Despite their microscopic size, pathogens that cause human disease have shaped the way humans live for centuries. Many infectious diseases have been significant enough to change how and where we live, our economies, our cultures and daily behaviors. Many of these effects continue long after the diseases have been eliminated.
The global fight to contain the spread of COVID-19 has already radically altered the way we live, which of these adjustments are likely to endure beyond the end of the lockdown, and what might life look like once it has passed?
Crises can cause fundamental changes in social attitudes, beliefs and behaviors, bringing about new social policies, new ways of working, and change consumer needs and behaviors, these changes persist in the long run.
How Crises have Changed History
The origins of many food taboos are tied to the avoidance of infectious diseases. These include prohibitions on sharing cooking utensils between meat and other foods, on drinking raw animal blood, and on eating pork or shrimp in some religions.
The Black Death in Europe contributed to ending feudalism and serfdom as the shortage of workers led to a power shift to the increasingly scarce labor resource.
During the two world wars, large numbers of women were recruited into the workforce when men had gone to fight in the war. After the war, these workplace changes stayed, changing the composition of the workforce permanently.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks reshaped transportation and security policies around the world. Citizens accepted higher levels of screening and surveillance in the interests of security.
Recent epidemics such as the 2003 SARS outbreak changed how people shopped in Asia, rather than going into stores, consumers began shopping online. Once hooked, many consumers continued to shop online, paving the way for the rise of Alibaba.
How Will COVID-19 Change Behaviors?
Lasting changes in social attitudes, business, policy, work, and consumption can be expected to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. The longer societies remain in lockdown, the greater these changes are expected to be.
While phase one of the lockdown might end in the next month or so, people may stay in crisis mode, worrying about a rebound in infections. The elderly and those with preexisting conditions may remain in lockdown longer. Office workers who can work effectively from home will probably continue doing so until a vaccine or herd immunity has been reached.
There has never been a global lockdown like this one, and there are reasons to expect that this could be dragged out longer than any prior period of quarantine. Today’s society is better able to deal with extended quarantines than in the past. Modern computers and telecommunication allow people to work from home, to stay entertained and to stay in touch with each other such that the current lockdown is significantly more bearable than at any time in the past.
How will COVID-19 Affect Human Contact?
We can already see significant shifts in the purchasing patterns of consumers. Groceries and pharmacy product sales have increased, as has online shopping. Travel spending, live entertainment and apparel purchases have declined. We should not however expect all these changes to stick. Air travel reduced after 9/11, rebounding to trend in a little over a year.
We will see some consumption patterns bounce back so we need to distinguish between postponed, accelerated, or interrupted consumption, and new permanent changes in the patterns of consumption.
After a prolonged lockdown, it could become second nature to recoil from shaking hands or touching our faces, the habit of washing our hands after touching any commonly touched surfaces may not quickly disappear. Fundamental changes in consumer behavior could include reduced time being spent in crowded places combined with a greater emphasis on hygiene, health and family security.
Bars & restaurants, gyms, airlines and cruise ship operators may continue to struggle. For a restaurant, if greater social distancing becomes the norm, they could see a 50% reduction in seats, but only a 25% decline in labor costs. If touch becomes taboo after a long period of lockdown, people may not want to return to gyms and use shared equipment. It would be difficult for these businesses to adapt to new consumer habits, especially after a shutdown has destroyed their balance sheets.
Expect to see shops and restaurants all installing touchless automatic doors and amenities. Restrooms will be upgraded to no-touch doors, faucets and wastepaper baskets. Credit card machines will be contactless, and many touchscreen devices will be replaced with voice-controlled devices.
COVID-19 has brought about the rise of telemedicine, which, for minor complaints, will continue and grow. Remote voting is likely for elections.
People who have never shopped online before began doing so during the lockdown. Ocado, the British online grocer was so overloaded after the announcement of the lockdown, they thought a hacker had attacked their servers. Three weeks of delivery slots filled in an hour after the lockdown announcement. Many online shoppers may not return to brick and mortar stores.
People worry about visiting elderly relatives and making them sick. The elderly are becoming more tech savvy, using video chat apps like WhatsApp and Skype, ordering groceries and socializing online, playing card games etc.
Urban dwellers relied on public spaces such as parks, coffee shops, restaurants, libraries to provide a large part of their everyday “living spaces”. Lockdown has thus been most uncomfortable in dense cities. People with small refrigerators, reliant on public transportation and public spaces for their work and community interactions. Will we see a change in how people want to live, including reevaluating the attractiveness of highly priced major cities?
How will COVID-19 Affect The Environment?
Greta Thunberg’s two-week sailing trip to the UN Climate Action Summit meant she understood what most businesspeople know: in-person meetings have greater impact.
Post lockdown, many business travelers and holidaymakers may aim to reduce unnecessary airline travel, but in situations where the meeting is important, people will still make the trip.
Many of the other changes we can expect might be worse for the environment.
Major international cities have spent decades trying to drive residents out of cars and into public transportation. This is now perceived as a germ-filled and highly undesirable way to travel. Grocery stores are disallowing the use of “bags for life” since they carry germs back and forth from people’s houses and grocery stores.
Expect to see a shift towards increased food packaging, and fewer bins of loose bread rolls at the supermarket in favor of plastic wrapped alternatives.
The rise of working from home may drive people away from crowded cities into larger more comfortable suburban homes, with 24-hour heating and air conditioning.
The sharing economy is suffering. People would rather use their own car rather than take an Uber, buy their own treadmill than use a gym. Cycle share schemes and scooter share schemes will fall in usage.
On the upside environmentally, working from home will reduce the miles driven by commuters.
COVID-19 and The Business World
In times of crisis, new ideas emerge, and new demands appear. Much like wars introduced nuclear power, airplanes, radar, and penicillin, the current crisis will bring about huge innovation, rather than demand shifts between existing products.
Large cap American companies in the technology space like Amazon and Netflix have thrived, but expect to see new businesses appear to fill new needs. Zoom, the videoconferencing app has become a household name over the last month.
We can expect to see huge medical innovation. Work on COVID-19 vaccines will find cures and vaccines for other viruses.
The pandemic has already changed the way we work, putting greater emphasis on remote working, digital collaboration, workplace hygiene, and protections for temporary workers. Expect changes in company-monitoring of remote-workers. Technology firms like Crossover require workers to install spyware on their computers to monitor productivity.
Will we see changes in computers and the internet? Modern computers are amazing productivity tools but can also be terrible distraction machines. Social media distracts workers, as more people work from home, they will have to find ways of minimizing these distractions.
Going forward, businesses can be expected to weigh the efficiency and costs/benefits of a globalized supply chain system against the robustness of a domestic-based supply chain. Firms are struggling in this environment where it has become more difficult to move goods and employees around the world.
Greater automation in factories is coming. Replacing workers with robots allows manufacturing businesses to reduce crowding in factories, and to stay open during a pandemic.
COVID-19 has brought about a power shift from employees to employers. The rapid shift from the lowest unemployment rate in history to a high rate of unemployment means that hiring managers can now pick amongst a large, and growing, pool of job applicants.
Governments have learned from the mistakes they made in the most recent bailouts. We can expect to see more conditions attached to todays bailouts, and thus greater government control of business.
Some companies that have thrived in this crisis such as Amazon, Netflix, and various food delivery apps may continue to grow, and may need to face governments scrutiny around anti-trust legislation.
In London restaurant suppliers have started home delivery of food boxes. Cape Cod fishermen have begun selling their catch direct to consumers fresh off the boat, advertised on Facebook. Expect more disintermediation or direct-to-consumer sales after the crisis.
COVID-19 and Politics
The crisis is bringing about greater pressure on politicians to demonstrate crisis preparedness, systems resilience, social solidarity, and access to health care. A reduction in bipartisanism is likely, as parties focus on the virus as their common enemy and work together to improve society.
Pressures on government agencies like the FDA to speed up testing and push through vaccines or treatments could bring about less bureaucracy.
The crisis could accelerate nationalistic tendencies bringing about global America-first type movements. Businesses are weighing the efficiency costs and benefits of a globalized supply chain against the robustness of a domestic-based supply chain.
Westerners will debate how much privacy they are willing to give up to governments and technology firms implementing tracking programs to minimize the virus spread. In the wake of the September 11th attacks, Americans sacrificed many liberties in exchange for safety. Once rights are stripped away, it can be difficult to get them back.
Last week, Apple and Google announced they are working together on a system to enable widespread contact tracing using their mobile phones to contain the pandemic.
How Our Personal Lives Might Change
Deaths at nursing homes are encouraging carers to move elderly family members home, or to avoid hospices, to be able to say goodbye to loved ones. This is a reversion to the past when multi-generations of families lived together under one roof.
Many parents who are working from home have been homeschooling their children. After the lockdown expect an increase in homeschooling. University students may avoid living in crowded dorms. Students may apply to Universities nearer home. This might also help to solve the problem of growing student debt.
In the United States, people often thank military personnel for their service. People are now showing their appreciation for other essential workers whose efforts keep our societies functioning. Not just medical personnel, but delivery drivers, sanitary workers, grocery store employees.
China and Korea, further down the path with COVID-19, give us hints about how things might change in the West. We can expect huge changes ahead, and the more drawn out this crisis is the greater the changes we can expect. One of the things we are learning right now is that in times of crisis, it would appear that the rules don’t apply. If we see that the rules don’t apply, it should make us question why they exist at all. In part three of this series released tomorrow we will discuss what big changes could come of a crisis if it involves reevaluating the way everything is done.