- In just one month, the coronavirus pandemic has caused swift and dramatic disruptions to life in the US as states resort to lockdowns and most people are confined to their homes for work, school, and leisure.
- We wonder: How will this crisis change society in the long-run?
- Historians and a futurist told Business Insider how they expect the coronavirus pandemic to reshape American life as we know it.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
There have been only a handful of scenarios in recent American memory that have caused sweeping changes to our culture, economy, and government.
For many Americans, the COVID-19 crisis is equal in weight to 9/11 or the 2008 economic recession – two historic events of the 21st Century that brought forth new policy initiatives and reshaped the way we travel, think, and protect ourselves as a nation.
Today’s existential threat has left many Americans jobless, isolated, and wondering: What will happen next?
As the nation continues to combat this national emergency by shuttering nonessential businesses, closing schools, and encouraging Americans to stay home, we’ve found ourselves bracing for lasting changes to our society.
American life as we know it has already been widely disrupted – no longer are most people congregating in bars or parks, dining out, or going into the office for work.
As healthcare experts warn that the US has yet to see the worst of its outbreak, and information changes daily, we’ve turned to both the past, to see how pandemics have played out in history, and the future, to see how macro thinkers believe the virus could have a changing impact on American life.
Of course no one knows exactly what the future holds. Here are some possibilities for what could be in store, after the pandemic ends.
Since so many governments were caught unprepared, we could see stronger government action and an international pandemic initiative to handle future outbreaks.
The Department of Homeland Security was developed in the aftermath of 9/11 as a direct government response to national security threats – so what policy changes will we see to combat the threat of future infectious diseases?
Frank Snowden, a professor emeritus of the history of medicine at Yale, and author of the book “Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the present,” explained that, in order to maintain safety in the future, the global community must adopt an international pandemic plan.
“We really as a civilisation cannot afford the luxury of not dealing effectively with the challenge of pandemic disease,” he told Business Insider. “Epidemic challenges are becoming increasingly numerous, and there’s no reason to think that this is the most severe challenge that would emerge in our lifetime.”
“It’s really a matter of life or death that after this; we don’t go back to status quo.”
Snowden said governments must work on both a national and an international level to collaborate, share timely information, and ensure adequate, sustained funding for the tools needed, including vaccines and anti-viral treatments.
Additionally, Snowden said the US must work to ensure adequate medical care access to everyone in the country. In this way, Snowden hopes that the US will come out of this crisis with a newfound appreciation for healthcare and scientific response.
In the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis, we may see the development of an international pandemic response team, and stronger governmental guidelines that include more stringent healthcare systems in order to protect the community.
There could be a shift in geopolitics and a possible rise in nationalism.
As nations across the world close off their borders to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, it is possible to see a shift in geopolitics and a potential rise in nationalism.
David S. Jones, a professor of the culture of medicine at Harvard University, explained that the notion of “blame” in pandemics is a common tactic for governments to exploit divisions of religion, race, ethnicity, class, or gender identity.
For instance, what we’re seeing now with President Donald Trump calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” could have lasting discriminatory ramifications toward Asian-Americans.
“In terms of geopolitics, Trump has been wanting to hurt or punish China from the outset, so in that sense this is his dream come true,” Jones told Business Insider. “You see that even more dramatically in other ways … I mean he’s finally gotten the immigration policy of his dreams by closing the Mexican border.”
This mirrors the way the US has responded to epidemic disease throughout history, Jones said. In the past, Cholera was blamed on Irish immigrants, the plague was blamed on Chinese immigrants, and waves of tuberculosis have been blamed on Mexican immigrants.
“With every country closing its borders, there’s a risk that if any kind of unification does happen, it will just be at the national level. At the end of this, the English will say ‘we rallied and we did this on our own,’ and the French will say the same thing, and the Italians will say the same thing … so I think nationalism could be an outcome,” Jones said.
“How soon after the pandemic will the EU reopen its borders? The EU had been skating on thin-ice for a while. How quickly will Trump reopen the Mexican border? I suspect that’s not high on his priority list in getting things back to normal when this ends.”
But at this stage, Jones said it’s hard to say whether or not this pandemic will unify or divide the global community.
“I imagine the best case scenario that will bring people together is that whether we’re black, white, Hispanic, or anything else, we are united in our susceptibility in this new virus,” he said.
“It is clear that collective action at the moment is our only hope.”
Inequality could keep increasing, more work could be remote permanently, businesses might not hire as many people as they had before the pandemic, and that could lead to a universal basic income.
Millions of Americans are currently working from home to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus. Jones fears the influx of telecommuting could lead to widespread layoffs and a reshaping of how Americans view work.
“As hospitals realise that a big chunk of primary care can be done by teleconferencing with adequate privacy protections, that will have a huge impact on the healthcare industry. And if businesses realise that they can actually get by pretty well on skeleton staffing, then I think some people who have been laid off won’t be rehired, or at least rehired into very different kinds of jobs,” he said.
Jones added: “I suspect companies are going to realise they can get by with fewer, which will leave more people out of work than had been beforehand, and that will then increase pressure for something like a universal basic income.”
The idea of a universal basic income, which was championed by former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, has gained traction in recent months as a way to stimulate the economy during a time when millions of Americans are unsure about whether or not they can return to work soon.
Additionally, Jones explained that working from home has brought forth stark realities of privilege: not everyone has the ability to do their job remotely, and that could create more drastic class division in the future.
“The benefits of privilege are excruciatingly clear to me at the moment, ” he said.
While some believe that those who can work from home will continue to do so after the pandemic ends, Amy Webb, a quantitative futurist and an adjunct assistant professor at the New York University, thinks otherwise.
“Productivity is going down fast … humans are very social creatures,” she told Business Insider. “There is no way that this portends a future of work in which everybody is just sitting in their homes from now on.”
Disruptions in education could lead to long-term consequences. Or we may see the development of new, creative solutions for remote learning.
Millions of American children have seen their education disrupted – a prospect Webb fears could have vast implications for the future.
“We have plenty of longitudinal data showing the benefits of early childhood education,” Webb said, citing that children who are put into educational programs at a young age are typically better readers, more likely to receive a college education, and earn more money in their lifetime.
“But right now we are in a situation where, for the foreseeable future, there is no more school.”
As American children are forced to switch to remote learning for the remainder of the school year, Webb said technical difficulties and distraction will make learning from home far more difficult. Plus, many families don’t have access to internet that would allow them to adequately homeschool.
If schools continue to be closed for the foreseeable future, what will the long-term effects be of a generation of young learners who have had their education disrupted?
Webb hypothesised that this could lead to children in some states repeating an extra year of school, leading to extra costs and burdens on families, and even a disruption in labour 10 years down the line.
A blog post from World Economic Forum was more optimistic, predicting this exposure to remote learning could lead to necessary innovations in education. If learning becomes available through the internet “at any moment or any time”, then children may begin to view school as a truly immersive experience.
Around the world, students are being taught through interactive apps, games, and digital programs that may be positively re-envisioning the way children learn.
Only time will tell whether remote learning is a sustainable option.
Medicare for all might be established in the US.
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus has brought attention to shortages in hospital beds, protective gear for healthcare workers, and medical access across the US.
Jones said that to conceptualize how this crisis could transform our healthcare system, it’s worth evaluating the current system at a baseline.
“Different people have very different access to care based on a whole serious of parameters, mostly how much money you have and your insurance status, and so our country has been massively rationing healthcare forever,” he said.
But he went on to explain that this system would not go over well under the current circumstances.
“I don’t think anyone could politically support a policy that matched our business as usual,” he said. “For example, if you were to say, ‘We’re going to give the ventilators to rich people not to poor people’- you couldn’t do that. Or white people vs. black people … that wouldn’t be tolerable at the moment, but yet that’s what our healthcare system does at baseline.”
The best case scenario would be that in the aftermath of this crisis, the national conversation shifts to promote adequate healthcare for all individuals, Jones said.
In a similar tone, Snowden said this crisis is bringing forth questions of how healthcare and science are valued around the world.
Perhaps the pandemic could push the global community to consider adequate healthcare coverage for all people around the world – a prospect that could significantly decrease the risk of causalities in future disease outbreaks.
“If everyone in the world had medical care, then the sentinels could be posted and public health officials could know where [future] outbreaks are occurring when they’re occurring, and response teams could be equipped, trained, and ready to deal with them,” Snowden said.
“That’s the direction in which we need to go.”
Movie theatres could significantly decline, and virtual entertainment could take their place.
As Americans are increasingly told to stay inside, and movie theatres across the nation are shuttered, will streaming services and video gaming completely take over the entertainment industry?
“Movie theatres were already struggling,” Webb said. “I would be shocked if this didn’t affect theatres negatively.”
Webb went on to say that this isolation period will undoubtedly lead to shifts in cognitive behaviours and expectations.
“We are all going to start developing a lot of new habits, whether or not we want to, over the next several weeks and months,” she said.
Right now, some people are finding ways to socialise through watching movies together on Netflix or other streaming services. Where Americans were already increasingly leaning into home-viewing for movies and television, the coronavirus outbreak might further solidify this trend.
“I also think this is the moment for spatial computing to shine,” she said. “I think experimental gaming, experiential gaming, and entertainment in other forms will take hold.”
Additionally, Webb suggested that there may be a resurgence in 90s-era gaming where people increasingly interact socially by playing cards or other games online with strangers.
After the pandemic, we may not feel the need to meet up for entertainment if we can get the same feeling of togetherness virtually.
We could finally see drone delivery systems come online.
Webb predicted that in the months to come, a growing number of Americans are expected to need medical supplies as the outbreak worsens – whether they be over-the-counter pharmaceuticals to relieve symptoms or prescription drugs. But as lockdowns persist and there are fewer flights overhead, Webb suggested this opens up a perfect opportunity for drone-based delivery systems.
“We could be looking at the Federal Aviation Administration potentially relaxing restrictions and now allowing drone-based deliveries,” Webb said. “We may need that in places around the country that have fewer resources, and are much more spread out.”
Additionally, as delivery drivers for Amazon, grocers, or food-delivery services begin to feel threatened by the virus or fall ill themselves, drone systems could have to take hold.
“If we have fewer delivery people, and we want the economy to keep going in some form, then we’re going to need land-based delivery drones,” she said.
If that were to happen, Webb said, it would be difficult to revert back once the crisis ends.
“If you suddenly have new policies allowing drones to make deliveries, it would be hard to turn all of that back off once it’s going,” she said, suggesting that the policy initiatives that are put in place now will have a lasting affect on American life moving forward.
A shift in consumer behaviour to buying things online could accelerate the retail apocalypse and reshape the way Americans shop.
As state and local governments increasingly implement measures to close down nonessential businesses and encourage Americans to stay inside as much as possible, a shift toward online shopping is likely to persist in the coming months.
According to a Business Insider Intelligence report, nearly 75% of US internet users said they’d be likely to avoid shopping centres and malls if the coronavirus outbreak in the country worsens, and over half would avoid shops in general.
Though brick-and-mortar retail comprises 85% of US retail sales, the coronavirus outbreak may lead to a shift in more online, pickup, and delivery options for shopping.
“A lot of the shops that are now shuttered won’t reopen again because their owners will have gone into debt,” Snowden said. “There’s going to be a lot of suffering if this continues for a long time, and that will be hard to reverse.”
Additionally, these changes in consumption may be most prevalent among older Americans – the population most susceptible to the disease – and there’s no telling whether or not these habits will persist once the outbreak quells.
According to the Intelligence report, “Such a surge in demand for e-tail could overwhelm logistics providers and workers, which might require e-commerce companies to revisit their strategies for order fulfillment and delivery, including potentially slowing down fast shipping strategies, in order to keep up with surging demand and keep workers safe.”
A halt in green-energy initiatives could persist, and energy consumption could shift primarily toward internet usage.
The clean-energy sector is yet another area of American life that has been impacted by the novel coronavirus.
According to a Business Insider Power Line report, the coronavirus pandemic has driven down demand for solar panels and electric cars.
While solar panel production in China was halted at the height of its outbreak, this did not impact the US since we typically source panels from Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand.
And there is hope that the clean-energy movement will not be lost in this crisis.
“This is a very dynamic situation and things will change, but the overall message is that the clean energy transition is moving forward – even with these little speed bumps,” Atul Arya, the chief energy strategist at the research firm IHS Markit, told BI’s Benji Jones.
There have also been reports that Americans may be eager to purchase residential solar panels and batteries as “end-of-world prep.”
Additionally, as many Americans are confined to their homes and no longer driving to work, taking public transportation, or travelling by aeroplane, energy consumption could see a significant decrease in the months to come, Forbes reported.
The resulting reduction in traffic and production in China led to a subsequent decrease in emissions and air pollution in the country, Business Insider’s Lauren Frias reported, and one expert told her companies could ramp up production to compensate for the previous losses.
Plus, energy consumption is being shifted to things like excessive internet use through streaming, online learning, and work conferencing.
In turn, we could see a decrease in coal and an accelerated implementation of 5G technology.
The way we socialise and interact with people in public could change dramatically.
As Americans across the country are obsessively washing hands, sterilizing countertops, and isolating in their homes, many have posed the question: Will this crisis fundamentally change the way we socialise and engage with other people?
Some related questions we’re wondering about:
- Will dress codes at offices get more casual?
- Will any of us wear makeup anymore?
- Will city-dwellers flee to the country permanently?
- Will fast food workers and other essential employees finally get paid sick leave?
- Will we all wash our hands properly from now on?
- Will we habitually stay 6 feet away from people in public?
- Will we keep streets closed to vehicles?
- Will we stop hugging each other?
After studying the history of past epidemics, Jones believes Americans will be able to bounce back from this and re-adapt the social behaviours we exhibited before the outbreak.
“The question of how the epidemic ends is a really interesting one. Will people ever go on cruise ships again? It’s hard to know if people will think differently about movies or bars or restaurants. But I suspect for a lot of that we have a pretty short memory,” he said.
“We’ve been through paralyzing epidemics in the past, and eventually people rebound.”
As an example, Jones cited the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that left at least 50 million people dead worldwide. By the 1950s and 60s, it had been seemingly forgotten.
“One of the first great books about that pandemic was written by historian Alfred Crosby in the 1970s, and the title of that book was “‘America’s forgotten pandemic,'” he said.
“The fact that that huge event was largely forgotten by society is strangely reassuring. Someday COVID-19 will too be forgotten.”