Imagine: It’s a boiling August day in DC—like, so hot there’s a sweat puddle on your lower back and you’re wondering why you even blowdried your hair—and you just got on the bus. It’s 8:50 in the morning, and it’s crowded, and this one dude’s massive backpack keeps poking you right in the kidney. You close your eyes, remind yourself you only have five stops to go, and swallow the rage deep into your core, allowing a tiny piece of your soul to die.
This all might seem like a half-dream, half-memory from an early 2020 life, but it’s a reality we could all return to soon. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced that most spots will lift capacity restrictions starting May 21, with the District moving to being fully reopened by June 11. This summer, it’s likely that more folks will return to public transportation, return to the office, return to commuting, return to jostling for space on escalators—all the things that many of us have done either with far less frequency or not at all during the pandemic.
Living in a crowded city can cause irritability and anxiety regardless of circumstance. But what will it be like after we all emerge from living through a deadly pandemic? There has been plenty of discourse about our deteriorating social skills, our state of languishing, our pandemic senioritis. I think it’s also worth considering what we’ll call “Cov rage”—the possible belligerence and frustration that comes with releasing a bunch of raw-nerved, on-edge bodies back into the wild.
We’ve already seen an uptick in road rage incidents across the country that have been attributed to pandemic emotions, and in DC, a man died last month after being shot during a road rage incident. Meanwhile, Google searches for “road rage” increased during the pandemic and spiked this spring. It’s also likely you’ve seen someone publicly chastise another person for not wearing a mask (or you’ve been the chastiser or chastised). And even though the CDC says it’s no longer necessary for fully vaccinated people to always wear masks outdoors, this is still a provoking topic. Plenty of vaccinated DC people are still wearing masks outside, whether because it makes them feel more comfortable or because they see it as being polite to others.
I’ve gone on several walks without my mask on, only to sense a current of anger and judgment from anyone I encounter outside and still masked. Maybe it’s in my head, but this perceived resentment feels so real and condemning that I’ve put my mask back on, even though I know I don’t have to. And then I feel weirdly angry toward the people who I thought were mad at me. Healthy!
Of course, there are still lots of people who aren’t fully vaccinated or are immunocompromised, and it makes sense that they’d be on edge about masks coming off. But it’s also extremely unlikely you’d contract Covid while walking past someone outside, even without a mask. And therein lies the tension! It appears I’m not alone in feeling it—just do a Twitter search for “mask” and “outside,” and you’ll see plenty of DC-area tweeters arguing the necessity of fully vaccinated people continuing to wear masks outdoors. If people can get this riled up on the internet, think about what could happen at the dog park or on the sidewalk.
Is Cov rage the new normal? I asked Caroline Wohlegemuth, a DC psychiatrist, about our somewhat, uh, volatile emotional state around re-entry and the easing of restrictions, and she said she’s seen clients increasingly irritated or frustrated by sitting in traffic or having to wait in line. But, she said, it’s not really the traffic or the line or the mask that’s the issue—the frustration is a symptom of our underlying pandemic-era anxiety. “This is hard. Humans don’t like change,” she told me. “And even though [most of us] didn’t like isolating, we don’t like changing it again. You get used to a certain way of being.”
When you consider that we’ve basically molded ourselves into the hamster balls of our homes, it makes sense that we would all be angry and frustrated and on-edge when presented with the option of going back into public. That’s a big change, and one that can produce significant amounts of anxiety—especially when we’ve conditioned ourselves to associate public settings with potential contamination.
Fully vaccinated people like myself can comfort ourselves with the science, but that doesn’t automatically rewire our brains. It doesn’t change the fact that close to 600,000 Americans have died of Covid, and that some of those people we knew personally. It doesn’t change the fact that we’ve lived through a period of immense social and political unrest, of economic uncertainty and hardship. So, yeah, it’s understandable and very human that you’d feel a little emotionally raw if you choose to step back on a crowded bus this summer.
I’m not saying DC is about to explode into Purge-like mayhem—just that it’s entirely possible we’ll be a bit quick to anger for a while. While that’s natural, it doesn’t mean we have to act on it, cutting off every slow driver we come across, and it doesn’t mean it’s permanent. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from 2020, it’s that humans are miraculously resilient and adaptable. No one’s diminishing the very real and lasting impact of the pandemic, but I also have confidence that if we can teach ourselves to stay indoors, we can teach ourselves to go back out—without fear of snapping.