Pandemic perspectives four years later: social and lifestyle changes

Pandemic perspectives four years later: social and lifestyle changes

By Dian Cohen

Local Journalism Initiative


The COVID-19 pandemic has changed us. While the short-term effects have been felt and recognized by many, the long-term effects are still unknown in scope and impact. Many of us are adjusting to different ways of working, learning and socializing while hoping for a “return to normal.” In time, something will become a “new normal.”

The impact of the pandemic on work can’t be overstated. Canada experienced the largest and quickest transition to remote work ever. COVID became an “ah-ha” moment for many: do I really want to do this job? Do I really want to spend so much time traveling to work? It became the impetus for a rethink of what personal autonomy and freedom might look like. For many, it meant working from home, at least some of the time. For others, the online world of work became as much a reality as buying goods online, with independent ‘gigs’ taking the place of 9 to 5 jobs.

Before COVID, improving work-life balance was an aspirational topic for many. Scheduling conflicts, feeling stressed by the pressures of multiple roles were things many Canadians hoped to change. Almost overnight, many did. Today, more than 20 per cent of us work from home full time, down from the number that worked remotely at the beginning of the pandemic, but significantly more than the 7 per cent pre-pandemic. Those with hybrid arrangements – some office time, some home time — has more than tripled, bringing the total to one in three of us working at least some of the time at home. An overwhelming number report feeling more satisfied with their work-life arrangements. Among employees with office jobs, a staggeringly high per cent still say they would change their employment if it meant more flexibility of location and time spent at work. About 40 per cent say they’d take a pay cut if they could work fewer hours. Not all employers are convinced. A new tug-of-war between employers and employees has been created that is not yet resolved.

Data doesn’t show a meaningful reduction in pollution except during the total lockdown in early 2020. Indeed, for several months, COVID-19 brought a new source of plastic pollution in the form of single-use personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and gloves.

With no comprehensive emergency plan in place, public officials scrambled to protect the population. The outbreak was a medical, economic and social crisis, but Canada, like many other countries, turned to the medical community to define it. Its preferred strategy was to limit human interaction. The lockdowns invaded our personal spaces, complete with prohibitions of gatherings, masking, curfews, and fines for non-compliance. These restrictions were not normal — interaction with others is a necessity for human beings. Within weeks, groups across the country began protesting the medical solution. A key theme of the protests was anger directed toward governments and scientists. From Vancouver to Charlottetown, anti-mask, anti-lockdown and anti-public health protests formed. “Fake news” and “propaganda” became adjectives to describe public health directives. Even now, more than a year after all restrictions have been lifted, the blame game continues to divide those of us who supported the public health restrictions and those of us who challenged them. It is unclear whether the anti-vaccination movement, which now includes vaccines against many childhood killer diseases, will grow.

How we educate our kids was one of the early losers. Despite early data that suggested that not only was the virus not a serious threat to children but also that the isolation being home 24/7 was likely to harm them psychologically, school closures continued into 2022. Students received vastly different forms of schooling — some attended classes virtually, some in learning groups, some were home schooled and some got no formal learning at all. Studies conducted recently suggest that it is a matter of time before students will catch up with the reading, writing and math they lost. But evidence of psychological damage and socialization deficits is still having detrimental effects on many youngsters. These mental health issues cannot be laid squarely at the feet of COVID; we can say only that its presence made pre-COVID emerging issues worse.

At the other end of the age spectrum, the health, well‐being and quality of life of older adults has been severely affected by the pandemic. Isolation and loneliness had long been recognized as issues among people living alone or in long-term care facilities — they were amplified by newly revealed systemic healthcare gaps. Today, more community groups are involved in providing connections for older adults – helping them learn how to get online, facilitating in-person social events and so on. But many more older adults spend more time at home and less time socializing in public spaces than they did pre-pandemic. According to one study, many older folks worry about getting infected and cite more uncomfortable and hostile social dynamics as reasons to stay at home. This is not an unrealistic view of the world: this is the first time an infectious disease has pushed its way into the top five causes of death during the last 80 years or so of the antibiotic era. Older adults account for most of those deaths.

As for the in-between group, a number of studies indicate that many of us have not yet fully processed the trauma of a virus that brought the world to its knees. According to clinical psychiatrists, not acknowledging the state of high anxiety, fear and grief into which we were thrown has clear drawbacks. While not suggesting that the whole country has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) they are suggesting that the strained relationships, free-floating sadness and anger so many Canadians exhibit have less to do with day-to-day frustrations and more to do with our left-over and unresolved feelings of being unable to control our lives or even protect ourselves for four long years.

Tomorrow,  scientific and medical advances.

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