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The summer that wasn’t

How our Covid-19 backslide taught us there may be no going back to “normal.”

A woman appears anxious as maskless partygoers gather around her.

Part of the Recovery Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

For Abby Greetis, Lollapalooza was supposed to be a celebration of the return to normalcy. The 19-year-old was one of more than 380,000 people who let loose at the annual outdoor music festival in late July in Chicago. While the emergence of the delta variant gave her pause, with the city’s endorsement of the four-day event and two Pfizer doses under her skin, “It was like, it’s too late, I have to get my money’s worth,” Greetis says. “I paid for it. I have to have a good time.”

Greetis and her friends — all members of the class of 2020 whose proms and graduations were canceled by the first wave of the virus — let loose to Megan Thee Stallion, Young the Giant, Post Malone, and Mt. Joy. For a brief moment, their world felt decidedly post-Covid.

But in the days after the event, Greetis developed an upset stomach. Then she became congested, and an informal study she conducted with a bag of fruit snacks revealed she could neither smell nor taste. City officials reported a relatively low number of cases from the festival, but a nasal swab proved Greetis was one of the unlucky few to contract breakthrough Covid-19.

In the United States, disasters like the Covid-19 pandemic have historically been treated as “a rupture” that “overturns the normal order of things,” says Andy Horowitz, associate professor of history at Tulane University and the author of Katrina: A History, 1915–2015. “The goal, then, is to return things to the way they were before. We just want to get back to normal.”

Lollapalooza, held in Chicago in July after a hiatus in 2020, was among the many hopeful gatherings and planned events intended to mark a return to normalcy.
Barry Brecheisen/Getty Images

It’s perhaps why so many Americans were determined to view summer 2021 as the end of the pandemic, despite every indication that SARS-CoV-2 would be a fixture in our lives for years to come. News outlets were forecasting a “shot girl” or “hot vax” summer, a new Roaring ‘20s, another “Summer of Love,” 1967-style.

There was reason to hope: By spring, millions of Americans had been vaccinated and infection rates had finally lulled. In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks indoors. Nightclubs and music venues were reopening by June; Broadway shared its plans to follow suit by fall. Heading into the Fourth of July weekend, President Joe Biden declared “independence from the virus.” Those who weren’t ready to reemerge were diagnosed by the Wall Street Journal as suffering from “cave syndrome.”

Yet, in many communities, hospital intensive care units once again began overflowing. Instead of a ratings bonanza or US gold-medal sweep, the Tokyo Olympics were marked by eerily fan-free venues and high-profile athlete dropouts, including Simone Biles — who, like tennis player Naomi Osaka when she pulled out of the French Open in July— cited her mental health. Masks were once again recommended for everyone, including the vaccinated, to wear when indoors. By August, everything from concerts to office reopenings were again postponed, a disruption exemplified in the tragicomic “fall plans” meme. Everyone was, once again, their own public health officer, alone in navigating the risks.

There was little hope to be found abroad, as the rest of the world also struggled with the pandemic, climate change, and political unrest — often all at once. In India, where the delta variant emerged, roughly half the population is estimated to have contracted Covid-19, and as many as 3 to 5 million are thought to have died as of mid-July. That same month, the decision by Israel and other wealthy nations to move forward with booster shots brought outrage, as only 2 percent of people on the African continent had received their first initial doses. Meanwhile, raging August wildfires in Greece forced the cancellation of vaccination appointments for residents suddenly evacuating en masse.

The intense grief, frustration, and despair that resulted were predictable responses of the human brain to this kind of adversity, says neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of The Brain: The Story of You. “We are creatures who always live in the future,” he says. For people who felt ready to be back out in the world, this stage of the pandemic is emotional because “we were thinking ahead, and the reality is worse than we predicted,” Eagleman added. A season of anticipation quickly gave way to the “delta doldrums.” After 18 months of insistent optimism, many are stuck in the déjà vu of despair.

Endings are complicated. The conclusion of World War I, for example, is dated to November 11, 1918 (referred to as Armistice Day). But with the benefit of hindsight, the entire conflict can be seen as a prelude to World War II. And while the Japanese signed those terms of surrender to the United States on September 2, 1945, the US decision to drop atomic weapons on Japan in the month prior marks the unofficial start of the Cold War. Significant events tend to bleed into each other.

Infectious diseases are no different. The Black Death ended around 1353, two years after the voracious first wave, which killed an estimated 25 million people, finally began to recede (and by which time many of the European survivors had acquired some immunity). But the Black Death — also known as the bubonic plague — continued to appear in communities around the globe thereafter and still kills today. Similarly, the 1918 flu pandemic (colloquially called the “Spanish flu”), may be the closest analog to the current pandemic, came in three mutating waves between 1918 and 1919 but still circulates as a common strain of seasonal flu.

For some people, the Covid-19 pandemic has already been over for a year or longer — if, that is, they ever acknowledged its existence. But for the majority who took some or many precautions to protect themselves and their loved ones from the coronavirus, setbacks like the ones we’ve seen this summer fly in the face of the American, and particularly the white American, narrative that “we are on the long road to progress,” says Horowitz, the Tulane historian. “Being confronted with challenges that people hoped and believed would be resolved [by now] can be deeply unsettling.”

In the face of ongoing disaster, public health officials and politicians have struggled to articulate a vision for a world where Covid-19 is an endemic disease — meaning it circulates in the community regularly — but not the source of continual crisis. That makes moving forward difficult, says Glen Nowak, a former media relations director at the CDC and now the co-director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Health and Risk Communication. “Typically, when you start talking about [recovery], you’re doing that because many people are tired of the circumstance — they’re tired of the pandemic,” he says. But recovery also requires a clear goal and enough social cohesion to pursue it. Without a shared plan, false starts and dashed desires are all but guaranteed.

The trouble is, recovery entails countless and even competing variables. “Different groups of people are going to understand and define recovery differently because it’s a political question,” Horowitz says. Everyone has their preferred metric: The vaccination rate. The number of people infected — or the number of people who could become infected. The number of people hospitalized. The S&P 500 or the Dow Jones. The employment rate. The reopening of international travel. The vibes.

A party bus rolls through Times Square during the halcyon days of summer 2021 — also known as early July, just days before the Centers for Disease Control recommended that even vaccinated Americans start wearing masks again.
Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

“We were just seeing a glimmer of hope of getting out,” says Rashann Lloyd Fontenot, a former real estate agent in Houston. Fontenot, 58, has primary immunodeficiency, a condition that makes her uniquely susceptible to severe infection. But when the CDC ended its mask advisory in May, “We knew we were in trouble,” she added. Fontenot and other members of her community anticipated the decision would only encourage new variants to spread. Now they face many more months, if not years, of dining at home, wearing masks around friends and family, declining social invitations, and going grocery shopping late at night or early in the morning to avoid crowds.

Others felt the shimmering possibilities of a post-Covid year become extinguished, too. Cat Warren, 65, of Durham, North Carolina, says the last few years she has to travel the world with her husband will look different than she originally envisioned. The European Council has removed the United States from its safe list of countries and encouraged its members to reinstate restrictions on nonessential travel. Domestically, the risk posed by unvaccinated Americans is too high for many vulnerable populations to return to business as usual.

“I’m very conscious that I’m in the last chunk of my life,” says Warren, who retired in July. “We did a little dreaming of what we could do, and while I think that’s not entirely off the table, the pleasure has been a little bit drained from [travel]. It’s more like work.”

Even Greetis, who is back on campus at the University of Illinois for her sophomore year, says the fallout from Lollapalooza is sticking with her. “It’s very frustrating to know I’ve avoided it all pandemic and I’ve done things I’ve been told are okay, and I still got it,” Greetis says. In the process, the pandemic became more “personal,” she added. “Now when people aren’t following the guidance, I feel a little more offended.”

In the absence of solidarity, people have turned to self-help narratives, which have often stressed the innate resilience of humankind. “Post-traumatic growth,” a positive psychological change (a new sense of possibility, improved relationships) in the aftermath of an extremely stressful event, has come to define the moment.

But the limits of this line of thinking are increasingly obvious: While “post-traumatic growth is real,” says Jamie Aten, founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, “it doesn’t always present the way we hope it does.” For example, Aten and his colleagues, as well as other researchers, previously found that some survivors of hurricanes Harvey and Irma overestimated their own post-traumatic growth. For others, the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” narrative never came true. That may also be the case for people struggling with the fallout of the pandemic.

Looking for a silver lining may also push people to ignore the gathering storm clouds. In 2019, 34 million people in America were living in poverty, roughly 1,000 people were killed in police shootings, and climate change continued to accelerate as the Trump administration rolled back environmental protections. While the virus wrought devastation, the response to it — including federal assistance programs that cut poverty in the United States nearly in half in 2020 and eviction moratoriums that kept millions in their homes — showed some success. But those advances are now in jeopardy as politicians try to move on from the pandemic before it’s done with us.

“To return to normal is to set up the dominoes again,” Horowitz says, “and then to act surprised when they fall.”

For many Americans, the most intense period of isolation is over, but it hasn’t been replaced, as people once hoped, with reckless abandon. Instead, dining out in New York City now requires proof of at least one Covid-19 vaccine dose; in other parts of the country, many businesses still ask for masks upon entry. Even once-basic gestures, such as hugs and handshakes, still feel up in the air, while dating — and all the close contact that comes with it — seems irrevocably changed. After coming down with a non-Covid cold this summer, “Now I’m afraid to go to bars a little bit,” one 30-year-old real estate agent told the New York Times. Like the virus, people are adapting, but some things will never be the same.

This stage of the pandemic can feel “normal,” but in all the wrong ways. Vaccinated people can operate on autopilot, masking up when they leave the house and washing their hands when they get home. “Now, instead of a million questions, we know what we need to do,” Eagleman, the neuroscientist, says. But humans thrive on novelty, and as the late-pandemic grind settles in, “It’s important to not let familiarity drown you,” he added. Mixing things up — and getting safely out of your comfort zone — will be important to maintaining sanity in an otherwise frustrating fall, he says.

In the process, the Humanitarian Disaster Institute’s Aten says many people will be forced to learn a lesson they might otherwise have hoped to avoid: the difference between surviving — simply staying alive through a crisis like the pandemic — and survivorship, the ability to carry on once the most acute danger has passed. As Aten knows from firsthand experience as a survivor of Hurricane Katrina and stage 4 colon cancer, survivorship “comes with a whole new set of struggles and challenges,” including grief, guilt, feelings of abandonment, and more. But it’s better than the alternative — to not have made it through the pandemic at all.

If you’re still waiting for a gong to ring or someone to declare the “all-clear,” you’ll be disappointed. In the months and years to come, widespread immunity from vaccination or exposure will help to limit Covid-19’s impact, but the path forward will never be straight as an arrow. “The truth is,” Horowitz says, “things often get better and worse at the same time.”

Eleanor Cummins is a science writer and frequent contributor to The Highlight. Most recently, she’s written about the Twitter presidency and social distancing scofflaws for Vox.

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