COVID-19, with all the variants of the virus that causes it, has unquestionably affected people across the globe. The disease itself or the stress, uncertainty, and fear it has created touched most people in one way or another.
Yet, despite its known immediate effects, the pandemic’s lasting impact on society is not fully understood. Dr. Mirela Loftus, medical director at Newport Healthcare, told Medical News Today:
“The pandemic has had a very real, very personal impact on people’s lives. Whether an individual was personally sick, lost someone they loved to COVID-19, lost their job, or ‘just’ struggled with isolating stay-home orders and global panic, each of us was affected differently, and many profoundly.”
According to research, from shopping, working, and school to traveling and entertainment — the pandemic has changed how people navigate daily life. In addition, it has produced a state of uncertainty multiplied by economic and cultural fears.
But has this changed overall human behavior and communication long-term? And if so, how does society begin to recover from these changes?
How and why the pandemic impacted behavior
Research suggests that public responses to widespread disease have remained mostly unchanged since the Black Death, in the 14th century. Moreover, previous pandemics have also caused significant upheaval and widespread changes in social and socio-economic structures.
Prof. Marina Bluvshtein, professor and president of the International Association of Individual Psychology at Adler University, told MNT:
“There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all in understanding how people respond to a stressful situation, whether the situation is unique for one person, one group, or it leads to a mass stress-fueled response. We’ve ridden waves of the pandemic — entering it in 2020, throughout its ongoing effects over the course of 2 years, and now […] we are hopefully coming out of it. The waves are epidemiological, social, economic, and political – really a big storm.”
As the “storm” continues, people naturally engage in adaptive behavior to meet the demands of their situation or environment. This can create lasting changes in how people communicate and behave.
Types of behavior affected
Behavior is individualized and multifaceted. Just like responses to the pandemic are not one-size-fits-all, behavior can differ depending on many factors.
Prof. Bluvshtein explained that “there are different aspects of behavior: the motivational, behavioral, and emotional components.”
According to Dr. Loftus, several key behaviors emerged due to the pandemic. “Some prioritized their health and fitness while others didn’t fret [about] eating more and working out less given the seriousness of the world around us,” she noted.
In terms of communication, “[s]ome people adapted by turning to video calls with loved ones and Zoom meetings for work, while others retreated into isolation.”
There was also the official versus the individual aspect of the matter, said Dr. Loftus: “Officials were telling us to modify our behaviors for our safety, while some people questioned the suggestions/ orders, and people were divided.”
At the end of the day, she added, “the experience was truly different for us all but similar at its core. Most of us longed for connection and a return to ‘normal.’”
As time has passed, these behaviors may have led to various changes in how we relate to work, other people, and our own lives.
A shift to remote work
Behavior in the workplace may have experienced significant changes due to pandemic-related social restrictions. A study focusing on employees from Germany and Switzerland indicates that working from home — particularly if experienced for the first time — during the pandemic was strongly associated with a positive effect on work life.
Furthermore, 60% of people currently working from home due to the pandemic report they would like to continue doing so after the pandemic is over.
Still, the shift to remote work may have a downside.
Prof. Bluvshtein explained further:
“People throughout the pandemic — and to this day — conduct business through virtual meetings. While something is being checked off the list as completed and in technical terms, […] people may still feel like something doesn’t feel quite right. The missing part is often that sense of wholeness — through all the senses humans have. These elements may be lost, or significantly changed, for most of those working at home.”
Altered spending habits
Social restrictions and lockdowns may have also led to changes in spending behavior. For example, scientists surveyed 3,833 people aged 18–64 in Italy during the first wave of COVID-19.
They found an increase in spending and the psychological need to buy essential and non-essential products. Moreover, anxiety and COVID-19-related fear may have motivated people to purchase necessary items, whereas depression predicted spending on non-necessary products.
Moving forward, these and other pandemic-fueled spending habits may have changed consumer behavior long-term.
For instance, according to Prof. Jie Zhang, professor of marketing, and Harvey Sanders Fellow of Retail Management at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, people are now shopping online more.
They are also buying more staple items in bulk, and investing in at-home entertainment options, she notes in an interview.
The COVID-19 pandemic-related social restrictions forced many people to change how they communicate. Instead of face-to-face interaction, people used social media and text-based communication to connect through the various lockdowns or stay-at-home orders.
This may have resulted in social displacement or replacing face-to-face contact with virtual interaction.
JoLeann Trine, LCPC, a licensed clinical professional counselor with Thriveworks in Aurora, IL, told MNT:
“Arguably one of the largest changes involved social interactions. Suddenly droves of people were working from home, attending class online, and avoiding socializing with anyone outside the household or approved bubble. As people adapted to their new life format, their way of communicating and behaving changed.”
However, research looking into the impact of social media and well-being found that the downward trend in face-to-face interactions has been developing for years.
The scientists suggest that although cell phone and social media use is rising, existing evidence does not support that it is replacing face-to-face interaction.
Instead, social media may fill the gap when face-to-face interactions are lost — which was the case during the pandemic.
Still, they hypothesize that social media may be replacing other media and time spent on household and work tasks.
Improved attitudes towards mental health
Because the COVID-19 pandemic has created a perfect storm of anxiety, and uncertainty, it has had a significant impact on global mental health. It has also given rise to new mental health concerns, including COVID-19 anxiety syndrome and pandemic-related disordered eating.
Dr. Loftus explained that “[u]ltimately, mental health was severely impacted, as proven by the 25% increase in [the] prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide, according to WHO [World Health Organization].”
“Eating disorders in adolescents have also increased by 25% according to several studies, as did substance use,” she added.
However, some positive changes may have occurred. According to a UN Chronicle article, the negative psychological effects of the pandemic may have created more mental health awareness, destigmatized mental health conditions, and increased treatment options — including telehealth.
Speech and language changes
According to Michigan State University researchers, historically, significant events and disasters have demonstrably impacted language and speech.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, language changes may have included the addition of new pandemic-related words.
For example, slang words and phrases, including “Rona,” which is short for “coronavirus,” “doomscrolling,” which refers to compulsive scrolling through social media threads infused with negative news, and “Zoom fatigue” became commonly used in casual conversation.
To investigate the possible impacts of COVID-19 on language, Michigan State University Sociolinguistics Lab researchers are currently collecting recorded speech from Michigan residents through their MI Diaries project. They hope to track and document pandemic-related speech changes.
According to anecdotal reports, the pandemic may have negatively impacted behavior by contributing to a rise in incivility and rudeness, which may well have occurred due to chronic exposure to stress and an anxiety-inducing news cycle.
Healthcare professionals have also reported experiencing incivility. According to one analysis using data retrieved from an online survey, 45.7% of nurses polled reported witnessing more rudeness than before the pandemic.
Reduced time spent around others may have also contributed to this state of affairs. Trine suggested that “though small-talk opportunities decreased due to COVID-19, the need for concise and clear communication increased.”
She further explained that “casual social skill practice was drastically reduced, made obvious by the many circulating posts that poked fun at forgetting how to socialize that appeared once restrictions were lifted.”
Looking to the future
Whether pandemic-related shifts in behavior and communication remain in place is yet to be determined. Moreover, as society heals and adjusts, some changes may evolve to become new societal norms while others may fade. Still, not all changes could be considered negative.
Moving forward, Dr. Loftus suggested the following:
“Perhaps we will now place higher priority on in-person interactions and our relationships with others, being outdoors for sports and activities, and feeling relieved of constant worry. Acknowledging what we went through and growing and learning from that experience would be the best outcome.”
Prof. Bluvshtein emphasized that even though the pandemic clearly took a heavy toll on most of us:
“Nothing is completely irreversible. We’re going to be okay — everyone is able to be well and to do well — but we need to give ourselves space and time to get there. […] It will take time to reacquaint [with] a new reality. What we saw during the pandemic was a need to return to the way things were, ‘back to normal,’ but in reality, we don’t need to go back. Human evolution prompts us to move forward, not backward.”
She suggested that people have a unique chance to come through this experience “wiser, kinder, and feeling that life is precious, and it is to be protected, cherished, and enjoyed with others.”
“This isn’t just a silver lining — it’s a golden lining,” said Prof. Bluvshtein.
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