotions is hard, but ignoring them and pretending that our lives are normal aren’t doing us any favors. We cannot hope to conquer feelings that we, as a society, cast aside.

Experience isn’t helpful to getting through these times. Eight months of living with the coronavirus has not made anyone more adept at dealing with it. So be patient with yourself. It’s okay to feel like it’s March all over again. It may not be fun, but it’s completely valid.

And in a year that destroyed our sense of conventional life and normalcy, maybe there is a small comfort in acknowledging that, at the very least, even our scariest emotions are normal.