At least once a day in the quiet of our house, which is also my workplace, weekend get-away, night spot, breakfast joint, and lunch counter, I think to myself: This is really weird.
Most of the country and much of the world is sheltering at home, attempting to flatten the curve of infection caused by the novel coronavirus. In the darkest moments it seems as if this will never end. Stay-at-home policies have been extended and extended again.
But it will end. The day will come when we talk about before COVID-19 and after COVID-19. The pandemic is no doubt a watershed in US history and in the history of the world. It is hard to know what event to use as a comparison to the disruption and death caused by the coronavirus.
There was the 1918 flu pandemic that claimed 50 million lives worldwide and 675,000 in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obviously, we’re short on eye witnesses to that one. And the death toll was many times what we’re likely to see from the novel coronavirus, I hope.
I think of COVID-19 more like World War II, another flawed comparison. World War II lasted for years and was the cause of long-term sacrifice. But domestically, it changed everything — the economy, politics, society, education, demographics, worldviews, and the workforce.
This pandemic will reshape nearly all aspects of life. Change exactly how is a trickier question. Will we ever shake hands again? Gather in large groups? Take toilet paper for granted?
Who knows, though chances are we’ll get there in due time. I suspect life during the pandemic will mostly accelerate changes that were already underway. We will see a series of step changes — a transformation that continues from an elevated level caused by a crisis in this case.
Our politics will change. Look for more mail-in voting over longer periods of time, rather than an election day where voters show up at the polls. The handling of the coronavirus will be a key talking point in the 2020 presidential election and it will likely be a key issue in the dozen or so gubernatorial races in the fall and other down-ballot contests.
Less certain is whether government-run disaster preparedness and disease prevention will change in fundamental ways. Health experts and others have been warning for years that governments need to devise a comprehensive and coordinated plan to react to a virulent, new virus.
In the fall of 2007, the St. Louis Federal Reserve issued a report that studied the effects of the 1918 pandemic. It concluded that areas that quickly instituted regulations similar to the social distancing and shelter-at-home policies of today saw less economic damage — and even economic growth soon after the pandemic passed — than did areas that were slow to enact such policies.
It also painted a bleak picture for those looking to government for an answer.
“Assuming that citizens want government to mitigate an influenza outbreak, there should be concern about government’s readiness and ability to protect citizens from a pandemic,” the report, “Economic Effects of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic: Implications for a Modern-day Pandemic,” concluded. “Perhaps public education on flu mitigation, a greater reliance on charitable and volunteer organizations, and a dose of personal responsibility may be the best ways to protect Americans in the event of a future influenza pandemic.”
On the federal level, it will almost certainly take a change in administrations to lead to a change in the way the federal government anticipates and reacts to history-shifting events like a pandemic. The current administration is not known for reflection or learning from mistakes or even admitting mistakes.
Depending on the results of the November election, a change in administration might not happen for years. Whether the memory of COVID-19 will be recent enough at that point to prompt elected officials to take steps such as reestablishing the National Security Agency’s global health security office or revamping the national stockpile of medical equipment to ensure that it has adequate inventory and effective processes for distributing that inventory.
More predictable will be the lasting pandemic effects on business, work life and consumer behavior, all of which are related.
It’s inevitable that when millions of workers are allowed to go back to work, post-coronavirus, many won’t. They will have jobs, but both employees and employers will have seen that remote workers are not necessarily a drag on an organization. In fact, many will find that allowing workers to work where they want to and, to an extent, when they want to actually increases productivity.
Obviously, a home-based workforce will not work for all businesses — hence the millions who became unemployed almost instantly when Americans were ordered to stay home. And working from home won’t work for all individuals. We are social creatures. We need each other in very real ways. After weeks or months of social isolation many will be desperate to be with others.
Most likely, more and more workers will split their time between working from home and showing up at an office. The shift will change traffic patterns for the better and affect mass transit systems, possibly for the worse, depending on the impact on public transportation budgets. Systems that operate at a loss, which is most of them, could benefit.
More businesses will undoubtedly have more robust business continuity plans. Big businesses already plan for natural and human-caused disasters by ensuring that their data storage is redundant and distributed geographically, for instance. They make sure workers in one part of the world can pick up for those who can’t work in other parts of the world. Or they make sure their workers have the equipment and coordination to work from home.
Small- and medium-size businesses are also finding business-continuity religion in the time of COVID-19. In the retail industry, which is what I’m most familiar with, some merchants are seeking automated solutions to handle jobs that remote workers can’t perform — or to handle crisis-related increases in workload that the distributed workforce can’t keep up with.
For instance, with brick-and-mortar stores closing or offering curbside pickup only, e-commerce activity is spiking. Consumer data from the company I work for, based on transactions at thousands of merchants, showed that online orders were up nearly 20 percent within three weeks of the World Health Organization’s declaration that COVID-19 was a global pandemic.
Certain segments of e-commerce saw dramatic swings. Online grocery sales increased 110 percent the week the pandemic was declared. The company’s data also indicates that new demographics — those 55 and older, for instance — are embracing online shopping to a greater extent than they had pre-coronavirus.
These trends are exactly the sort of behavior changes that lead to the kind of “step changes” I mentioned earlier. Clearly online grocery sales won’t increase 110 percent every week. And the sales did slow considerably after the initial burst. But it is highly likely that a significant percentage of shoppers who tried online grocery shopping to avoid going into a store will stick with it to some extent after the pandemic’s all-clear.
It is the sort of pattern industry experts have talked about in relation to the annual holiday shopping season — particularly as it relates to buying on mobile devices and buy-online-pick-up-in-store orders. Both behaviors tend to spike during the holiday shopping season, when consumers are busy and buying more than they typically would.
The holiday shopping behavior does begin to revert as we move into January, but the incidence of mobile purchases and in-store pickup orders continue at a level higher than pre-holiday days. And so, a step up, setting a higher plateau for the next step up during the next holiday season.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been rightfully called unprecedented, which means no one can be all that sure how the novel coronavirus will change the world we live in. None of us have lived through this kind of pandemic and many of us have not even lived through something like it.
It is a time that has called for sacrifice and an acknowledgment that the world is bigger than us and our role in it. It’s a time that asks us to understand that our actions can have life or death consequences for those around us. It is a time that has forced us to find new ways of human connection.
Those might be the most valuable lessons we learn from the great pandemic of 2019–2020. The vast opportunity that the global economy presents, comes with a massive responsibility. It is the butterfly effect of human connectedness. What we do today, has consequences tomorrow. What we do here can significantly affect people there.
A heightened sense of our connectedness might be exactly what we need as world citizens to begin to build our defenses against the next great global threat. Saying that learning that lesson would make the current pain worth it is not exactly right. Closer to the truth is the notion that if we fail to learn that lesson, we have squandered an opportunity to find some light in the darkness of disease.