For all of us, this past year was marked by brutal disruption to life as we knew it. The pandemic ushered us indoors and online. We’ve formed relationships with professors, classmates and colleagues from such a distance that the idea of occupying the same room as them seems entirely bizarre. Norms of social interaction have transformed: Crossing the street to avoid others and not exchanging pleasantries with strangers is now the polite thing to do. The thought of being part of a crowd — cheering at a packed football game or moshing at a concert — feels like a far-fetched dream.
Out of the millions of ways in which the pandemic has disrupted my life, the barrier between me and other human beings has hit me the hardest. I love people. I delight in striking conversations with strangers and making new, potentially life-long friends. I enjoy social gatherings and spending time with the people that make me happy.
However, during the pandemic, I’ve found myself growing more and more distrustful of others. Amid rapidly climbing case numbers and viral videos of partygoers and anti-maskers, the fear of getting sick and passing it on has led me to increasingly view others as a threat.
I used to welcome small talk, but now I get agitated when the person behind me in the checkout line gets too close. I’m constantly on guard for improperly worn masks or the sound of coughing in public, anxious about escaping risky interactions. When I run into old friends on the street, I sometimes pretend not to see them just to avoid the awkwardness of an elbow bump or having to remind them to stay six feet away.
Growing distrustful of others is a frightfully lonely feeling. I hate being afraid of everyone around me all the time — always having to remind myself that I don’t know who could be carrying the virus. It’s demoralizing, especially for someone who relies on other people for comfort and enjoyment. It’s my worst fear that I’ll continue to be anxious around people even after the pandemic subsides.
This week, however, exactly one year after UC Berkeley transitioned to remote learning, I’m beginning to feel uplifted by hope. For the most part, vaccine distribution has accelerated, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just announced that vaccinated individuals can start to see each other indoors without masks on. Seeing videos on social media of people reconnecting with their grandparents after a year of quarantine has rekindled the feeling of warmth toward humanity I thought I’d lost. Despite myself, I’m making mental lists of the people I want to see and hug when I’m able to, and it feels like that could be very soon. I’m excited to once again meet new people and make new friends in my classes in person.
We probably won’t be throwing our masks away or attending concerts in the near future. Maybe we will remain wary of making small talk with strangers in public places for a while. But, this too is a phase that will pass, just like the months spent wondering about the vaccine have passed. In the meantime, however, I am content connecting with others over Zoom and maintaining a distance of six feet when I’m out. For the past year, we’ve made these sacrifices to protect each other. These shared hardships might ultimately bring us closer together than we would have otherwise been.