As the life-altering coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic gradually ebbs, we are all its survivors. Now, we are experiencing COVID-19 fatigue, trying to emerge from its dense fog that pervaded every facet of our lives. We are fully cognizant that there will not be a return to the previous “normal.” The pernicious virus had a transformative effect that did not spare any component of our society. Full recovery will not be easy.
As the uncertainty lingers about another devastating return of the pandemic later this year, we can see the reverberation of this invisible assault on human existence. Although a relatively small fraction of the population lost their lives, the rest of us are valiantly trying to readjust to the multiple ways our world has changed. Consider the following abrupt and sweeping burdens inflicted by the pandemic within a few short weeks:
Mental health. The acute stress of thanatophobia generated a triad of anxiety, depression, and nosophobia on a large scale. The demand for psychiatric care rapidly escalated. Suicide rate increased not only because of the stress of being locked down at home (alien to most people’s lifestyle) but because of the coincidental timing of the pandemic during April and May, the peak time of year for suicide. Animal researchers use immobilization as a paradigm to stress a rat or mouse. Many humans immobilized during the pandemic have developed exquisite empathy towards those rodents! The impact on children may also have long-term effects because playing and socializing with friends is a vital part of their lives. Parents have noticed dysphoria and acting out among their children, and an intense compensatory preoccupation with video games and electronic communications with friends.
Physical health. Medical care focused heavily on COVID-19 victims, to the detriment of all other medical conditions. Non-COVID-19 hospital admissions plummeted, and all elective surgeries and procedures were put on hold, depriving many people of medical care they badly needed. Emergency department (ED) visits also declined dramatically, including the usual flow of heart attacks, stroke, pulmonary embolus, asthma attacks, etc. The minimization of driving greatly reduced the admission of accident victims to EDs. Colonoscopies, cardiac stents, hip replacements, MRIs, mammography, and other procedures that are vital to maintain health and quality of life were halted. Dentists shuttered their practices due to the high risk of infection from exposure to oral secretions and breathing. One can only imagine the suffering of having a toothache with no dental help available, and how that might lead to narcotic abuse.
Social health. The imperative of social distancing disrupted most ordinary human activities, such as dining out, sitting in an auditorium for Grand Rounds or a lecture, visiting friends at their homes, the cherished interactions between grandparents and grandchildren (the lack of which I painfully experienced), and even seeing each other’s smiles behind the ubiquitous masks. And forget about hugging or kissing. The aversion to being near anyone who is coughing or sneezing led to an adaptive social paranoia and the social shunning of anyone who appeared to have an upper respiratory infection, even if it was unrelated to COVID-19.
Redemption for the pharmaceutical industry. The deadly pandemic intensified the public’s awareness of the importance of developing treatments and vaccines for COVID-19. The often-demonized pharmaceutical companies, with their extensive R&D infrastructure, emerged as a major source of hope for discovering an effective treatment for the coronavirus infection, or—better still—one or more vaccines that will enable society to return to its normal functions. It was quite impressive how many pharmaceutical companies “came to the rescue” with clinical trials to repurpose existing medications or to develop new ones. It was very encouraging to see multiple vaccine candidates being developed and expedited for testing around the world. A process that usually takes years was reduced to a few months, thanks to the existing technical infrastructure and thousands of scientists who enable rapid drug development. It is possible that the public may gradually modify its perception of the pharmaceutical industry from a “corporate villain” to an “indispensable health industry” for urgent medical crises such as a pandemic, and also for hundreds of medical diseases that are still in need of safe, effective therapies.
Economic burden. The unimaginable nightmare scenario of a total shutdown of all businesses led to the unprecedented loss of millions of jobs and livelihoods, reflected in miles-long lines of families at food banks. Overnight, the government switched from worrying about its $20-trillion deficit to printing several more trillion dollars to rescue the economy from collapse. The huge magnitude of a trillion can be appreciated if one is aware that it takes roughly 32 years to count to 1 billion, and 32,000 years to count to 1 trillion. Stimulating the economy while the gross domestic product threatens to sink by terrifying percentages (20% to 30%) was urgently needed, even though it meant mortgaging the future, especially when interest rates, and servicing the debt, will inevitably rise from the current zero to much higher levels in the future. The collapse of the once-thriving airline industry (bookings were down an estimated 98%) is an example of why desperate measures were needed to salvage an economy paralyzed by a viral pandemic.
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