There won't be a clear end to the pandemic

He and Cade said they wouldn’t be comfortable going through with their plans until a safe vaccine had been developed and distributed. They and many others think of an effective vaccine as a key that unlocks the post-pandemic future. It would indeed provide some relief, but as my colleague Sarah Zhang has written, “it certainly will not immediately return life to normal”; the availability of a vaccine would represent merely “the beginning of a long, slow ramp down.”

As a result, although many people have a distinct memory of the beginning of the pandemic, they may not experience a single parallel moment marking the end of it. The break between the Before Times and the present was conspicuous, but the transition from the present to the After Times will likely be more piecemeal and less tidy.

The way that people process the end of the pandemic could have to do with how abruptly their life changes after it. One theory for how people mentally perceive transitions from one event to another is that they notice when their expectations of what will happen next start to get upended—“like the disorientation you feel when a movie abruptly shifts to a new setting,” says Lance Rips, a psychology professor at Northwestern University. Under this framework, if someone undergoes a big life change during the final stages of the pandemic (say, moving or getting a new job after a bout of unemployment), they might be more likely to register a turning point. But if instead they merely start going out more, day by day, that might not yield the same discombobulation that can mark moments of transition.