A couple of co-workers and I recently got on the subject of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I was surprised how quickly that anxious feeling bubbled back up. I was one of the luckiest people — my husband and I didn’t lose income, we didn’t have to deal with kids or help with grandchildren, we still haven’t caught the virus, and only one person close to us was seriously ill from it — and yet the dread and uncertainty came flooding back.
A couple of days later, a friend told me that she had chosen to wear a surgical mask on a flight but ended up pulling it off because she felt a panic attack coming on. This woman routinely wore a mask for months with no issues, and she’s not generally the panicky type, so this experience baffled her.
At this writing, COVID is still killing almost 10,000 people a week, about 2,000 of them in the United States, so the pandemic is not over. But most of us have made peace with the risk, and life feels relatively normal even if not exactly the same as in the Before Time. Shaking hands and even hugging friends still feels brave — or foolhardy.
I rarely wear a mask anymore, but I still keep one in my handbag. I maintain a deliberate social distance in public places. I keep in mind that 3 in 10 Arkansans have not had a single vaccination and 44% are not fully vaccinated. (This goes a long way toward explaining why Arkansas has the sixth-highest COVID death rate per capita — 415 per 100,000 population, compared with the national average of 326.)
We’re starting to see proof of the toll COVID has taken on our society beyond normal grief for the loss of 1.07 million Americans, including 12,500 Arkansans, who have died of a disease none of us had heard of three years ago.
Exactly how much of the inflation that we are all experiencing is directly a result of COVID is hard to quantify, but it’s safe to say pent-up consumer demand, supply-chain disruptions, trillions of government dollars sloshing around and labor shortages are all contributing to higher prices — and are all associated with the pandemic. (Russia’s war on Ukraine is also a contributor, of course.)
Reading and math proficiency scores among schoolchildren have suffered across the country, and we don’t yet know how much of that lost ground can be reclaimed. It’s going to take effort, which is why another statistic is also notable: The number of teachers who retired or resigned in the last academic year was up 40% overall, according to a national survey by EdWeek Research Center.
The shortage of health care workers has been a standard story plot for as long as I can remember, and that workforce has not yet recovered numerically after COVID sent thousands of burned-out nurses and other skilled professionals running for the doors.
Academic studies in Ohio and Florida have shown that Republican voters were much more likely to die of COVID than Democrats — 76% more likely overall, and 153% higher after vaccines became readily available in April 2021. The effects were too diffused to blame for the Republican Party’s anemic showing in the midterm elections, but the politicization of vaccines and masks seems to have contributed to hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths.
Older workers are the ones least likely to have returned to the workforce since the big employment disruption of 2020. Surveys have found various reasons for that, including voluntary retirement a bit earlier than had been planned pre-pandemic. Whether voluntary or not, the loss of experience at a time of widespread labor shortages is another symptom of what we might call our societal long COVID.
It’s really no wonder, then, that the World Health Organization has warned of a 25% increase in depression and anxiety during the pandemic. If you are still feeling a little raw, be gentle with yourself and others.
This article originally appeared in Arkansas Business.