It would be safe to say that the coronavirus has disrupted our lives like few other events in our lifetimes. Its effects have been global and far-reaching, encompassing not only our daily lives and our economies, but perhaps most importantly our confidence and belief that our scientific and technological prowess made us masters of the natural world and everything in it. Along came a random mutation of a ridiculously small germ, and in the space of a couple of months, our whole world has turned upside down, and we don’t know if it will ever be the same.
Although there is much talk about an eventual vaccine and our developing “herd immunity” against this malicious microbe, there are disturbing indications, that perhaps we may never develop complete immunity, that this virus will mutate and adapt and keep coming back like a bad dream. We may develop treatments to keep it at bay, but it is possible that we may never be able to eradicate it completely like we did smallpox.
More problematic is the possibility, that even if we do conquer the coronavirus, what is to say that a few years down the road, a different but equally lethal virus or bacterium doesn’t emerge to plague us once again. In the past several decades we have seen a number of these – SARS, Ebola, MERS, Swine flu, Asian flu, and others. Ironically, because of our advanced transportation networks, we have made it possible for these diseases to spread across the globe in a matter of days, and our densely populated urban centres have made the spread ridiculously easy and fast.
What we need to start thinking about is that a lot of the adjustments that we have made in our lives in recent months may not be as temporary as we would like to think. Perhaps many of the aspects of social distancing, self-isolation, and the virtualization of our communications, social, economic and entertainment activities may become the future norm. The implications boggle the mind.
That, of course, is the worst-case scenario. Much more likely is that COVID-19 will follow the same pattern as the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak. That lasted just over a year and had three deadly waves. The first wave was in the spring of 1918, the deadliest second wave came in the fall of that year, and the third wave sprang up again in January of 1919. The second and third waves were the result of isolation and preventative measures being relaxed too soon. Sad to say, we seem to be following the same example, and will likely see our own second wave late this summer or early fall. Eventually, the pandemic died out on its own as the virus mutated to a less fatal variety and/or populations developed resistance or immunity.
If the COVID-19 virus proves to be more resistant and persistent than the Spanish flu, then our way of life will surely change dramatically. Although the adjustments would be major, our experience of the past several months has shown us that we do have the means and the technology to adapt and overcome the challenges this pandemic has forced upon us. We have learned some important lessons.
One of the key ones is the fact that we have come to appreciate that, at least in the more developed countries of the world, many of our white-collar jobs can be performed almost as effectively from home as from centralized office locations. Not only that, but the cost economies from not having to commute or build large office buildings makes doing so a very cost-effective proposition. Needless to say, the elimination of having to commute also would do wonders in reducing carbon emissions and alleviating climate change. The communications and computer technology is already here to make this a very viable option.
The other major lesson we have learned, is that a great deal of retail business can be done on a pick-up and delivery basis, forgoing the need to shop at big box stores or large shopping malls. The longer we continue to shop at home, the more ingrained will become the habit of continuing to do so even after this pandemic subsides.
The one aspect of our lives that will be the hardest if not impossible to change, is the fact that we are very social animals and require close and live contact with our family, friends and society at large. We need that contact for our emotional and psychological well-being, and although we can communicate and socialize virtually thanks to Internet video-chat and meeting applications, these can never replace a hug, a face-to-face conversation, and the aura and pleasure of gathering together in collegial groups. There is also the tribal pleasure we get when attending live sports events, and I doubt that many of our professional sports could survive in a virtual only world.
These are all possibilities that COVID-19 has inflicted upon us and which we need to confront as we face the not too distant future. Perhaps we will get lucky and return to what we once considered “normal”, but equally likely is the possibility that we may be facing a future very different from what we have gotten used to.