News Special Report

The Pandemic Has Changed Us, Permanently

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The daily commute. Catching a first-run film. In-person doctor visits. Standing-room-only concerts. Checking out a hot new restaurant.

These common everyday experiences are now fraught with risk as COVID-19 brought widespread changes in how we live, work, play, and stay healthy.

Once the global health crisis eases, which behaviors and lifestyle changes that have become the norm during the pandemic will stick with us, and which will be erased?

Two years into the crisis, WebMD asked doctors, health experts, psychologists, and social scientists to ponder this question: What did we give up during the pandemic that most people won't return to doing, even when it's safe to do so?

Their answers suggest the pandemic brought many once-in-a-lifetime changes to everyday life that will become the "new normal" for millions in the U.S. and around the globe.

In some cases, those changes were positive. For others, not so much.

At Work: Is Daily Commute Permanently Stalled?

For Jonathan Hyman, the pandemic led to a job change and the realization that career pursuits are about more than simply paying the bills and putting food on the table.

Hyman, an Ohio attorney specializing in workplace law, says COVID-19 has redefined the nature of work for millions of Americans and businesses. At some workplaces, familiar routines, such as the daily commute and face-to-face meetings, are gone forever.

"When it comes to working from home, that genie is out of the bottle and I don't see it ever going back in," he says. "Employers that were resistant to work-from-home policies had to pivot last March to keep their businesses open. And I think businesses that require 100% in-person attendance as a condition of employment are going to find it really hard to source and retain quality candidates."

Indeed, Gallup recently reported that 45% of full-time U.S. employees are working from home all or part of the time -- down from a peak of 83% in April 2020 -- based on the polling organization's nationally representative surveys. That's up from just 17% before the pandemic. In addition:

  • Two thirds of white-collar workers (67%) are working from home exclusively (41%) or some of the time (26%).
  • 91% hope to continue working remotely because it eliminates a daily commute and office distractions, affords flexibility in balancing work and personal obligations, and improves their "overall well-being."
  • Three in 10 say they will seek another job if their company eliminates remote work. Nearly 50% said they would take a pay cut to continue working from home, according to a survey by Owl Labs and Global Workplace Analytics.

But it's not just employees who are embracing the work-from-home trend. Many employers plan to continue allowing remote work in the future, citing reduced costs for office space and overhead and virtual meetings and video chats replacing the need for business travel, conference planning, and other once-common practices.

New Power Balance in the Workplace

Beyond the work-from-home trend, many workplace experts say the pandemic has altered the balance of power between employees and employers at many companies.

Since March 2020, millions of Americans have left jobs for positions they believe offer a better balance between their personal and professional lives. In fact, the trend is so significant that workplace experts have described it as "The Great Resignation."

University of California-Berkeley economist Ulrike Malmendier argues that COVID-19 lockdowns and the rise of remote work have led to major shifts in how many of us view our lives and our careers.

"Even for those who were lucky enough to avoid infection, life began to look very different," she says. "Most workplaces were closed, and people started working from home. Essential workers still showed up at their workplaces -- the hospitals, the grocery stores, the delivery service sites -- but did so in masks and PPE, and under very different workplace rules.

"Most of these challenges were expected to be time-limited," she says. "Once the health risks subsided and our schedules and support systems resumed, we would return to a prepandemic way of living -- or so we thought. And yet, despite these expectations, there were early signs that this pandemic experience might leave its mark on us in the long run."

For Hyman, this issue isn't just academic. He made a career move himself during lockdown, taking a new position with a law firm that gave him more control over his career and that he thought would increase his job satisfaction.

"I changed law firms to one that came with more of a management position, a seat on the board of directors of my firm, and more of a say in the direction of my career," he says.

"We spend 8 hours a day working -- a majority of our waking lives. So to find something that doesn't just give you the ability to pay your bills and put food on the table but will bring you satisfaction I think is incredibly worthwhile," he says. "And I think a lot of people have sought that out in the last 18 to 20 months."

Indoor Entertainment May Never Feel the Same

South Florida realtor Brent Crowe is a foodie, film buff, and rock-music fanatic whose weekends used to be spent dining out, attending concerts, and going to the movies with his wife, Raquel, and friends.

But COVID-19 changed not only that but also his perspective on being in large crowds indoors. Today, a night out for dinner and a movie or a concert feels too risky, he says. Instead, he and his wife order takeout, attend only outdoor concerts, and stream films and shows at home. And Crowe doesn't expect that to change any time soon.

"I don't ever want to be anywhere indoors where I'm shoulder-to-shoulder with people who may not be vaccinated," he says. "Concerts, movie theaters, waiting for a table at a restaurant [or] even standing in line at a retail store. I'm pretty much done [with] doing anything inside with a bunch of people I don't know."

And the Crowes aren't alone. Millions of Americans have avoided indoor concerts, movie theaters, entertainment centers, churches, and retail stores during the pandemic. Netflix and other online streaming services are benefiting, as are Amazon and manufacturers of home-theater systems. At the same time, musical artists, Broadway theaters, and film studios have turned to streaming services to deliver media and content.

Netflix, for example, reported 214 million global paid memberships for the third quarter of 2021, up from about 168 million in 2019. Amazon Prime, Disney+, and Hulu have also seen subscriptions skyrocket in the past 2 years.

Although the trend is slowing, according to the latest figures, experts don't expect the at-home streaming to go away.

Theater chains, concert organizers, and dine-in restaurants have all taken massive hits in the face of pandemic lockdowns worldwide. For example, Live Nation, which hosted 40,000 concerts worldwide in 2019, went to almost no concerts during the height of the pandemic, reporting the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars. And the demise of thousands of theaters and restaurants has also been well-documented.

Even churches and houses of worship have been hurt, with many closing during the pandemic and in-person service attendance now 30% to 50% lower than it was before March 2020, estimates Barna Group, a research firm that studies faith in the U.S.

Millions of Americans moved to online worshiping, and it's unclear how many will be going back to in-person prayer, even when it's safe to do so.

"A significant minority of the population is saying their faith has been strengthened as a result of the coronavirus outbreak," says Greg Smith, associate director of research at Pew and author of the religious affiliation study. "But … the secularizing trends that have been evident for a long time show no signs of slowing, certainly no signs of reversing."

Restaurant owners, live music promoters, and movie theater executives say they expect those industries to survive the pandemic, although with changes in their operations in 2022 and beyond.

Joe Hand Jr., who runs a pay-per-view sporting and entertainment franchise that provides streaming for restaurants, casinos, and bars, says his company has been picking up a lot of business from movie theaters seeking content other than movies.

"The movie theater for the consumer is not going to be a place for people to just watch movies but a place where people go to be entertained. It will be a watch-party atmosphere," he says. "I'm a believer that the movie theaters are going to become community gathering centers for special events."

On the Health Front: Telemedicine and Science Skepticism

In addition to all the ways the pandemic has altered how we live, work, play, and worship, the COVID-19 crisis also had profound changes in health care -- some positive, some detrimental -- experts say. The global crisis has focused the public on the importance of their health -- a shift in perspective that will live on after the pandemic eases, some doctors believe.

"People are thinking about their own health and the health of their loved ones in ways they probably did not before," says Leana Wen, MD, an emergency doctor and public health policy professor at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. "I hope this attention to health and well-being persists beyond the pandemic."

William Schaffner, MD, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, believes that behaviors that might have seemed odd prior to the pandemic have been normalized for many, if not all, of us.

"If you're walking through the airport and you're masked, for example, nobody is going to look at you too weird," says Schaffner. "And even little things, such as the use of hand sanitizer and wiping down carts at the supermarket -- I think that stuff will continue."

Telehealth Is Here to Stay

During the height of the pandemic, when many doctors' clinics across the nation closed and hospitals, overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, canceled many elective procedures, millions of Americans -- and many of their doctors -- became more familiar with virtual doctor visits. Many experts believe those experiences have given momentum to the expansion of telehealth services.

Medicare telehealth visits increased 63-fold during the pandemic, from 840,000 in 2019 to 52.7 million in 2021, a recent study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found. Medicare telehealth services will stay in place until at least 2024, the study noted.

Many private insurers, employers who provide insurance, doctors, and hospital chains have also embraced telemedicine services, allowing virtual office visits as an alternative to in-office services.

About 2 in 3 Americans plan to continue using telehealth services after the pandemic eases, a new Harris Poll survey found.

"You can't vaccinate through the computer, but many routine visits can be done almost as effectively through the computer," says Schaffner. "I think we are now going to see telemedicine in a variety of forms much more readily introduced into the routine environment."

The Politicization of Health

The ongoing conflict between those who advocate wearing masks to protect against COVID and those who scoff at the recommendations of many public health experts is the starkest example of the politicization of health care.

Democrats (94%) were more than twice as likely as Republicans (46%) to say they "always" or "very often" wear masks outside their homes, according to a Gallup survey in July 2020.

Some experts worry that the politicization of COVID-19, public health messages, and the vaccines has negatively affected how millions view scientists, doctors, and health officials. It has also amplified social divisions and has made it harder for many people to separate fact from fiction and to distinguish big risks from small ones.

For many Americans, political messaging and misinformation have framed the debate over COVID-19 vaccinations as being more about liberty and freedom than public health, which helps explain why nearly 4 in 10 Americans remain unvaccinated, says Rupali Limaye, PhD, a social and behavioral scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

The deep divisions that have emerged around COVID prevention, testing, and vaccination may spill over into other areas and be a legacy of the pandemic in years to come, Limaye says.

"There's been an erosion of trust in public health. We've seen that play out in the last 2 years," she says. "And I actually think we're going to see a little bit of a hit with regards to coverage of other vaccines because of concerns about how the COVID vaccine rollout went and the mixed messages people are getting.

"There has been a stark increase in polarization in this country over [COVID-19], and that to me is a fundamental cultural issue here in the United States," she says. "It's not just about science; it's about lots of things that we now can't talk to a neighbor about because they feel differently and have different political ideologies than I do."

David Ropeik, a retired Harvard University instructor who specializes in risk perception, believes the pandemic has led to big changes in public attitudes toward safety and security. These changes have the potential to shape not only our personal medical decisions but also corporate actions, health policy, and other government actions in ways not yet known.

"The fear of SARS-CoV-2 is unique in human history. We've never faced a threat that felt personal -- 'it could happen to me!' -- and imminent -- 'it could happen now!' -- to everyone on the planet at the same time," says Ropeik, author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts.

William Orme, PhD, a Houston psychologist, says the jury is out on which changes brought by the pandemic -- positive or negative -- will endure after the crisis passes.

On the hopeful side, Orme believes the pandemic already has driven many people to make lasting changes in their lives for the better -- in how they live, work, and play.

"Some may be worried about the lasting behavior changes brought about by the pandemic," he says, "[but] there is a real opportunity here for people to realign themselves with rhythms in life that give them greater energy and purpose.

"My hope is that as people find a little more balance and fulfillment, their increased well-being will have an overall beneficial impact on our communities."

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