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Malia Jones and Christine Whelan: Welcome to the pandexit

Malia Jones and Christine Whelan: Welcome to the pandexit

Welcome to the Pandexit

We’re struggling. We’re struggling through month 13 of decision fatigue amid constantly-evolving rules and information. One day it’s joy that you finally got a vaccine appointment! The next, it’s feeling overwhelmed with news of a rare blood clotting disorder linked (maybe? no one seems sure) to the vaccine you’re scheduled to get. What will tomorrow bring?

Welcome to the pandexit.

Pandexit (n.) The final phase of a pandemic. The messy, halting, confusing labyrinth we must navigate to get from where we are to our new normal. Pandexit is the transition period between crisis and the relative stability that we can expect in a post-pandemic reality.

Just as Brexit and Bennifer were meaning-laden words for an era of political or celebrity fervor, the word "pandexit" honors this liminal period. In such a transition period, change is to be expected. We have plenty more uncertainty ahead, mixed with occasional periods of relief and joy. Research from psychology to political theory tells us that having a name for something gives us clarity and power — something we sorely need in these confusing, waning days of the pandemic.

Creating a new, shared language is what we have always done with transitions: In 1900, there was no such thing as adolescence. Popularized by G. Stanley Hall, the term described the extended period of dependency between childhood and adulthood, as more young people prolonged schooling and delayed adult work. By naming the period, we attributed an agreed upon set of particular behaviors and milestones to those years.

In 2020, there was no such thing as pandexit. There was just the pandemic. Now it’s time to transition to our new normal. The particular behaviors and milestones of this period are still evolving, and we may only be able to identify them after the fact. We hopefully look ahead to vaccines becoming readily available, in our family physician’s office, to all age groups. We’ll know the pandexit is in its final chapter when vaccines are available globally and outbreaks of COVID-19 are sporadic local, and unusual. We’ll get there when we reach the herd immunity threshold — and maybe even before. 

But the road is going to be bumpy, as we’ve seen in the last week. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine remains a badly needed component of the herd immunity picture, since it promises excellent protection with just one dose. It has other major advantages too: it doesn’t need to be kept in a special freezer, so its potential for distribution in low-resource and remote settings is much higher than the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. But just as J&J supply issues were resolving, the federal vaccine safety monitoring system flagged six cases of a very unusual blood clot with low platelets in women who had recently received it. Federal authorities (appropriately) paused the vaccine’s distribution to give them time to ask important questions about these cases. Meanwhile, we’re left with more questions. Has a side effect with an incidence lower than lightning strikes increased vaccine hesitancy? Or are we reassured that safety is really being monitored? Or both? We’ll have to wait for those answers.  

The pandexit will include a lot of ups and downs like this. There will be new guidelines, and all the choices that go with them. Should I book summer travel now or wait? Should I sign the kid up for camp? Should I try to convince Uncle Marty to get vaccinated or let it be? Yet we know from other life experiences (jeans shopping, the cereal aisle) that more choices do not always equal more happiness. Indeed, often more choices paradoxically leads us to be less satisfied with our end result, because we have that nagging feeling that perhaps we could have made a better decision.

Naming is the first step in the process of liberation, human rights activist Rebecca Solnit has argued, because there is power in language. That power, of course, cuts both ways: While progressives can use zeitgeisty terms to poke at outdated stereotypes, authoritarians can use catchphrases to hide complex inequalities under half-truths. Pandexit refers to the complexity itself — the tension, the waiting, the unfairness of the process. The grief, hope and joy of looking ahead to the resolution of the pandemic and how it has affected all of us (and especially the most marginalized). 

By naming something — whether a disease, an emotion, a historical period or a person — we distinguish it as a thing with edges, contents and textures of its own. We can study and understand its particular qualities. Parents name their children to mark them as individuals. We name items to make them familiar. We name special places in nature for navigation. In short, naming is part of how we make meaning. Words help us pay attention.

Studies suggest that our ability to name our emotions is correlated with healthier responses to those feelings, including fewer emotional outbursts and fewer adverse coping strategies like drinking or yelling. Psychologists call this emotional granularity.

We need emotional granularity to help us through this final stage of the pandemic because, frankly, we need all the clarity we can get right now. Humans so dislike uncertainty that in one lab study, participants were calmer when they knew they were going to receive an electric shock than when they understood that they might receive a shock. This pretty much describes the last 13 months.

And we go into this already exhausted by uncertainty. Back in July 2020, when we naively thought schools might reopen and things might not be so bad after all, business professors Geeta Menon and Ellie J. Kyung presented a framework for understanding the cognitive and emotional approaches to cope with uncertainty that is applicable to our pandexit period as well: the Three Cs of Cognition and the Three Es of Emotion.

The Three Cs simplify our thinking about pandexit transitions: comply with expert recommendations rather than figuring out your own; consolidate information to what is reported consistently by multiple sources; and consult expert sources who can help to simplify complex information. Menon and Kyung encourage the Three Es to deal with the emotional fallout of pandexit: empathize with others — we’re all dealing with this challenge together; end your ruminations over small decisions before you make yourself crazy; and escape by focusing on other things when it’s all feeling overwhelming. Even the CDC says that pandemic (and pandexit) information overload is bad for you and suggests taking a break. 

Over the coming months, where vaccines are increasingly available, we can aim for something like “controllable spread” of the virus that causes COVID-19. As vaccine coverage gains ground, disease rates will decline and outbreaks will become more sporadic. Public health restrictions will ease. And, we will all get back to the business of being social creatures who sing in choirs, have birthday parties and ride elevators with other people. Eventually. 

It’s a lot of change. Again. This time for the better. But nonetheless, change is hard.

Pandexit is a word for all of this. The messy, hard, exciting, confusing, unfair, hopeful, maddening, joyous end stage of the pandemic. 

Malia Jones is an interdisciplinary researcher working at the intersection of infectious disease and social epidemiology, demography and geography. She is an associate scientist in health geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Applied Population Laboratory, where her work focuses on how the places we spend time affect our health, especially spatial clustering of infectious disease and vaccines. She is also the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Dear Pandemic

Christine B. Whelan is a clinical professor of consumer science in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author, most recently, of "Finding Your Purpose," a bestselling Audible Original Great Courses lecture series. For more on her books, research and speaking, visit http://www.christinewhelan.com.

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