The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic over a year ago on March 11, 2020 . On the same day, Washington University in St. Louis also announced their Spring Break extension until March 23, 2020, when online instructions would then start . What was initially thought to be over in two weeks has now lasted for over a year. Over a year of living in fear, being isolated from family and friends and transitioning to a new normal. From not being able to celebrate with loved ones to coping with mental health in isolation, it has been a rather difficult year for many people. There were a number of substantial developments made within this past year; however, there were issues that could have been handled better, and there are still problems that have not been resolved yet.
The majority of the population in the United States was affected by the start of the COVID-19 pandemic: students moved to online instructions, workers were laid off and had to search for new jobs and quarantine did not allow for people to see or physically interact with anyone else. Journalist Julia Skylar explained how, as a social species, humans have evolved to naturally perceive cues when physically interacting with others to establish emotional intimacy . We can communicate with each other through non-verbal cues by observing the other person’s body language or how they physically react. This way of forming relationships is predominantly seen in in-person interactions. The sudden transition to a virtual lifestyle due to COVID-19 has been mentally and physically taxing because we are “trying to make up for the copious information we get…during face-to-face interactions” .
Dr. Krista Milich, an assistant professor of biological anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, who is leading the course “The Second Wave of the Pandemic: Science and Society,” talked about her experience with Zoom fatigue, a term used to describe exhaustion due to extensive usage of video-calling interface . Milich mentioned how she has “always been a very outgoing person” who enjoys spending time and reconnecting with others. She enjoys teaching in person and in classrooms as this “makes [her] feel very energized.” However, “doing it on Zoom makes [her] feel exhausted” to the point where she “tries to avoid Zoom as much as possible.”
There have been similar stories shared throughout the nation of people missing in-person social interactions and feeling mentally drained from doing everything over a screen for so long. Even at WashU, during “The Second Wave of the Pandemic: Science and Society” course, students were asked what they missed the most since the start of the pandemic and many of their responses revolved around seeing loved ones, catching up with their friends and socially interacting with people .
The COVID-19 pandemic has involved people from all over the world to understand this newly emerged coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and over the past year, substantial progress has been made. Milich was astounded by the vaccine development process. She believed it to be the biggest breakthrough since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and stated how “it was incredible that we have developed and distributed three vaccines this quickly.” She further articulated how “there were lots of opportunities for amazing breakthroughs” that unfortunately did not happen. From not mass producing enough personal protective equipment early on to further exacerbating health disparities, Milich believes that the core of these issues lies in the lack of controlling the early stages of COVID-19 before it became a huge outbreak in the United States. During a public health crisis, “leadership really matters” in controlling the outbreak. She expressed that although there were a few good leaders on the state and local levels, overall, there “was a lack of good leadership” throughout the national, state and local governments.
Science journalist David Robson explained how effective leadership, especially during a public health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, involves leaders crafting “a good narrative that helps clarify the problem and unite the population” . This includes being “open about the evolving nature of the problem” and not sugar-coating what is happening, as well as establishing an infrastructure necessary for a quick response to resolve the situation . Furthermore, Milich recognized that there “unfortunately were a lot of individual people who had the ability… to change their behaviors and chose not to do so,” which contributed to this prolonged state of public health crisis.
There are also issues following the advancement of vaccine development and distribution that need to be addressed and fixed. The current situation where people have to fight for a spot to get vaccinated makes it really difficult for those who don’t have access to reliable technology, as well as those who work full time and have familial responsibilities. This appointment setup needs to change to one where everything is located on one website that is easy to navigate, fast to book and available in more languages. Milich brought up a key point that “distribution centers need to be in places where people can actually get to” because a lot of the current vaccine distribution has been “based on the idea that [people] have nothing better to do than spend [their] full time trying to get the vaccine.” Not everyone has the privilege to spend their entire day driving several hours to the nearest available vaccine distribution center just to come back again several weeks later for the second vaccine dose. This is a disadvantage for the disproportionately impacted populations, such as low-paid workers who are working full-time to make ends meet while being most at risk.
Communication and messaging between the leaders and citizens has to be kept up at the same rate as vaccine rollout because, although the current administration might be “hitting their goal simply by moving more quickly through the phases,” there are “many people being left behind.” The concerns related to the vaccine should be addressed because those who need them the most are not being well-informed and are out of the communication loop.
Although the light at the end of the tunnel seems to be slowly appearing thanks to the development of vaccines, the pandemic has also worsened numerous social issues that need to be further addressed and resolved. Additionally, we are starting to treat the vaccine as a “magic-bullet cure” and are taking advantage of it. Many people are trying to live a pre-COVID life too soon as they are no longer wearing masks, are starting to party in large crowds where not everyone is vaccinated and are traveling to other nations where citizens are not protected from contracting the virus. We should still be cautious of our surroundings and we should still wear masks even after being vaccinated to protect those around us who have not and to prevent future outbreaks from happening. It is only then that we can return back to how life was before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Edited by: Rehan Mehta
Illustrated by: Shub Minhas