Our Pandemic Year: Which behavior changes will stick with us?

  • Jon Stableford. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Published: 3/13/2021 10:10:15 PM
Modified: 3/13/2021 10:10:13 PM

“When will we go back to normal?” This has been the question we’ve all contemplated since the moment we realized we were staring into the maw of a pandemic. Note the arrogance, as if the daily statistics say nothing about our own mortality, but count me guilty of this sin.

Last spring, as I shopped for food wearing a mask and latex gloves, I naively hoped we would resume our lives by summer; and when that seemed fantasy, I shifted my hopes to fall. Again and again the doorway to normality receded, but now with the development of several vaccines, with a new administration in Washington to oversee their distribution, and with two shots of Moderna at work in my body, I am feeling a new and nuanced optimism.

Over the last year we have reluctantly learned that any return to normal will be incremental and fragile and that the new normal will not look exactly like the life we experienced pre-COVID. Now in my newly warm and fuzzy mood, I am curious about which of the many accommodations we’ve made to the pandemic are likely to stick when it’s no longer the same threat.

Public health mandates in some form are likely to be with us for years, but the rest is likely to be personal because we all have changed our behavior in idiosyncratic ways. My wife and I are retired; the adjustments we have had to make are very different from our children and their spouses, who have continued to work throughout the pandemic and to raise their children, but we have made some adjustments that are likely to accompany us into the new normal.

The survivalist instinct, for instance.

It’s always been there in my genes, and now it has been intensified by the pandemic — not the extreme kind involving guns and bunkers and surveillance cameras, but more on the self-sufficient end of the spectrum.

I drive my wife crazy by never finishing a box of crackers and by leaving just a little milk in the bottle when there’s room for it in my cereal bowl. The perfect logic behind this irrational behavior is the belief that always leaving some means that we will never run out. When I load the woodstove I am less sparing, but only because I have next year’s supply already cut, split and under cover. We live half an hour from the nearest supermarket and have always kept a good supply of staples on hand.

Empty shelves early in the pandemic made us rethink our hoarding, and we have relied more on our local general store and its owners, who have made heroic accommodations to meet the community need for a reliable food supply. Before the pandemic, we had already shifted to buying more of our food from farms in town; the pandemic has shown us that what originally felt righteously communal is also very practical.

In the past year I have “seen” two doctors from the comfort of my study, and now I would be happy to continue doing telemedicine after the pandemic lifts. This boldness assumes my own good health and physicians who know me. Most of my annual checkups have involved a good conversation that is also possible facing a screen. Blood tests will always be necessary, and for a recent echocardiogram, I had to show up in person; but if timeliness is a factor in a post-pandemic future, I’ll be happy to visit my doctor electronically.

We have always read a lot in this house, but during the pandemic we have been reading even more. A decade ago, as we prepared for retirement, we culled the shelves of books we had collected down to a precious few hundred that we either believed we would want to refer to or couldn’t part with for sentimental reasons. We knew we could borrow from libraries and from friends, and we vowed to shed an old book for every new one we bought.

For a decade this system worked pretty well.

During the pandemic we have been ordering new books from our local bookstore, and we have lost ground on the shedding side. I have also been rereading books we hung onto in the culling process, and now more than ever I believe in a robust personal library, even if it means running out of shelf space.

In May 2016 we flew to Paris and spent the better part of two weeks in Provence before returning to Paris. The previous November, as we were planning the trip, terrorists in a series of coordinated attacks in and about Paris killed 130 people and wounded 400 more. We thought seriously about abandoning our plans, but decided in the end that the random precision of that kind of danger was a risk we were willing to take.

Now I wonder how much traveling we will do in the future. The possibility of a sudden outbreak of disease requires a different calculus because being stranded abroad is, for me at least, a more worrisome threat than a fanatic’s rampage.

These thoughts have migrated from the trivia of personal comfort to the more serious topic of mortality. COVID-19 has certainly brought death into sharp focus for us all. People my age live with the knowledge that their lives are slipping away. There are daily reminders like the loss of flexibility, the ache of arthritic joints and the embarrassment of senior moments; and we cheerfully pursue remedies like exercise, reconstructive surgery and crossword puzzles.

Vaccinations will do a lot to allay the fear of dying from COVID-19, but they will do nothing for our survivors’ guilt. So many people have died, too many of them way before their time, and it’s impossible not to wonder why we have been allowed to survive.

Before the pandemic, we hoped to live long enough to see our grandchildren graduate from high school and college, maybe even to see them marry. Now our hopes are chillingly modest: we want them and their parents to outlive us.

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.

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