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Is the Pandemic Feeling Worse or Better Than Ever? An Investigation

What an almost-year it’s been—we’ve made it this far into a pandemic, with all of the extreme social, cultural, and economic changes it’s foisted on us and structural failures it’s worsened to boot. Everyone who’s rolled with the punches, complied with public safety mandates, and stepped up to lend a helping hand to those who needed it during this (fingers crossed!) once-in-a-lifetime disaster deserves a new car, a deep tissue massage, two months paid vacation and a personal thank you note from Dr. Fauci, in my humble opinion. 

But literal survival aside, it’s hard to pin down the prevailing attitude as we approach the end of COVID: Year One. There’s the good news, in the form of vaccine discovery and distribution; the fact that COVID case rates are finally dropping again; increased public awareness of what COVID is and how it spreads; and a newfound or renewed appreciation for the communities we occupy. There’s also bad news, in the form of ongoing COVID denialism; a less-than-perfect vaccine rollout; ongoing shaky stay-at-home orders; hasty school and restaurant reopenings; and Seasonal Affective Disorder so aggressive that it seems like it’s on the drug from Limitless that makes Bradley Cooper limitless. Where does it all shake out? 

We asked readers and staffers whether they’re hitting the pandemic wall or scaling it—and the split between cautious optimism and lean-in pessimism was a perfect split (with, granted, a pretty small sample size). Here are 10 people on how they’re feeling about the future right now and what’s driving their mindset.

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These accounts have been lightly edited for clarity.

My pandemic experience is going better than ever, because… 

… There’s a reasonable administration in office (l o l), which seems to have more of a clue about how to handle vaccine distro. I’d be more hopeful if they’d pass a national mask mandate. But I feel optimistic (cautiously) that most people who want to get vaccinated will get vaccinated in 2021. 

The rise of mutual aid work and news about the vaccine rollout are the two things that inform my outlook the most. It’s heartening and also deeply depressing to see the ways communities have taken care of/have HAD to take care of each other in the past year. It almost feels like those with power do the least. The vaccine news is a fucking mess but knowing there are vaccines out there is encouraging. I think that may be giving me all my optimism.

I think a better sense of when people my age can get vaccinated would also help. Is it this summer? Is it next summer? How will we even get to a point where young, healthy folks can get the vaccine? Having these answers, even if they’re shitty answers, would help me relax. – Jackie, 27

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… Less people are getting sick!

A year ago, volunteering with the Bernie campaign and working a cool new job, I was extremely optimistic about the future. In mid-March after Bernie conceded and I got laid off, I was very pessimistic and thought the momentum to how I was feeling was totally over. I had no idea what the pandemic would do but I knew it would be bad. 

Now, thanks to case numbers, and vaccination rates, I’m very positive we will return to normal… unless there is some massively disruptive news, like that the vaccines don’t work, or there is a real threat of a new variant. – Billy, 29

… It’s measurably getting better, even if it feels like hell, which it does! My outlook is influenced by how miserable everyone feels, the inability on a political and structural level for those in power to manage any single piece of this, and the attendant abdication of personal responsibility because “the government is failing people.” The government ALWAYS fails people! This is not new news! 

I am hopeful about the vaccine, and I’m desperate for us all to have it. The absolute ennui and nihilism expressing itself in so many different, drab, sad behaviors right now, including my own, is chipping away at something I hope for and believe in: that people want to look out for and protect one another. Even while I know we’re turning a corner, and I’m truly happy about that, I still have to relax a little and be less “the STATE of the WORLD these DAYS!” about everything. – Nina, 30

… The adults are in charge now. There is an actual plan. My elderly parents are now vaccinated. 

A year ago, I was extremely cautious, bordering on paranoid, unsure of what was going to happen, frightened of the possible future. Now, the presidential administration being honest and of service helps me to believe it will continue to get better. I’ll really know there’s hope when we see the case numbers going down and deaths going down consistently.  – CC, 41

… We’ve got the vaccines coming. If we didn’t have that, we’d be fucked. But we do; the rollout seems to be closest those fuckin’ clowns at No.10 have to a success in the last year, and it’s because [UK health secretary Matt Hancock] watched a movie. But yes, net positive despite it all.

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Last February, I thought we had three months of this shit max. A year blows my mind. Lots of life goals that were gonna be achieved blown out the water. But fuck it, not dead yet, there’s still time. I thought it would be something we laughed about by now.

I currently live for the daily number of vaccinated. Every one up is another one closer to “real life.” – Nathan, 29

My pandemic experience is going worse than ever, because…  

… I believe all the fervor for change/quote unquote “radical” transformation has been subsumed by a neoliberal, reformist, almost nihilistic complacency, and I believe that once this is over, our lives and material conditions will be exactly the same as when this shit started. 

I worry about the botched vaccine rollout, schools reopening without proper safety measures, workers striking/unionizing, indoor dining, and boomers on twitter arguing about how raising the minimum wage will destroy the economy. 

A more efficient and equitable vaccine distribution process might change my mind. – Jesse, 22

… The economic and mental damages are probably beyond repair. Even if they are not, they will severely impact our lives for at least the next decade. There is no going back to what was before.

I didn’t think it would last that long. I had friends, and I was sure that after the first lockdown, things would be better. I knew we wouldn’t be back to normal, but at least we would be together and able to exist somehow. I believed that our mental health wouldn’t be so damaged.

Nothing can change my mind. The damage has been done. Currently, I’m not waiting for anything. I only want my family to be safe. That’s all. Maybe I could get some positive thoughts if something good happens regarding my career. But that’s not related to the pandemic. I face the same difficulties all the time. – Anda, 26

… Misinformation in the beginning was understandable, but now it seems as though the population is intentionally ignoring expert advice for the sake of their creature comforts. I also think those in leadership positions (in my case at the local level) have been too lenient in enforcing restrictions on capacity and mask wearing, which has lead to this never-ending cycle of lifting restrictions-> cases/deaths rise -> restrictions put in place -> cases/deaths go down -> lifting restrictions (and so on and so forth, forever and ever).

When it was first announced, vaccine rollout was an exciting time for me and provided a much-needed burst of optimism. However, watching vulnerable people, like my elderly parents, blatantly ignore scientific advice and refuse it has been baffling. My state has also butchered the rollout, and it’s been impossible to get an appointment.

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The thing that would change my mind is monthly stimulus payments, which I think would keep a chunk of the population willing to stay in for longer periods of time. Ultimately, though, I can’t see a way out of this that doesn’t result in more people I love dying due to their own selfishness or the selfishness of others. – Susan, 29

… All acceptable forms of social interaction (zoom happy hours, calls, outside hangouts) are no longer viable or are a chore. Interacting with people is hard because I’ve either got nothing going on in my life to talk about or I don’t get the same sort of energy from it because it is not in person. I’m excited that a vaccine is on the horizon but I know it’s many more months before I will get one. 

I am normally not an angry or unreasonable person but a minor issue with my bank had me so frustrated I was throwing things around my room, which has never happened to me before. The continued lack of social interaction, long end date and realization it’s almost been a year make this the worst it’s ever been. – Emily, 24

… I’m torn on this glass being half full or just straight up leaking all over the place. Some days I feel like it has to improve because historically all trying times pass… eventually. That being said, I’m seeing so many people with caution fatigue and who think now that a handful of their friends or family are vaccinated, all is back to normal. 

I work for a food bank so I see first hand the enormous economic and social impact of the events of the last year day in and out. Having witnessed the terrible management of this virus by government of every level, community leaders in my area and my employer, I am so disappointed in our ability as a society to pull together again should another challenge/complication arise. 

So, while the number of COVID cases may be dropping and the death rate slows too, I feel that the ugly truths of our systems and our national character have been laid bare in a way that make it hard to be optimistic about the inevitable next collective challenge we will face as a part of this pandemic. – Yvette, 28

Follow Katie Way on Twitter.

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