Like bears coming out of hibernation into the blinding sunlight, some us in the more fortunate countries are emerging from our COVID-19 isolation to find a somewhat transformed existence. Our world is not "normal" in the ways we were accustomed to, but it is nearly normal for most of us. Vaccines are widely available, and a large proportion of us have taken advantage of that.
The vaccines have done wonders. As pointed out by David Leonhardt in The New York Times, "The vaccines have nearly eliminated death, hospitalization, and other serious COVID illness among people who have received shots." And even those who refuse to be vaccinated or cannot for medical reasons are highly unlikely to be infected by the vaccinated, although they have been advised to maintain social distancing, masking, and other precautions.
Yet many vaccinated people continue to obsess over the risks from COVID-19, and others have developed an ingrained fear of unfamiliar people and places. As Leonhardt points out, "Coming to grips with the comforting realities of post-vaccination life is going to take some time for most of us. It's only natural that so many vaccinated people continue to harbor irrational fears. Yet slowly recognizing that irrationality will be a vital part of overcoming COVID."
My own relationship with a close family member has become strained due to those "irrational fears." During the worst of the pandemic, New York City, where she lives, was hard hit. Every day she heard ambulances going by her apartment and local news showed jammed hospitals, overflowing morgues, and people who died because they weren't able to access timely medical care. Understandably, my sister holed up in her apartment, had her groceries delivered, and then sanitized every one of them. She saw nobody in person, even avoiding a local trip to see grandchildren until long after the all-clear signal to do so was sounded by the CDC.
I thought that once she had her two vaccinations she would start venturing out ... but no! She does a park run at 6 a.m., masked, but quit her gym, meets no friends in person, still has groceries delivered, has never gone to a restaurant (outside or in), and won't go to a movie no matter how far apart the seats are or even if patrons wear masks. Our family has suggested she seek counseling, but this was met with a flat, "No way!" She doesn't recognize that she has a problem. Her irrational fear and a lingering anxiety seem to hang on in spite of her being well-informed by the CDC and other reliable sources of COVID-19 advice.
I am left wondering how many others have developed fears that will linger for months after the president's July 4 deadline of getting the vaccine to all who are willing to take it. In another AARP Bulletin article, Oregon State University history professor Christopher McKnight Nichols said that just as the Spanish flu epidemic "led to a kind of awakening about how we assembled, expect COVID-19 to shake up the nature and personality of our public spaces." In addition, it may have shaken up the nature and personality of people who have been through deaths and illnesses of family and friends, months of lockdowns, and restrictions on many aspects of public life. So I will try to understand my sister's fear. And I hope that readers who know others with similar fears will be tolerant and supportive of the fearful and give them more time to adjust to the new "almost normal" that many us have wholeheartedly embraced. Δ
Judith Amber wrote to New Times from Arroyo Grande. Send a response for publication to.