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Pandemic will alter families and relationships for years to come

A new study from UCLA describes how the overall dynamics of relationships could be changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The experts predict that the psychological fallout from the pandemic will affect families, work lives, relationships, and gender roles for years.

A team of 12 leading scientists analyzed 90 research studies to evaluate the potential social consequences of COVID-19.

According to senior author Professor Martie Haselton, marriages will be postponed, birth rates will drop, and planned pregnancies will decrease in the post-pandemic world. She said that people who are single will be less likely to start new relationships, and women who can afford to be independent will stay single longer.

Unlike many past crises, this pandemic is not bringing people closer together, noted study lead author Benjamin Seitz. Despite some exceptions, it is not producing an increase in kindness, empathy or compassion, especially in the United States, said Seitz. 

Professor Haselton explained that with children home due to the pandemic, women are spending more time providing care and schooling and are less available for paying work. This means that many women will have to rely more on male partners as breadwinners, and society could shift back toward socially conservative gender norms.

“The psychological, social and societal consequences of COVID-19 will be very long-lasting,” said Professor Haselton. “The longer COVID-19 continues, the more entrenched these changes are likely to be.”

As marriage rates drop and pregnancy is postponed, the populations of some nations will shrink and fall precipitously below “replacement level,” wrote the researchers. Lower birth rates have cascading effects of their own, such as slowing economic growth and affecting job opportunities.

Studies have shown that women were more stressed by work and family responsibilities even before the pandemic, whereas now they have been forced to take over new jobs related to child care and education. In medicine and other sciences, women scholars are already publishing substantially less research than they did a year ago, while men are showing increased productivity, said Professor Haselton.

The study authors predict a shift toward social conservatism in the months and years to come. They refer to the pandemic as a “worldwide social experiment” that exploits our weaknesses by infecting us through contact with people we love who seem to be healthy. 

“Our social features that define much of what it is to be human make us a prime target for viral exploitation,” said Professor Haselton. “Policies asking us to isolate and distance profoundly affect our families, work lives, relationships and gender roles.”

Viruses and other infectious agents must evolve to better manipulate their hosts so they can survive and continue to spread. In this case, SARS-CoV-2 may be altering human neural tissue to change our behavior, the researchers explained. The virus appears to be suppressing feelings of sickness, and perhaps even enhancing our social impulses, during times of peak transmissibility before symptoms appear. 

According to the experts, we must gain a clearer understanding of how SARS-CoV-2 is enhancing its own transmission through behavioral and psychological impacts in an effort to make the virus less harmful and less lethal.

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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