The Guest Alternate View

The Post-Coronavirus "New Normal"

By Richard A. Lovett

When COVID-19 first struck the U.S. full force, in March and April of 2020, attention focused, understandably, on two things: (1) how best to fight it; and (2) when life would return to normal.

As I write this in midApril [updated midMarch], we are still in the midst of dealing with the first question, with everyone talking about social distancing, “flattening the curve,” antibody tests, and facemasks. Discussion of a return to normal mostly focuses on hoping the virus dies down in the summer and that maybe, maybe, maybe it won’t rebound too severely when we do attempt to return to normal.

By the time you read this, we’ll have better answers to both those questions. But there is another question that’s not yet really begun to be addressed: what will “normal” look like when we get to it, and how will it be different from before the pandemic?

Some of the likely differences, of course, are obvious. Unless the virus miraculously vanishes, we’ll probably still be working on perfecting a vaccine, and still be looking for faster, simpler, cheaper, and more widely available treatments. We’ll probably also still be avoiding (or limiting attendance at) large gatherings like concerts, political rallies, football games, parades, and road races.

But there are likely to be more permanent changes, some subtle, some major, that will persist even if COVID-19 vaccinations someday become as routine as flu shots.

That’s certainly the type of thing that happened in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Before then, airport security was minimal, and non-passengers were allowed through what security there was to greet arrivals at the gate or bid adieu to loved ones. Before 9/11, I used to carry a Swiss Army knife at all times, even on a plane, where I sometimes used it to open the peanut packets of the era, which sometimes defied every effort to open them by hand.

Today, all of that is unthinkably quaint. And who back then would have dreamed of shoe bombers or underwear bombers?

The attacks also led to the creation of an entirely new cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security. I remember being stunned when President George W. Bush first unveiled the name. My initial thought was, seriously, Homeland Security? I wasn’t opposed to the concept, but the name made me think of 1984 or Stalin’s Soviet Union. Now, it slides off the tongue, and I barely notice it.

It has also been argued that cost-cutting measures implemented by struggling airlines in the wake of 9/11 set the stage for 2020’s joyless, cramped flights, with their cattle-car atmospheres.

But it wasn’t just air travel that changed. Before 9/11, I was (in part) a freelance travel writer. Then magazines and newspaper travel departments saw their ad revenues dry up, and nobody wanted travel stories. By the time the travel industry recovered, travel writing had reorganized, with more online content, lower editorial budgets, and a lot less need for people like me. It was something that would have happened anyway as the internet grew, but 9/11 kicked it into high gear.

More recently, the Boston Marathon bombing also produced long-term changes, though these were considerably more limited in scope. Today, for example, it is inconceivable that an event like the Boston Marathon wouldn’t have substantial security. At the most recent U.S. Olympic Team Marathon Trials, competitors weren’t even allowed to bring backpacks or gym bags to the warm-up areas. Instead, everyone, including the top professionals, had to put their warm-ups in clear plastic bags to facilitate inspection. Before Boston, that level of paranoia would have been viewed as absurd.

All of which means that COVID-19 is guaranteed to produce lasting changes in what people see as normal.

It’s most likely to start with entertainment. As I write this, it’s not clear how long theaters will remain closed, but even if they reopen quickly, how much of their former audience will be lost?

In TV, more and more shows are moving online—in the science fiction world, Star Trek Discovery, Star Trek Picard, and The Orville are three that had already made the transition well before COVID-19. It’s easy to see movie studios doing the same. And once movie watchers get used to it, they aren’t likely to go back to the theaters. Apps like Zoom will also make it possible to watch movies online with friends—even friends who live so far away that you could never meet in a real theater.

Concerts and plays might follow suit—converting into something akin to what boxing has long done with pay-per-view telecasts.

The advantages for performers are obvious: better acoustics than they can get in large arenas, less risk, and an opportunity to rake in a giant audience from a single performance. They can also get the ambiance of a live performance by performing before a small, carefully screened audience (with nobody allowed in without a COVID-19 test at the door)—perhaps computer-augmented to make it appear larger. Doing this also reduces the amount of time they spend touring, freeing them to create new material.

The advantages for audiences are similar: less risk, lower ticket prices, and—again via apps like Zoom—the ability still to experience live performances “with” friends and family.

Science fiction has been writing about this type of thing for years, but has tended to view it in the context of artificial reality requiring some sort of full-immersion interface. But COVID-19 is teaching us that this isn’t necessary. All that’s needed is to bring the event with ever-greater fidelity to viewers’ ever-more-sophisticated home-entertainment centers.

Similarly, doctors are already starting to do online medical appointments. Churches have started online, interactive worship services, including online communion services.

Even major conferences are starting to move online. Shortly after COVID-19 locked down the country, the American Astronomical Association (AAS) announced that its June 2020 meeting, originally scheduled for Madison, Wisconsin would be conducted entirely via webcasts. Glitches are likely, but the AAS and other scientific associations were already experimenting with webcasts, especially for press conferences. They aren’t yet as good as being there in person, but the cost and travel-time savings have already allowed me to “attend” many meetings I would never have bothered with in the past.

A shift to even-greater webcasting was, of course, only a matter of time. Kevin Marvel, the AAS’s executive officer, says that AAS had already been considering such changes, partly to make its events more affordable, but also to reduce their carbon footprints. COVID-19 was simply the factor that kicked this plan into operation—a move that is likely to be widely emulated.

The same is likely to apply to telecommuting. A few days before I wrote this article, I was discussing this with a financial manager. Working entirely from home, he said, isn’t as productive as working in the office, where he and his team can bounce ideas off each other, face-to-face. But going to the office only a couple times a week, as needed? That would be utterly grand. And since he’s the boss of his team, that opinion carries weight.

This, of course, will have side effects, some good, some bad. One good one might be a major reduction in traffic jams. The few times I’ve had to deal with freeways since this crisis began, I've only seen one slowdown. It’s like the clock got rolled back to 1990.

On the other hand, the daycare industry will probably take a major hit. One sad fact of economics is that one person’s cost-savings is another’s lost job. It is very likely that the economy will be making a large number of such reorganizations, as things we previously took for granted suddenly go the way of buggy whips.

But it also means that reduced commuting could leave the post-COVID workforce with more time for leisure activities and self-development—something science fiction has dreamed of for decades. And for many jobs there is really no reason that people have to work 8-5. As long as people actually do what’s needed, working from home may allow many to work the hours that best fit their lives, rather than an artificially dictated routine—a pattern that’s already developing, even as I write this.

For any of this to happen, however, at-home workers will need to allow a large amount of employer spying to prevent shirking. But given the ease with which America accepted homeland security in the aftermath of 9/11, that doesn’t seem like a stretch.

For those whose jobs don’t allow telecommuting, different changes are in store. As I was writing this, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti was calling on OSHA to produce “COVID rules” for worker safety, much as it produces worker safety rules for everything else. Hopefully, by the time you read this, they’ve already done that. But rules for office ventilation and desk spacing are probably just the beginning. What happens if we get a COVID-19 test—either for being presently sick with it, or for antibodies that show you’re currently immune—that’s as cheap, simple, and easy as a diabetic’s blood glucose monitor? Would workplaces start requiring these, the same way that some require drug tests? Would airplane passengers be required to be certified as COVID-free, prior to boarding? If so, what about spectators at football games or participants in the New York City Marathon? Maybe even live, in-person concerts won’t entirely become a thing of the past.

And why limit it to COVID-19? The CDC estimates that in the past decade, the seasonal flu has sickened 9 million to 45 million Americans per year, with 140,000 to 810,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 to 61,000 deaths. If we’re going to protect people from COVID-19, why not also protect them from the flu? Or, for that matter, from colds? We have long joked that, for all the power of modern medicine, it has never found a cure for the common cold. Could COVID-19 give us the opportunity to actually kick that ancient scourge in the butt? Perhaps, someday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control could form the core of a new Cabinet-level Department of Public Heath, much as homeland security emerged in the wake of 9/11.

Some of my friends are even hoping that the combined health and economic crisis from COVID-19 might also be the impetus to induce the U.S. to institute mandatory sick leave and national health care comparable to that in Europe and other parts of the developed world, but the political forces arrayed against these make them seem unlikely.

The virus, might, however, have an impact on the fight against climate change.

As I write this, President Trump is saying that global sales of oil are down by 40%. And while only a fool would trust Trump’s ability to cite a figure like that correctly, it appears to be in the ballpark. I have gone from buying gas once every ten days to less than once a month. Most days I never venture more than a mile or two from home.

On April 7, the U.S. Energy Information Administration was projecting a 14% dip in global oil consumption, and that was probably not based on the latest data. On March 27, BBC was reporting that China—the initial epicenter of the virus—had seen a 40% reduction in coal use—another major driver of climate-changing CO2 emissions, and at about the same time, a British website, Carbon Brief, was reporting that overall, China had seen a 25% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. Obviously nobody knows how long this will continue—nor can the global economy long survive such a drastic, sudden change. But if COVID-19 induces lasting changes in telecommuting, travel, and overall energy usage, it could help buy us a few years to find other ways to deal with global warming.

Whether this will be allowed to proceed in a deeply polarized and economically weakened America is a political question. But one thing the initial stages of America’s COVID-19 response have clearly shown is that if Americans see a threat to the future of the people they love, they can still bind together across the political divide to work, and sacrifice, for the common good. (Whether they can maintain that is a different question.)

To cite a seventy-year-old paradigm from the last time our country faced a similar crisis, Rosie the Riveter is still very much alive. And just as Rosie brought millions of women into the workplace—forever changing America’s view of women—so too will COVID-19 change the next seventy years.

Copyright © 2020 Richard A. Lovett

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