June 14, 2021

Finding New Normality, From Micro to Macro

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

As COVID cases fall in much of the United States, many pandemic-era restrictions are beginning to loosen. From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) revised mask guidelines to local ordinances allowing businesses to fully open, many of us are working on discovering a “new normal” as we go from pandemic to post-pandemic living.

This readjustment takes place at a number of levels, from individual and family at the most micro level, to workplace and community at the meso level, and state, local, and federal policy level at the macro level. These shifts help remind us that we are part of a larger interconnected social system, one which the pandemic served to highlight.

Individual

How do you feel about wearing a mask? While many very publicly resisted wearing masks, some people are not ready to stop wearing masks, as this NPR story details. Those who are unvaccinated are still encouraged to wear masks, according to the CDC guidelines, but there is no way to verify this in the many informal public settings where confusion might still exist.

Once the CDC indicated that masks were no longer necessary for vaccinated people outdoors, my local government set guidelines in accordance with the new rules. Some people still wear masks outside, and it is unclear whether they are unvaccinated or uncomfortable. I have found myself sometimes putting on a mask when I encounter them outside while on neighborhood walks, perhaps to make them feel more comfortable or just out of habit.

Part of my new normal has also been a recognition that I don’t enjoy social eating very much. Yes, I like to visit with friends, but I found that I can eat more mindfully while at home and can really focus on enjoying what I am eating without distraction. My first plans with friends involved visiting outside and taking walks rather than meeting up at restaurants. I imagine a myriad of ways that individuals are personally adjusting to changes, and of course these changes don’t exist in a vacuum; they are part of our larger social contexts, described below.

Families

The pandemic has impacted families in very different ways, based in part on their socio-economic status and affordable housing options. While I enjoyed teaching online and already had a home office, for many students, family stress played a much bigger role in their daily lives than it would have if they were on campus. Siblings sometimes popped onto the screen during class meetings, and at least one meeting with a student involved a parent which probably would not have under normal circumstances. It was clear that many of my students would have liked a little more “social distancing” from their parents as they navigated being young adults with ongoing parental monitoring.

Some families with the resources have been able to seek out more space in new home purchases, in part leading to an increase in housing prices. The stress of living with many family members is normal, but when there are many family members vying for space and internet bandwidth, situations become more stressful or even deadly if a member cannot really quarantine from a vulnerable loved one. For those experiencing domestic violence, the pandemic has been especially difficult. In the aftermath of the pandemic, researchers will certainly be studying the impact that this past year has had on family composition, marriage, divorce, and relationships.

Work and the Workplace

Much of family life is shaped by work and the workplace; especially when home becomes the workplace. According to a December 2020 Pew Research Center study, working remotely has been more difficult for parents:

Half of parents with children younger than 18 who are working at home all or most of the time say it’s been difficult for them to be able to get their work done without interruptions since the coronavirus outbreak started. In contrast, only 20% of teleworkers who don’t have children under 18 say the same. Mothers and fathers are about equally likely to say this has been difficult for them….

Among working parents with children younger than 18 who are in the same job as before the coronavirus outbreak started, a third say it’s now harder for them to balance work and family responsibilities; 22% of those who do not have minor children say the same. Mothers (39%) are more likely than fathers (28%) to say it’s harder for them to balance work and family responsibilities compared with before the coronavirus outbreak.

For many people, the “new normal” will involve greater ability to work from home. In some cases, people are moving out of state or otherwise far from traditional commuting range because they can work remotely. My husband’s work team now involves people living in Portland, San Diego, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles. Situations like this will likely change how office space is used going forward. My sister will continue working remotely with her company’s blessing: they can now downsize the amount of space they lease and save money. It also means that workers are now competing with others around the country—if not the world—for jobs.

Of course, not everyone has the ability to work from home. The Pew study notes:

There’s a clear class divide between workers who can and cannot telework. Fully 62% of workers with a bachelor’s degree or more education say their work can be done from home. This compares with only 23% of those without a four-year college degree. Similarly, while a majority of upper-income workers can do their work from home, most lower- and middle-income workers cannot.

Before widespread vaccination, going to work increased exposure to the virus and created unequal rates of infection related to education and socio-economic status. Ironically, the lower one’s pay, the less likely they are to have paid sick time. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 69 percent of the bottom 10 percent of earners have no paid sick time; by contrast, only 6 percent of the top 10 percent of earners do not have paid sick time.

Missing work might not just mean missing pay, but could result in losing one’s job, incentivizing people to go to work sick. This also explains why some people have been hesitant to get the COVID vaccine, fearing that side effects will render them unable to work.

Policy

What policy changes will the post-pandemic transition bring? The pandemic has taught us about the importance of paid sick leave. Going to work sick is a great way to spread disease, and if workers have no other options they are incentivized to do so. We have seen how the social determinants of health impact who is most at risk for infectious diseases, the most serious outcomes, and the resources to minimize exposure or cope with infection.

The pandemic has alerted us to the importance of understanding that public health is more than just about individuals’ choices. Public health is a science that examines health at the community level, with the goal of creating healthier populations. There was a 20 percent increase in applications to study public health in 2020. There also needs to be resources for communities to reduce public health risk factors, particularly as globalization makes future pandemics very likely.

What macro-level policy changes do you think might come as a result of the pandemic? Post your ideas in the comments below.

Comments

super interesting, good information to know.

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