Kat Timpf: Why coronavirus 'new normal' will never feel 'normal'

This will never, ever seem normal to us, because we’re biologically programmed to never feel like it is.

The coronavirus pandemic has stretched into its fifth month with no end in sight -- and many people have taken to describing this isolated, mask-wearing way of life as “the new normal.”

They shouldn’t, because there’s nothing “normal” about this, and that isn’t going to change.

Now, I’m not saying that I see this crisis going away anytime soon, because all indications unfortunately point to the fact that it won’t. Tens of states and two territories have seen record days or coronavirus cases since July 1. Last week, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security predicted “that mask wearing and some degree of social distancing” will be our reality “for several years.”

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In other words, it seems as though we’re all going to be stuck with this for a very long time. The thing is, though, no matter how long it does -- even if it is “ for several years” -- it won’t be “normal,” because that’s just not a word you use to describe living in a way that counters our basic biological needs.

It’s indisputable, of course, that humans are social beings. So much so, in fact, that experts believe that prolonged loneliness can lead not only to mental health issues but also to physical ones like accelerated dementia, cognitive decline, high blood pressure, lower immunity and heightened inflammation. A June piece for HealthAffairs written by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a Brigham Young University psychology professor and member of an international team of researchers studying the impact of coronavirus isolation, claimed that “social isolation is a significant contributor to morbidity and early mortality.”

"We are not meant to be alone," Holt-Lunstad told USA Today. “That state of alert, if it is prolonged, puts wear and tear on our bodies.”

“The reason it feels unpleasant is it's a biological signal, much like hunger and thirst, to motivate us to reconnect with others," she continued.

Holt-Lunstad’s view, of course, is not really so much a “view” as an objective, widely accepted fact. For example: Dr. Carmel Dyer, a professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Texas, told a local news station this week that drawn-out social isolation can worsen seniors’ immune systems and brain function, and also make them debilitatingly depressed.

“Three months ago they were fine, now they are very forgetful; they are scatterbrained,” she said.

Dr. Anne K. Rufa, a Ph.D. clinical psychologist at Rush University, said something similar.

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“Humans are social creatures by nature,” she said. “We’re not meant to lead solitary lives.”

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that any of this means we can just ignore the existence of this virus. What’s more, I’m not sure how we could go about reopening in a way that would keep people safe. I’m not a doctor, and even infectious disease experts don’t seem to know of a precise, perfect and practical way to do so. That isn’t surprising either. It’s called “novel coronavirus,” after all, because it’s new -- so even those with the most extensive knowledge of viruses have only begun to study this one.

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Still, I think it is crucial to acknowledge that this will never, ever seem normal to us because of who we fundamentally are as a species. We’re wired to hate it; we’re wired to be brutally uncomfortable, and one way to make all of that even worse is to gloss over this reality.

See, the implication behind phraseology like “the new normal” is that we should somehow be used to this by now and that if we’re not yet, then we’re at least expected to be able to get there. This kind of messaging, even though it’s not its intention, can be harmful to people who are struggling with all of this -- because it can make them feel like they’re failing, which is a pretty good way to feel even worse.

What’s more, hearing this rhetoric become a widespread refrain can make anyone who doesn’t relate feel like they’re somehow weird or broken. No one should ever feel that way, let alone for reacting to a situation in the exact way that they’re fundamentally built to react.

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New York City has been largely locked down for four months now, and it doesn’t feel normal to me. Far from it -- in fact, it’s actually so uncomfortably unusual to function in this way that I often feel like I’m hardly even functioning at all.

But that doesn’t make me weird. After all, as a human, engaging in social interaction is part of the way I am supposed to function. It’s my nature -- and, even if I live to be 100, I won’t ever feel “normal” about living in conflict with the way that I’m meant to live.

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