It’s About to Get Weird. Like, Really Weird.

Our excitement with getting back to normal can’t cover up how strange the journey back there will be

I’m writing weekly for Medium about my experiences as an emergency medicine doctor during the Covid-19 pandemic. You can read my previous posts on vaccine inequities, the variants, and more, here.

The summer is starting to look spectacular. The White House recently announced the U.S. will have enough vaccines by the end of May to inoculate every American adult. By the Fourth of July, we should be able to start celebrating our independence from Covid-19.

It’s about time. We’ve all had our fill of Zoom meetings, classes, and weddings. But in our excitement about getting back together with friends and family, we’re overlooking something crucial: It’s gonna be weird.

Not because the pandemic has made most of us a little more haggard. Sure, we’ve gained some weight. And our wardrobe is mostly sweatpants and sportswear.

But more so because in the last year, our sense of normal has shifted completely. Wearing masks and social distancing are now second nature. It’s hard to imagine it ever being otherwise.

The real reason I know that going back to normal won’t come easy is because I’ve done it before.

When I watch movies made in the bygone pre-pandemic era, I’m filled with angst. “Don’t they know that’s not safe?” I ask myself when I see all those maskless people hugging and hanging out indoors.

I’ve even wondered how I’ll explain to my two-year old-daughter that soon she’ll no longer have to chastise me when the mask falls below my nose.

If at the start of this pandemic I told you that this would become our reality, you probably wouldn’t have believed me. Nor did we imagine it would last this long.

The shift to this new normal was so profound, all-encompassing, and long-lasting. Unlearning certain behaviors — like grabbing a mask when walking out the door or keeping our distance — will undoubtedly bring challenges.

But the real reason I know that going back to normal won’t come easy is because I’ve done it before.

In 2014–2015, I worked in West Africa treating Ebola. Although seeing so many sick and dying patients was something I expected, the trip came with another profound shock that I wasn’t prepared for.

When responding to an Ebola outbreak, you’re told not to touch anyone at any time — starting when you step on the plane. Even married couples are expected to restrict their physical contact with each other. That’s because, unlike Covid-19, the virus that causes Ebola is primarily transmitted through contact with infected body fluids (for example, blood, feces). If you don’t touch others, you’re unlikely to get infected.

That’s how I learned that when touch is taken away, you quickly realize how much it means to you. The whole time I was in West Africa, there was no shaking hands. No hugs. No exceptions.

I remember first landing in Guinea and showing up at the guesthouse where I was staying. I saw a colleague and reflexively extended my arm to shake his hand. I still recall the look on his face: “We don’t do that here.” His rebuke was accompanied by a snarl similar to what I’d expect now if I walked into a doctor’s office without a mask on. I sheepishly blamed my faux pas on the jet lag and swore I’d never make that mistake again.

Despite my initial misstep, what was at first strange soon became the standard. Within a few days, not touching no longer felt weird. I actually never thought about it. It’s just what you — and everyone around you — did.

You suddenly realize how abnormal your sense of normal has become. What should be so familiar feels so unfamiliar.

I was ecstatic to get on the flight back to the U.S. when my deployment ended, hoping to put the pain and death of the outbreak behind me. I’d be going back home, where things would feel more normal. But when I got off the plane, what had become weird in West Africa rushed right back.

You meet up with some friends at their house — noting to them beforehand that you’re asymptomatic and thus not contagious. (Ebola is different from Covid in that way.) When you walk in, they approach you. Here comes a hand. And then a hug. They reach out to pull you in. And it feels so, so, so strange.

For the first time, you suddenly realize how abnormal your sense of normal has become. What should be so familiar feels so unfamiliar. With every interaction, your heart races, your mind is uneasy. Over the next few days, it gets a little easier with every handshake or hug. But it’s still a long time before it feels normal again.

It was more disorienting to relearn the rules of physical contact than it had been to unlearn them.

Covid isn’t Ebola. But unlike the individual experiences of Ebola responders, Covid significantly altered our perception of what’s normal at the societal level. Even more, this pandemic has already lasted so much longer than a typical six- to eight-week deployment to West Africa. That’s why I know we’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re just gonna bounce right back. Our excitement with getting back to normal can’t cover up how weird the journey back there will be.

So what should you do about all this weirdness?

Well, hopefully knowing that those first hugs will be really awkward will make them less so.

Plus, you should find some solace in knowing you won’t be going through this process alone — it’ll be happening to everyone around you, everywhere. People walking into someone’s house or into a restaurant for the first time since the pandemic started will be confronted with questions they haven’t considered in a long time: “Should I be the first to extend my arms for an embrace to show everyone I’m really comfortable? Or should I be the last, signaling that I’m not?”

It’s important to note that if you don’t feel comfortable taking off your mask, or hugging, or eating indoors when others do, you shouldn’t feel pressure to do so. There’s nothing wrong with you. Some will bounce back differently, faster, or more completely. People’s tolerance for risk will still vary, even as the risk continues to dissipate. That’s okay. And you’re okay.

And even if it’s gonna be weird, I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to it. But I probably should pick up a few new shirts first.

NYC ER doctor | Ebola Survivor | Director of Global Health in Emergency Medicine at Columbia University | Public Health Professor | Doctors Without Borders BoD

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