Now that Vegas is reopened, bookies could start a new line of COVID-19 odds-making: Will business travel be forever reduced? Will sneeze-guarded supermarket salad bars become relics of the past? Will the French stop their double-cheek kissing? The bookies would give this last one long odds.
Gallons of digital ink have been splashed prognosticating about the lasting effects of COVID-19. There’s nothing wrong with making predictions. If anything, a bit of optimistic prophesying helps us envision a better future. As many predictions will be wrong as will be right.
History provides a more reliable guide for predicting the future than gazing into an opaque crystal ball. Yes, the Coronavirus is novel, but calamitous societal events are nothing new. Other unprecedented historical crises have affected the population deeply enough to leave lasting effects. The Great Depression (1929-1933) was precipitated by a stock market crash and a collapse of the banking system where many people lost everything. In this light, it’s easy to understand why a grandfather, 50 years later, might stuff his cash into the mattress instead of banking it. Will future grandchildren wonder why grandparents scour their groceries with antiseptic wipes?
Other effects of the Great Depression are less intuitively obvious. For example, the Great Depression was a contributing factor to dire economic conditions in Weimar Germany which led in part to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Ironically, the United States’ involvement in WWII led to a manufacturing boom that fully rescued the American economy from its post-Depression doldrums.
Major historical disruptions result in unpredictable long-term changes. Applying this lesson to coronavirus, these are a few areas of potential post-Covid change receiving lots of media focus:
Political Change – In the aftermath of a crisis, voters in free countries often elect candidates who promise more hands-on leadership. Toward the end of the Great Depression, Americans ousted the laissez-faire Herbert Hoover, who believed in pushing relief efforts to local government rather than providing Federal support, and elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). FDR ushered in a period of political innovation, much of it enacted through the New Deal. Although current polling foretells a democratic landslide in November, it’s uncertain if voter dissatisfaction with pandemic leadership will result in a loss for Trump. Enough political norm-breaking has occurred over the past four years to render history an unreliable guide to the future.
Effects of Distancing – A colleague recently suggested that since remote working is such a winner, employees won’t be required to sit in an office every day; this frees workers to live in affordable rural areas and will cause cities to shrink. This “‘a’ leads to ‘b’ from which follows ‘c'” postulating requires a correct supposition; after COVID-19, employers may ultimately determine they still want workers under one roof. It also ignores humans’ hard-wiring as social mammals. Consider the panoply of English idioms for socialization and togetherness: seeing eye-to-eye, rubbing elbows, pressing the flesh, meeting face-to-face, back-slapping salespeople, having a night on the town, working the room. Old habits die hard; genetic predisposition only dies through evolution, not from the ease of hosting Zoom meetings.
Behavioral Change and Reevaluation of Risk – Coronavirus has ushered in a host of new, frightening things (touching infected surfaces, being within six feet of strangers, maskless people), adding to an already lengthy list of anxieties (airplanes, spiders, snakes, heights, etc.). One might expect certain leisure activities that routinely cause localized pandemics, like taking cruises, to lose their luster. Not so. This Daily Beast article reports that plenty of perfectly smart people are taking advantage of huge discounts and booking plenty of cruises. One might expect that the risk of dying in a senior residential home (see Disrupting the Warehousing of Seniors) or prison will cause society to make changes in these facilities or find alternatives. It’s just as likely that after the crisis passes, our short memories and old habits will have us go back to things just as they were before the pandemic.
History shows us societal crises lead to unpredictable change. Will society change as a result of COVID-19? Probably, but how it will change is anyone’s guess. So keep on prognosticating. Some of it may even turn out to be correct.