Don't Hold Your Breath Waiting for a Post-Pandemic 'Return to Normal'

We’re likely to be poorer, distrustful, and less free for years to come.


President Biden may have admitted "the pandemic is over" with regard to COVID-19, but that doesn't mean we won't be feeling its sting for a long time to come.

Security expert Brian Michael Jenkins argues that "the normality we knew before will not return" as we suffer the lingering effects on policy, erosion of liberty, and breakdowns in social cohesion. Data from elsewhere shows that we're already living in a world affected by the pandemic and the policies adopted in response to the virus. Pointing to the after-effects of historical epidemics, Jenkins predicts the damage may last for generations.

"Physicians talk about 'long COVID,' the range of ongoing, recurring, or new medical conditions that can appear long after the initial infection: the concept has a broader application to society as a whole," Jenkins writes in a commentary adapted from his recently published book, Plagues and Their Aftermath: How Societies Recover From Pandemics. "And as we try to process what all this means, history can be a useful tool to help us understand what we might expect in the future."

Those of us particularly concerned about lockdowns and other assaults on personal liberty that were implemented in the name of fighting infection are in good company suggests Jenkins, a former Green Beret captain, later adviser to the National Commission on Terrorism, and now a senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation. Governments have traditionally taken a heavy-handed approach, prompting questions about motives as well as pushback.

"Since the Middle Ages, it has been recognized that large-scale outbreaks of disease are dangerous and demand aggressive responses, drawing government into domains of activity that have traditionally been outside of political authority," he notes. "As in past epidemics, suspicions that government has exploited COVID-19 to expand its authority have been widespread."

In fact, watchdog groups around the world have repeatedly warned of government officials taking advantage of the virus to tighten the leash on the people under their control.

"As COVID-19 spread during the year, governments across the democratic spectrum repeatedly resorted to excessive surveillance, discriminatory restrictions on freedoms like movement and assembly, and arbitrary or violent enforcement of such restrictions by police and nonstate actors," Freedom House observed last year.

"The pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented withdrawal of civil liberties among developed democracies and authoritarian regimes alike," in the words of The Economist's Democracy Index 2021.  "It has led to the normalisation of emergency powers, which have tended to stay on the statute books, and accustomed citizens to a huge extension of state power over large areas of public and personal life."

Of course, civil and economic liberties work hand-in-hand. People who weren't free to visit friends or escape surveillance also weren't free to trade.

"The policy responses to the coronavirus pandemic, including massive increases in government spending, monetary expansion, travel restrictions, regulatory mandates on businesses related to masks, hours, and capacity, and outright lockdowns undoubtedly contributed to an erosion of economic freedom for most people," finds the Fraser Institute's Economic Freedom of the World: 2022 report. Restrictions at the outset of the pandemic resulted in "erasing about a decade's worth of improvement in economic freedom in the world."

That's unfortunate, because "countries with institutions and policies more consistent with economic freedom have higher investment rates, more rapid economic growth, higher income levels, and a more rapid reduction in poverty rates." The inflation, recession, and economic disruptions we see around us are direct results of governments' pandemic policies and reverse decades of growing prosperity.

Jenkins points out that such intrusive and opportunistic behavior by governments isn't new, and that people frequently see what's happening. The resulting erosion of trust after the 1918 Spanish Flu "was inherited by descendants and persisted decades after the pandemic."

The fraying social fabric that we see around us as mental illness, crime, and general hostility is also a replay of past events. "These last two years have resembled the disorders seen during the Plague of Athens during the Peloponnesian War and the Black Death in the Middle Ages," Jenkins comments.

"Psychologists blame the observed increase in antisocial behavior during the pandemic on prolonged isolation, which heightens anxiety, increases irritability, promotes aggression, and diminishes impulse control. Essentially, people have shorter fuses," he writes. "The effects may be hard to reverse."

Researchers agree that, whatever effects lockdowns and stay-at-home orders had in terms of limiting the spread of COVID-19, they did a lot of social damage.

"Evidence shows what service providers long suspected," the Justice Department conceded last October. "The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the domestic violence crisis by further isolating many people from family, friends, and support systems; and created even deeper economic and emotional hardship."

Children suffered "significant anxiety and depression during the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic," according to a May 2021 article in Pediatric Clinics of North America. "Social isolation, loneliness, lack of physical exercise, and family stress may contribute to these problems."

Kids also suffered enormous loss in terms of learning when many public schools closed their doors and failed to make an effective transition to remote classes.

"Average scores for age 9 students in 2022 declined 5 points in reading and 7 points in mathematics compared to 2020," the National Center for Education Statistics revealed this month. "This is the largest average score decline in reading since 1990, and the first ever score decline in mathematics."

That's quite a litany of harm from our reactions to the pandemic and it's not something that we'll quickly fix. We're likely to be poorer, distrustful, and less free for years to come.

"The normality we knew before will not return," Jenkins bluntly states. "Postpandemic society is a new, more-perilous place where we are stressed, wary of each other, edgy, and quick to violence. The pandemic has heightened distrust in American institutions, which many have come to see as dysfunctional, ineffectual, corrupt, even tyrannical."

We don't know how long this new normal will last, but the grimmest takeaway is that this all could have been foreseen by studying epidemics of the past. That we didn't learn from previous crises suggests that officials may be allowed to repeat the same mistakes the next time they flex their public-health muscles.