Ever since Pfizer and Moderna announced the development of successful COVID-19 vaccines, the end of the pandemic has been in sight. It has been a heinous ordeal — at the time of this writing, more than 2 million people have died worldwide of the disease, including more than 400,000 in the United States — and slow vaccine distribution means uncertainty still lies ahead.
Yet even if all goes well and we do manage to contain the pandemic in the near future, there will be lasting psychological consequences for the humans who suffered through it.
Intriguingly, not all of them will be negative, as Dr. Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, told Salon.
"The pandemic has made everybody concerned about their health. And I think that once the pandemic passes, that concern will continue, which is a good thing rather than a bad thing," Langer explained. She cited as an example how people might be more conscientious when they display flu-like symptoms.
"If one has the flu and the flu is not going to go away, even after COVID goes away, there will be a more positive response to it by people," Langer speculated. "So when you have symptoms, you're likely to address them sooner than you might have prior to the concern about the pandemic."
But the pandemic will also shape our collective psychology for decades to come, as it has profoundly affected people from all ages and all walks of life.
"This will take generations to get past," Dr. David Reiss, psychiatrist in private practice and expert in mental fitness evaluations, told Salon. "And that's because at every stage of development, things have been disrupted, whether you're talking about like my two-year-old grandchild who somehow has to understand seeing family members in masks, to four and five-year-old kids who are just starting to socialize, to adolescents who can't socialize and all through different stages of life." Reiss said as an adult in his sixties he felt deeply affected.
"It's really disrupted the passage to different life milestones and developmental periods, and that disruption is more subtle, but may have a longer lasting effect," Reiss explained.
Indeed, for millions of Americans who have struggled through social isolation and lockdowns, the effect has been traumatizing.
"We always look at trauma in phases, if we're looking at it intelligently anyway, because there is the moment of trauma, then there's the immediate aftermath of trauma," Dr. Lise Van Susteren, general and forensic psychiatrist in Washington, DC, told Salon. "And then there's the long-term impacts of trauma. And we are a traumatized world right now. Certainly we understand that we're a traumatized nation. We've gone through a lot and still it's not over."
Those with pre-existing mental health conditions may be more likely to suffer from pandemic-related trauma, Van Susteren said. People who were left feeling unusually vulnerable are also likely to suffer from trauma issues.
"If you felt you were in charge of your life — and this is typical across trauma generally — the degree to which you feel helpless is going to either exacerbate or fortify you in facing trauma down the road," Van Susteren told Salon regarding the issue of vulnerability. "So if you could protect yourself and your family, you're not going to be as traumatized as those people who could not." To cope with this and other similar traumas, Van Susteren argued people should examine "the degree to which you were able to solve the problems that were thrown at you, and you can look to your review of what happened and tell yourself that under the circumstances you did the best job that you could, that you did the best you could, and that's where you build. That's the essence of resilience. It is 'I did the best I could under the circumstances.'"
Reiss told Salon that people should also look out for signs that they are experiencing trauma.
"I think it will definitely be sort of a classical PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] reaction among many people, and that may range from mild and subtle to overt symptoms," Reiss explained. PTSD is a mental disorder that develops after an individual has been exposed to a traumatic event, with symptoms including insomnia, ruminative thoughts, persistent anxiety, depression and flashbacks.
Reiss speculated that there are not as likely to be many flashbacks "other than for people who are frontline workers who or who lost someone specifically," but that there will likely be occasions of "re-experiencing of the sense of fear, the sense of loss and just the sense of distance and loneliness" that will persist even after the pandemic has ended. He argued that we should look for people who feel lonely, whose interpersonal relationships have been disrupted or who display signs of clinical depression, "which is a sense of hopelessness or helplessness."
Dr. Bandy Lee, a psychiatrist who has taught at Yale and authored the new book "Profile of a Nation: Trump's Mind, America's Soul," told Salon that President Donald Trump and far right-wingers who fed misinformation to the public also hurt our collective mental health.
"The mental health ramifications are going to be huge and exacerbated because of our failure to address this historic public health crisis appropriately," Lee told Salon. "We have handled it perhaps in the worst way possible from a mental health perspective. By supporting denial and suppressing the voices of mental health experts, which the federally-funded American Psychiatric Association achieved unilaterally, we created conditions for exploiting and using psychological vulnerabilities as a political tool. Essentially, this helped divide people into those who believe the pandemic is real and those who believe it is a political ploy to discredit the president."
As a result of this happening, Lee concluded that "we now have a large segment of the population that has been encouraged and trained to avoid reality." People who have become emotionally invested in misinformation and other types of falsehoods, even those that work against their own self-preservation, are going to struggle to come to terms with the fact that they were wrong, a process that will take a lot more time than would have been the case if they had not been lied to. Lee told Salon that she believes "this will eventually be worse than the mental health difficulties from the pandemic itself."
Lee emphasized that humans are resilient. "if they have the notion in their mind that they're in it together with other people, if they have the psychological and social support." Because Trump's errors compounded the magnitude of the pandemic in America and spread misinformation, however, Lee says that there could be a major psychological consequence.
"To learn that a calamity was not necessary, on the other hand, that they were deliberately lied to, will be a much more difficult to overcome, as experiences are far more traumatic when they are human-caused rather than naturally-occurring," Lee explained.
If nothing else, the coronavirus pandemic is likely to have a far-reaching effect on human history, much as the bubonic plague did in the mid-14th century. Although the so-called Black Death caused anywhere from 75 million to 200 million human deaths, it also wound up forcing lords to improve wages and working conditions for serfs on their lands, forced improvements in medicine, helped fuel the Renaissance and (on a less salutary level) led to an increase in persecution against marginalized minority groups like Jews. Some of these changes were due to economic and political factors, but others were rooted in psychology.
Even when the pandemic ends, the psychological fallout will almost certainly change the course of history.