COVID-19 will permanently change our world – but how?
The 1939 New York World’s Fair theme, the World of Tomorrow, envisioned a vastly different future. Right after the fair, the disaster of World War II led into a postwar tomorrow that, among its many sea changes, saw Miami rise into a metropolis.
Now the world faces a new crisis, a COVID-19 attack on humanity. This scourge also will alter much. While it’s too early to know what long-term impacts will be, academics, planners, thought leaders and business minds are no doubt making lists today.
Change depends on how long the virus reigns. If it ended tomorrow not much would change. The longer things are different, the longer changes will linger.
Futurists will be looking at these and other possibilities as the virus dominates our lives:
■As many work from home, does the zeroing out of commuting time and costs make work more or less productive? Does hourly output at home exceed work in centralized locations?
■Does digital work at home finally bring the end of paper records that was forecast two decades ago? Will printed backup disappear?
■Does a work-at-home mode erode the barrier between weekdays and weekends? If we spend our time every day in the same place, does more leisure creep in Monday through Friday, or more work slip into the weekend? It’s likely that after a while many working at home will simply ignore which day it is.
■Does our limitation on human contact disappear the day we’re released from temporary confinement or will our visible circles narrow, in a pattern already begun by the cellphone?
■The housebound today no longer battle Miami traffic, so traffic has decreased even as mass transit keeps shrinking. Driving is easier but less frequent. Will either traffic or transit rebound when we no longer are barred from uninhibited mobility?
■The corollary: will our ability in these difficult days to live mostly near home lead in the future to most of us living by choice in relatively small nearby circles?
■If we voluntarily limited mobility that way, could we stop trying to develop six costly transit legs in the county’s Smart plan to extend mass transit everywhere? The billions that were to be spent on transit could then meet other needs. Or is that too great a stretch of imagination?
■The great retailers have temporarily closed, and many were already in trouble. Will they bounce back, and what strategies might they adopt? Are many retail jobs gone forever?
■When people do go back to shopping, what will be the hot new items besides stockpiled paper products and sanitizers? Will the new products come from brick-and-mortar stores or Amazon?
■Other than retail, what job categories will be permanently hit, and what new employment opportunities will arise?
■How will these changes alter the middle class, which was under heavy pressure before the virus even as great wealth was building elsewhere? How will an altered world of living and work reshape the group that was once the strength of the nation? Will it shrink or increase the gulf between the ultra-wealthy and the rest of society?
■Those who have been in the gig economy may have been hit harder than others by the virus-caused changes but might also be more flexible in adapting than those who work for set wages. Will the gig segment grow or shrink in a new normal?
■What happens to education when schools and colleges can let students return to class? Is the education by computer today equal to what they were getting before? How does the teacher’s role change – or does it? Will learning at a distance grow?
■Beyond learning at home we’re now entertaining at home among family members. The Netflix vs. theater battle is decided now, but what about the future? Going to the movies has been counted out in error since television was invented. Television also didn’t kill sports attendance, but when sports return will ticket sales come with them?
■While people are at home, families must be growing closer, the way they were before each member went a different way to do different things. Is that just a fleeting change or could it be a shift toward family unity?
■Another corollary: More families are dining together at home, even if it’s takeout. Will restaurants be reshaped if the stay-at-home world lasts months longer?
■What lessons are investors learning? Do they anticipate just a temporary economic crunch, or will the economy not go back to what we knew? The Great Depression that followed the 1929 stock market crash didn’t end until World War II began a decade later. How deep is this plunge to be and what will bring us back?
■Our health system wasn’t prepared for COVID-19. Will health play a more central role nationally, or will lessons quickly be forgotten?
These questions give us much to contemplate.
We’ll be asking what is important personally and to our society.
We’ll ask how our republic with thousands of government entities can best respond in unity to a crisis of health or economy or another global emergency.
Certainly, the national shutdown gives us plenty of time to contemplate. Use that time thoughtfully.