COVID-19 cracked us.
The mass trauma of the pandemic may have actually produced a form of mass psychosis. The disruption has caused a societal distress.
I think that we ignore or underestimate the extreme trauma that society has endured, and is living with, at our own peril.
There are nearly 1 million fresh graves in America over the past two years, deaths directly attributable to COVID. The first year of the pandemic brought the largest decline in American life expectancy since 1943, during World War II.
As The Washington Post reported, according to one study, the United States is faring worse during the pandemic “than 19 other wealthy countries — and failing to see a life expectancy rebound despite the arrival of effective vaccines.”
There can’t be that much death and mourning without severe consequences. But the deaths are only part of the story. There was also all of the sickness — 80 million Americans have caught COVID — and all of the havoc the virus has wreaked on our lives.
Our children couldn’t go to school. We couldn’t gather to celebrate weddings or graduations or the births of new babies. We couldn’t gather to properly mourn, to lay hands on one another, to hug tight enough to make the tears flow and hold the hug until they stopped.
Human beings are social creatures. We need to gather. We need to touch and be touched. We need community. But the virus put some of our basic humanity into suspended animation.
Society is aching, grasping, acting out, sometimes violently. We see the signs all around us. Sometimes it’s just a dramatic change in the way we live our lives.
For instance, we are in the middle of the Great Resignation, in which Americans are quitting their jobs in record numbers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people quitting has topped 4 million every month since July.
As clinical psychologist Sherry Walling wrote in Fortune this week, the Great Resignation is being caused, or at least fed, by the “Great Grief.” As Walling said, “Our grief fueled great personal upheaval and pushed many of us to question how we spend our precious, finite time on earth, especially considering that about a third of it is spent at work.”
This kind of collective aching manifests in unrestrained, unruly ways as well.
Some experts worry that we could see an increase in workplace violence as people begin to return to the office. As one expert told the Society of Human Reason Management last year, one reason for concern is that “many workers continue to struggle with physical, mental and emotional stress stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
But that’s just what could happen. Increased violence in other areas is already apparent.
Reports of road rage shootings hit a record high last year. As the advocacy organization Everytown For Gun Safety noted, “a person was shot and either injured or killed in a road rage incident every 17 hours, on average, during 2021.”
Last year was also the worst year on record for unruly passenger behavior on flights. People are not only spitting, cursing, using racial slurs and punching the backs of seats, they are also punching other people. One Southwest Airlines flight attendant even had a few of her teeth chipped after a passenger attacked her last year.
In January, CNN published an article about the number of unruly-passenger incidents that rose to the point of needing to be investigated by the Federal Aviation Administration. “From 1995 to 2020, an average of 182 investigations were initiated per year,” the network reported. “In 2021, the FAA initiated 1,081 investigations — a 494% increase over the historic average of investigations.”
We have also seen a surge in violent crime, especially gun violence. Countries such as Spain, Britain and Germany have not had the same surge, a disparity that an article published in Time magazine in January attributed in part to the hyper-politicization of American politics.
According to the authors:
“Recent research shows that during the pandemic, marginalized communities bore the brunt of the increase in such violence. A forthcoming study shows the same is true since 2014. Most of these neighborhoods have suffered high rates of violence and poverty for generations. This suffering can ultimately be traced back to policies of racial segregation and disinvestment that began in the early twentieth century.”
For many Americans, particularly those with privileges and means, the pandemic has been inconvenient, a problematic pause. They will be able to bounce back in some way, returning to vacations and parties.
But for many people whose lives were already held together by the thinnest of strings, those strings may have snapped.
We as a society have more of a lust for punishment than an urge toward empathy, so we are likely to meet this moment with force — more policing, more jailing, more cracking down — when in fact we need to understand that the soul of society, the most vulnerable parts of society, are bruised and bleeding.