people in windows

Not long ago, toilet paper was the unofficial icon of the COVID-19 pandemic. Elected officials issued lockdown orders and shoppers stripped grocery shelves bare. Perpetual handwashing — and the fruitless search for hand sanitizer — quickly followed as symbols of an altered reality. Now, six months into a global crisis, the scope and shape of our ever-evolving behaviors is becoming clear.

“The pandemic has clearly upended all of our lives,” says Dr. Gary Small, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences and the Parlow-Solomon Professor on Aging in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “It’s been an assault, and the world as we knew it is profoundly different.”

Among the more jarring changes has been the wholesale switch to the online world. Everything from the work and the school day to medical appointments and first dates shifted from face-to-face to cyberspace, Dr. Small says. His own family found a way to move a cherished weekly card game with friends online. Others have rediscovered retro pleasures such as nightly family dinners and frequent movie nights. More recently, drive-in theaters, once bound for extinction, have made a social-distancing comeback.

“You have these little moments where you get beyond the challenges, and that’s good,” Dr. Small says. “You feel a sense of empowerment that you can still live a full life.”

But we are social creatures, and even with some successes, ongoing social distancing wears thin. For many people, isolation and loneliness are very real dangers. Close to one-third of all Americans — that’s more than 35 million people — now live alone. With in-person contact from work, shopping, socializing and recreation now rife with risk, the result is a marked uptick in anxiety, depression and other mental health problems.

“Being alone and isolated affects physical and mental health, and it isn’t good for cognition,” Dr. Small says. “It is important for all of us to become aware of our friends and neighbors in need and to make that effort to reach out.”  He holds out hope that helping the lonely and vulnerable among us will take hold as a lasting habit, even after the pandemic has passed.

There are other behavioral changes that some hope also will continue in a world redefined by COVID-19. Dr. Mark Sklansky, chief of pediatric cardiology at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital, has for years been a proponent of putting an end to the handshake. In 2014, he published an anti-handshake paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association that has gone from fringe thinking to prophetic. He has encouraged “no-handshake” zones in certain hospital waiting rooms, and recently he published a no-handshake music video on YouTube.

“Our hands are warm and wet, and they are very efficient at transmitting germs,” Dr. Sklansky says. “The handshake is a relic from centuries ago, and the fact is that it’s an excellent vector for disease.”

In spite of everything with which we must contend during the pandemic, Dr. Small remains hopeful for the future. “People are resilient, and as this goes on, we are adapting,” he says.