Will the common cold ever seem common again? Will we ever hear coughs and sneezes in public without flinching and glaring? With cold symptoms closely related to those of covid, will we someday be able to sniffle without fear?

What about the good old American custom of “powering through” an illness? “I have pneumonia,” I announced cheerily over the phone to an employer, “But I’ll be back tomorrow,” to be answered by a resounding “You will not.” He was an anomaly. A bookstore I worked in for many years all but gave out purple hearts to those who came into work with coughs, cramps, or low-grade temperatures. Calling in sick evoked suspicion and outright disdain. Once I was applauded for coming to work with a hangover so severe that I looked like a plague victim, but of course that wasn’t contagious. 

Somehow I doubt that customers will ever again look dispassionately at a sales clerk who clutches a tissue in one hand while ringing in their purchases. Neither will their co-workers. The days of being a “plucky little trooper” may have been buried, along with the Western aversion to wearing face masks.

I used to scoff at people in Bangkok and Hong Kong who wore masks during flu season. “It’s like wearing garlic and a crucifix. That won’t protect them.” Despite a friend’s reproof of “You’ve never lived through SARS,” it took two years of covid for me to realize that protecting themselves wasn’t the point. 

At the very beginning of 2022, beginning on New Year’s Day, I wore two masks every time I had to leave my apartment for almost two weeks. My dry cough, painful nasal congestion, chills, and headache were probably nothing more than the kind of virus I used to shrug off. But who knows? DIY tests were as hard to come by in my neighborhood as toilet paper was in the beginning of 2020 and local testing centers were overwhelmed with people who have reasons to be in the world. I do not. I have the luxury of staying home when I feel suspicious symptoms closing in.

The idea of seeing a friend right now was an impossible dream,   a breach of etiquette, and an act of criminal irresponsibility. “Oh I just have a little cold.” “Yeah. Right.” Apparently once all symptoms vanished, I was no longer be Typhoid Mary. Most of the contagion is believed to be at its peak before the symptoms appear and it wanes as the illness does. Tests are advised before resuming social contact–pardon me while I take time out for a short and bitter laugh.

“Don’t be a hypochondriac,” my mother used to snap at her children while sending them off to school with handkerchiefs that would be sodden well before lunch. A touch of hypochondria may be exactly what this country–and the world–needs to nurture. 

But that probably won’t happen. This covid time is only a century after the Spanish Flu filled graveyards worldwide and any lessons that came from that were eventually submerged in Spartan resolve and economic necessity. That germ-ridden bookstore wasn’t the only employer who provided insufficient sick leave and disregard of contagion, although it could have given lessons in that behavior to any meat-packing plant. 

It’s a pretty thought to consider: that people will keep masks as a permanent accessory to their wardrobes, that businesses will discourage sneezes in the workplace, that calling in sick won’t be seen as a personality disorder. This may happen but I doubt it will last longer than a decade or two. The smallest children who made it through covid with only minor discomfort and no personal memories of this time will become adults who will discount the next pandemic and there will be no widely taught history to contradict them. Covid will be as distant to them as the Spanish Flu was to us. “Oh right. Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Never got around to reading that.”

The history of pandemics is written by the survivors and humanity is a selfish species. Given enough time, masks will be quaint and stoics will be the norm again. “I have a little cold but it’s nothing serious. Want to have lunch?”

Coda: My family delivered two covid tests to the door of my building in January. It wasn’t until a couple of other tests in February did I realize that the faint little T line on my first that looked like a shadow when compared to the robust line for C wasn’t a blip, but a diagnosis. I thank vaccines on bended knee and am glad I stayed in almost total isolation for twelve days. Covid is a sneaky little devil but it’s not invincible. I’m hanging onto my face masks and plan to stay home every time I feel unwell. You just never know…