We were promised a Hot Vax Summer.
The term – a riff on Hot Girl Summer, the hit 2019 summer single – emerged this spring as predictive shorthand for the (perhaps literally) orgiastic welcome of a post-vaccine reality. But, as might be expected of a phenomenon named for the last great summer anthem of a world before Covid-19, Hot Vax Summer connoted more than a gleeful exchange of fluids. It came to signal a best-case scenario for a time of transition. Pure celebration and best lives lived. In simplest terms, relief.
What has instead come to pass is a season of ambivalence. For many, the exhilaration of long-overdue hugs is offset by the anxiety of interaction. Optimism bumps against grief. Gratitude, tempered by the sobering rise of the highly contagious Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus (and frustration with the vaccine hesitation that has enabled its rapid spread in the US). As spring turned to summer, new uncertainties took the place of others. Hope keeps pace with pain.
A new phase of the pandemic is upon us: the dual reality.
Vaxxed, waxed and uncertain
This distinct era of competing truths became clear in the first full week of July. #CovidIsNotOver became a trending Twitter topic on the very day that the CDC updated its guidance on masks for in-person learning, announcing that vaccinated teachers and their students were clear to go mask-free in their classrooms.
“We’re at a new point in the pandemic that we’re all really excited about,” said Erin Sauber-Schatz, a Covid-19 emergency response taskforce leader at the CDC, per the Associated Press.
The spirit of the announcement seemed at odds with key developments that unfolded around it. Already a growing threat across Europe, Delta was feeding a surge in Covid-19 cases across the US, with parts of Arkansas and Missouri reporting positive test rates unseen since the pandemic’s midwinter peak. In the UK, NHS medical staff voiced “dread and anxiety” over fast-rising numbers, particularly amid the continued loosening of pandemic restrictions.
To some extent, ambiguity has defined the past 16 months. “Uncertainty is a pervasive, abstract stressor during pandemics, with Covid-19 being no exception,” says Steven Taylor, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia and the author of the prescient The Psychology of Pandemics (2019).
As Taylor reminds me, uncertainties emerged even before the pandemic was declared: “Will this outbreak become a pandemic?” people wondered. Uncertainties will persist after the pandemic, too: “Is this the end of the pandemic or just the end of another wave?”
Such unanswered – and unanswerable – questions facilitate the existence of parallel, even conflicting, understandings of what’s going on. That is to say, the eternal optimists may be inclined to indulge their post-vax bliss and even slip into the past tense when discussing the pandemic with friends. The anxiety-prone among us, on the other hand, double down on what comes naturally: a spectacular pageant of worry.
“Most people find it stressful to deal with uncertainties,” says Taylor, “but people with a particular personality trait tend to have an especially difficult time.”
Those are people who, on psychological personality assessments, score high on a trait called “intolerance of uncertainty”. These people, Taylor explains, tend to worry a lot. They are also likely to have experienced higher levels of distress throughout the pandemic, including with regard to vaccination.
In some cases, pandemic distress plunged people into a state of near agoraphobic caution over keeping themselves safe from Covid. These people may have also been prone to compulsive symptom-checking, even if they were not in a high-risk situation, and avoidant of other people. In an October 2020 paper published in Psychiatry Research, psychologists put a name to this compendium of anxious behaviors: Covid-19 anxiety syndrome.
“The coping strategies [some people] acquired may have become ‘anchored’ in their everyday lives and be seen as important for staying ‘safe’,” wrote the paper’s co-authors, Ana Nikčević from Kingston University of London and Marcantonio Spada, a professor at London South Bank University. They predicted that, for the syndrome’s sufferers, the return to “normal” would probably prove difficult.
Nine months later, I find myself wondering whether the researchers’ prediction is panning out. Are people struggling just as intensely as they were a year ago, when Covid-19 vaccination seemed an eternity away?
In short, according to Spada: yes.
“Since we first started to track Covid-19 anxiety syndrome in May 2020 the changes have been minimal,” the professor tells me via email. “Indeed, in our latest survey from June 2021, the endorsement of avoidance, worry, and threat monitoring remains high, with approximately one in five still reporting significant distress.” Spada adds that, in the UK, US and Italy, anxiety levels remain particularly high.
I ask whether the summer’s dual reality strangeness might factor into some people’s persistent, unwavering anxiety.
“It probably does,” Spada says. “Because we have so many differing opinions and mixed messages, the underlying fear of the virus is not abating. This is likely to bring people to try to control the fear by engaging in behaviors such as avoidance, worry, etc – the syndrome – to keep safe.”
The widespread tendency to frame the pandemic in terms of a “before” and an “after” probably doesn’t help. Expecting a clearcut ending to Covid-19 might make it more challenging for people to embrace the transitional nature of late-pandemic recovery, with its many ups and downs – not to mention its contradictions.
But there is also good news. Taylor tells me that research from previous disasters and pandemics indicates that most people will bounce back to their pre-pandemic levels of function. Some people have even changed for the better. In a recent paper, Taylor and colleagues argue that Covid-19 may be linked with a psychological phenomenon known as post-traumatic growth.
“That is,” says Taylor, “Covid-19 has served as a catalyst that enabled some people to grow as human beings.” In such cases, the many challenges of the pandemic led to greater stress resilience and helped foster closer relationships between friends and family members. It deepened spirituality and strengthened communities.
The pandemic is not over, and it’s not going to be smooth sailing ahead. But the vast majority of us will adapt, recover, and perhaps come out on the other side with an improved outlook. Or, as Taylor puts it, “enhanced appreciation for the little things in life”.