They promised us a Summer Hot Vax.
The term, a riff from Hot Girl Summer, the 2019 summer hit single, emerged this spring as a predictive shorthand for the orgiastic welcome (perhaps literally) of a post-vaccine reality. But, as might be expected of a phenomenon named after the last great summer anthem of a world before Covid-19, Hot Vax Summer connoted more than a joyous exchange of fluids. He went on to point out the best case scenario for a moment of transition. Pure celebration and better lives lived. In simpler terms, relief.
Instead, what has happened is a season of ambivalence. For many, the exhilaration of overdue hugs is outweighed by the anxiety of the interaction. Optimism collides with pain. Gratitude, tempered by the sobering rise of the highly contagious Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus (and frustration with the vacillation of the vaccine that has allowed its rapid spread in the US). When spring turned into summer, new uncertainties replaced others. Hope keeps pace with pain.
A new phase of the pandemic is coming: dual reality.
Vaxxed, waxed and uncertain
This was different from competing truths became apparent in the first full week of July. #CovidIsNotOver became a trending topic on Twitter the same day the CDC updated its guide to masks for in-person learning, announcing that vaccinated teachers and their students were clear that they would not wear masks in their classrooms.
“We are at a new point in the pandemic that we are very excited about,” said Erin Sauber-Schatz, leader of the Covid-19 emergency response task force at the CDC, according to the Associated Press.
The spirit of the ad seemed to be at odds with the key developments that unfolded around it. Already a growing threat across Europe, Delta was fueling a surge in Covid-19 cases in the US, with parts of Arkansas and Missouri reporting positive test rates invisible from the peak of the pandemic in the dead of winter. In the UK, NHS medical staff expressed “fear and anxiety” over the rapid rise in numbers, particularly amid continued loosening of pandemic restrictions.
To some extent, ambiguity has defined the last 16 months. “Uncertainty is an abstract and pervasive stressor during pandemics, and Covid-19 is no exception,” says Steven Taylor, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia and author of the prophetic The psychology of pandemics (2019).
As Taylor reminds me, uncertainties arose even before the pandemic was declared: “Will this outbreak become a pandemic?” people wondered. Uncertainties will also persist after the pandemic: “Is this the end of the pandemic or just the end of another wave?”
Such unanswered and unanswerable questions facilitate parallel, even conflicting, understandings of what is happening. That is, eternal optimists may be inclined to indulge in their postvax bliss and even turn to the past tense when discussing the pandemic with friends. The anxiety-prone among us, on the other hand, redouble what comes naturally: a spectacular parade of worries.
“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.”
These 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 also likely experienced higher levels of distress during the pandemic, including regarding vaccination.
In some cases, pandemic distress plunged people into a state of almost agoraphobic caution about staying safe from Covid. These people may also have been prone to compulsive symptom checking, even if they weren’t in a high-risk situation, and avoided other people. In an October 2020 article published in Research in psychiatry, psychologists gave this compendium of anxious behaviors a name: Covid-19 anxiety syndrome.
“Coping strategies [some people] acquired may have been ‘anchored’ in your everyday life and seen as important for staying ‘safe’, ”wrote the paper’s co-authors Ana Nikčević from Kingston University London and Marcantonio Spada, a professor at South Bank University London. They predicted that, for those with the syndrome, a return to “normalcy” would likely be difficult.
Nine months later, I wonder if the researchers’ prediction is working. Are people fighting as intensely as a year ago, when it seemed like an eternity to Covid-19 vaccination?
In short, according to Spada: yes.
“Since we started tracking Covid-19 anxiety syndrome in May 2020, the changes have been minimal,” the professor tells me via email. “In fact, in our latest survey in June 2021, support for avoidance, worry and threat monitoring remains high, with about one in five still reporting significant distress.” Spada adds that, in the United Kingdom, the United States and Italy, anxiety levels remain particularly high.
I wonder if the strangeness of the dual reality of summer could play a role in some people’s persistent and unyielding anxiety.
“It probably will,” says Spada. “Because we have so many different opinions and conflicting messages, the underlying fear of the virus is not diminishing. This is likely to lead people to try to control fear through behaviors such as avoidance, worry, etc., the syndrome, to stay safe. “
The general tendency to frame the pandemic in terms of a “before” and an “after” probably won’t help. Hoping for a clear end to Covid-19 could make it harder for people to embrace the transitional nature of late recovery from a pandemic, with its many ups and downs, not to mention its contradictions.
But there are good news. Taylor tells me that past pandemic and disaster research indicates that most people will return to their pre-pandemic levels of functioning. Some people have even changed for the better. In a recent article, Taylor and colleagues argue that Covid-19 may be related to a psychological phenomenon known as post-traumatic growth.
“I mean,” says Taylor, “Covid-19 has served as a catalyst that allowed some people to grow as human beings.” In such cases, the many challenges of the pandemic led to increased resistance to stress and helped foster closer relationships between friends and family. He deepened spirituality and strengthened communities.
The pandemic is not over and things are not going to be easy. But the vast majority of us will adapt, recover, and perhaps come out on the other side with an improved perspective. Or, as Taylor puts it, “a greater appreciation for the little things in life.”