By Mira Postelnek
According to behaviorists such as Pavlov, Skinner, and Thorndike, stimuli, and our responses to them, change human behavior in a sustainable and lasting way. This theory has clearly been proven by the Covid-19 pandemic that defined the last two years of our lives. While the worst of the pandemic has passed, we are unmasked in almost all public areas, the residual effects of Covid-19 are still felt in multiple aspects of society. The pandemic has impacted our health, psychology, and social interactions/relationships. Most significantly impacted from this nearly three year pandemic are children, young adults, and geriatrics.
Research conducted four years after the SARS pandemic in 2003 showed 44% of survivors developed PTSD, the vast majority of which was long-term. Similarly, recent studies suggests society has developed a COVID Stress Syndrome, “characterized by fear of infection, fear of touching surfaces or objects that might be contaminated with the novel coronavirus, xenophobia, Covid-related checking and reassurance seeking, and COVID-related traumatic stress symptoms.” The research shows that while most individuals who have developed Covid Stress Syndrome have pre-existing psychological concerns, primarily anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, this syndrome is not exclusive to such individuals. There is uncertainty whether this is just an adjustment disorder which will recede with the pandemic’s absence or whether it will become a chronic issue.
Another health development post-pandemic is the rise in hikikomori, a syndrome that resembles agoraphobia, a condition describing people who are reluctant to leave their living quarters. The past two years of mandatory quarantine periods have likely increased the prevalence of hikikomori, since, even currently, health-anxious families and singles maintain their distance from the outside world.
Even those who have escaped the serious diagnosis of COVID Stress Syndrome or hikikomori have not come out unscathed. Countless individuals still avoid any type of casual physical contact. As we continue to readjust to the workplace, key relational mechanisms that used to symbolize trust and respect, such as a handshakes, are widely avoided.
Unfortunately, these habits created by Covid-19 have detriments that extend far beyond the surface. Reclusion and hesitation to socialize incur a number of academic and health deficiencies. As the term “social distancing” quickly became part of our vernacular, crucial impediments were thrown in the path of maintaining relationships important for our health and well-being. Social relationships ranging from spouses, to coworkers, friends, and acquaintances were affected in terms of frequency of contact and emotional intimacy. Acquaintances are part of the ‘weak’ social ties but nevertheless create more diverse social networks, all of which was lost during the pandemic. This created social circles with only similar views, both in-person and on social media, creating homogeneous ‘echo chambers’ which reinforces narrow minded thinking. Newly established relationships, specifically amongst university students who struggled to transfer to online classes, resulted in a decline of relationships and heightened isolation.
Another population that suffered from this online migration was the geriatric community, who experienced extreme loneliness due to the lack of family visitations and their struggle to receive social substitutions via an online presence. This battle against lack of connection, restricted freedoms, and decreased physical movement led to an alarmingly quick rise in depression and anxiety rates among geriatric groups. They were not the only ones. Children who experienced school closures have demonstrated significant increases in levels of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation that persists post-pandemic. While online interactions served as a perceived social support during the past two years, it’s clear that the degree of social interactions still severely lacked the type of ‘social support’ face-to-face interactions carry. While the overall net gain in the quality of steady relationships increased, single individuals and, specifically single-person households displayeda giant leap in lower mental well-being that still holds true today. Even in the future, once physical expressions of affection resume, new levels of anxiety over germs may introduce hesitancy into previously fluent blending of physical and verbal intimate social connections. While online learning helped build a routine and continued education, this, in turn, enforced sedentary behavior as a norm, resulting in a compulsively less active nation. The result of these impacts on grade school and university students has had long term detriments and may continue to affect the future generations due to the long-term psychological damage created. Specifically, a variety of age ranges have missed out on key developmental opportunities during the pandemic, our social skills are still out of practice, and residual impediments remain from the Covid mentality.
Although these severe hangovers from the pandemic years remain, there are ways we as a school and as individuals can begin to influence change by identifying which of these categories are specifically affecting us. An example of positive change could be seeking counseling for various mental health struggles that have developed or were exacerbated by the pandemic. Another reform could be recognizing inappropriate/exclusive social habits that may have formed, or consciously expanding your homogenous social interactions beyond the inner circle that survived the pandemic. Everyone can take steps to repair the effects of the two year Covid-19 pandemic within their own relationships, homes, and social groups.