The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 wreaked havoc on the world. The immediate human cost is staggering: nearly 50 million people becoming sick and almost 1.25 million deaths1.
Millions are out of work, and the economic damage has been staggering. But we know from past pandemics that COVID-19 will eventually subside. It may be with us for years or even decades, but medical knowledge will surely reduce the virus’s impact, at least from a health standpoint.
But unlike the world following pandemics of the past, the post-COVID-19 world promises to be vastly different from the world of 2019.
Certainly, there may be some lasting impacts on health care from lessons learned during this pandemic. But it is almost certain that society as we know it will also be transformed in ways that could only be imagined a few short months ago2.
Why Will it Be Different?
Why will the world be different this time – any more so than it was following the Black Plague or the 1918 Influenza pandemic? Simply because it CAN be.
Following previous pandemics, the survivors had little choice but to return to life as they had known it before. There were small changes to be sure. But life five hundred years or one hundred years ago relied largely on natural systems that were not readily replaceable. Transportation relied on animal power or, in 1918, supplemented by rudimentary mechanical vehicles. Communication was face to face or, far more slowly, through written correspondence.
Food came from one’s own ability to hunt or grow a garden. Later, these sources were supplemented by small brick-and-mortar butcher shops, bakeries, and vegetable markets. But in general, families were self-sustaining.
Other goods such as clothing, after the pandemic as before, were made at home or purchased from small local retailers.
Life returned to the familiar because there really was no other option.
The Technology Difference
Technology – computers and the internet – provide the major difference between the COVID-19 pandemic and all others preceding it.
Prior to the pandemic, there were occasional uses of virtual meetings, such as the conference call. Curbside pickup of food from restaurants and even grocery stores was available, but not widely used by the masses.
- “We must be able to meet face to face to get anything accomplished.”
- “Why should I pay extra to have someone pick out my food at the grocery when I can go inside and shop for myself.”
- “Sure, restaurant carry-out is ok. But at home, we eat food prepared there. The reason for a restaurant is to eat out.”
The world had order and we understood the limitations. Certainly, some ’visionaries’ predicted more reliance on technology at some point in the future, but until January 2020, there was no urgent drive to change the familiar.
The first rumblings of change came in late February and moved with lightning speed. By mid-March, schools were ordered closed. Within days, states began ordering all but essential businesses to close their doors. The few businesses remaining open had severely restricted operating hours.
With the restrictions, long lines formed to purchase from the increasingly limited stock on hand.
Businesses which had been deemed non-essential – almost everything except food stores and medical providers – laid off workers numbering in the millions. Those not laid off were instructed to work from home.
But after the initial shock, service businesses – those not relying on the sale of goods as their primary revenue – found ways to make the work-from-home experience succeed.
Primary among these was video-conferencing. Founded in 2011, Zoom Video Communications, Inc. provided peer-to-peer video conference services. However, the company’s growth was sporadic, in part because few companies saw video conferencing as a viable alternative to the face-to-face conference. After all, businesses had been deciding their direction in smoke-filled conference rooms for 150 years.
But in a period of a few weeks, the old method of employee interaction was deemed unsafe – and prohibited.
Companies that had never heard of Zoom began downloading the app. “Zoom meeting” quickly entered the popular lexicon. With the closure of schools with nearly three months remaining in the normal school year, Zoom offered free access to its platform for K-12 education.
As a result of the pandemic reaching some countries earlier than it reached the U.S., Zoom gained 2.22 million users in the first two months of 2020 – more than its entire gain in 2019. On March 23, ten days after closures began in the U.S., the Zoom app was downloaded 2.13 million times3. Zoom’s stock market valuation more than doubled from January to March.
There were initially some concerns about the security of Zoom conferences. After all, the application was not originally designed to replace in-person confidential conferences. However, Zoom moved quickly to secure its platform.
Other players also contributed to the sharp rise in video conferencing, notably Microsoft Teams and Google Meets. Both have some features missing from Zoom, but Zoom remains the most popular video conferencing app.
There is no question that Amazon was a global business before COVID. The company enjoyed a distinct advantage when local brick-and-mortar stores were shuttered in March.
When people were no longer able to shop at local stores, they turned to online shopping. While many businesses had a level of online service prior to the pandemic, no one could match the breadth of merchandise available from Amazon. And more importantly, no other company had the infrastructure in place to deliver goods directly to the consumer the way Amazon could. It is a testament to the massive impact of the pandemic that even Amazon wasn’t initially equipped to fully deal with the surge of customers.
Come On – Get on Board
Other retailers quickly realized that they would have to establish or expand their online presence to compete. Clothing stores, in particular, expanded their online ordering and delivery options.
Even food stores joined in. My local supermarket chain had a system in which you could order items online and then pick them up at a designated time. However, the system wasn’t widely promoted and the store charged extra to use the service.
However, even though food stores were never ordered to close as a result of the pandemic, reduced operating hours and restrictions on the number of shoppers allowed inside impacted revenue. The answer was to expand the online shopping and pickup option. Additionally, the chain removed the surcharge to use the pickup service.
Even as restrictions for food stores have eased, online ordering and pickup of grocery items remains popular. Many have not been inside a food store since March, thanks to the store’s online ordering system.
Masks – Face Coverings
Masks and other facial coverings have generated a large portion of the controversy regarding attempts to combat the spread of the COVID virus. Early in the pandemic when masks were in short supply, people were clamoring for them.
Then, a number of people, particularly those living in more rural areas of the country, began to claim that wearing a cloth mask somehow “violates their rights.” Some in the political community fueled this argument, despite the recommendations of infectious disease specialists4.
But mandating a cloth mask be worn as a public health measure is really not a restriction on one’s freedom of movement. However, it is not uncommon for Americans to claim some violation of ‘rights’ in the face of any governmental restriction.
Let’s not forget that restrictions as common as stopping for a red light, wearing a seat belt5, or wearing a motorcycle helmet have all been derided as a ‘violation of rights.’ Yet all three, and other restrictions like them, are now codified in most states.
Do we need a law requiring mask-wearing? Probably not. But for the near term, government leaders are likely to continue to recommend or mandate mask-wearing in public indoor spaces or where social distancing is impractical.
At this point, there seems little doubt that a cloth face mask provides a significant barrier for the COVID virus. The furor seems to have largely passed, although mask-wearing is certainly not universally practiced, in spite of government recommendations.
The Lasting Effects of COVID-19
The rapid onset of the pandemic restrictions forced us to adopt processes that we hadn’t seriously considered before. The resulting success of some of those processes means some may become permanent.
Employers have learned that it is not necessary for everyone to be present in a central office to be effective. As a result, we can expect employers to adjust their work policies to allow staff to work remotely more frequently.
For instance, staff may only work in a central office one or two days a week. Or they might come together only for a special project.
Airborne transmission of germs has been significantly reinforced in the past six months. As a result, we will likely see the demise of the open workplace concept. Workers packed together in large spaces, only separated by low partitions, will go out of favor. Even when the COVID virus is defanged through a vaccine, it is now obvious that germs of all types can be transmitted among employees working in open workspaces.
Of course, this will likely have a negative effect on the commercial real estate market. If most of a workforce is dispersed through working at home, there is no need for a business to maintain vast amounts of office space in central locations.
Hand in hand with remote work are virtual meetings. Employees still need to collaborate. But the success of virtual meetings during the pandemic has demonstrated that face-to-face meetings are not always necessary.
Virtual meetings won’t supplant face-to-face interactions, but the increased reliance on off-site work will diminish their frequency. Companies may simply rent conference space for occasional face-to-face meetings rather than maintaining their own large – and often empty – conference rooms.
A Mask in my Pocket
Mask-wearing has become normal in the U.S. during the pandemic. But a side effect is that a mask also provides a barrier for other types of germs and viruses.
For many years, I have experienced head and chest colds during the fall and early winter. This has happened every year and has almost taken on the mantra of routine.
So far (knock the famous wood), I have not had the slightest indication of a cold. In a normal year, I probably would be on my second one by now.
Certainly, the relative isolation from other people is a factor. If you’re not around other sick people, you’re less likely to get sick. But I’m convinced that regularly wearing a mask when I’m in public has been the most significant factor. Others I know have expresses similar findings.
The Japanese Example
In Japan, mask-wearing in public has been a standard for over a century, particularly in densely populated areas such as Tokyo and Kyoto. Though wearing a mask may not be the only reason why Japan has seen relatively low infection and death rates from COVID, epidemiologists say it is almost certainly a positive contributing factor6. Maybe we can take a lesson from that.
I believe that wearing a face-covering – mask, gaiter, or something similar – will become more routine in the U.S. Even when the dreaded virus falls to an effective vaccine, we will have learned the benefits of not breathing in other people’s exhalation.
The Handshake in History
Along with mask-wearing becoming more common, we can expect the age-old practice of handshaking to evolve or even disappear. While the origins of shaking hands as a greeting are unclear, we know that the practice was depicted in a relief carving from Assyria in the 9th century B.C.
One popular theory is that the gesture began as a way of conveying peaceful intentions. By extending their empty right hands, strangers could show that they were not holding weapons and bore no ill will toward one another. Some even suggest that the up-and-down motion of the handshake was supposed to dislodge any knives or daggers that might be hidden up a sleeve7.
But concerns about our business and personal acquaintances wishing to do us physical harm is no longer a real concern. What is certain is that shaking hands readily transfers unwanted germs and other materials every time we do it. “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said in an April interview with Time Magazine8.
Hugs and High Fives
But the handshake is just one form of touch that has evaporated with the pandemic. Gone, at least for now, are hugs, high fives, back pats, and shoulder squeezes. No longer is it acceptable for someone to say, “but I’m just a hugger” before they embrace an acquaintance – or a total stranger – in a full-body squeeze.
COVID-19 responses have supplanted the handshake with pseudo-physical greetings such as the fist bump or the elbow bump. But we really need to consider the necessity of any type of physical touching as a way of public greeting.
Certainly, humans crave the touch of those close to them and no one suggests that we quit hugging our spouse or our children. But the social norm of physically touching strangers as a way of greeting is gone.
Dining In – Carry Out
While restaurants have been allowed to reopen across the U.S., most states are mandating restricted diner capacities. In some cases, this is set as low as 20% of the usual capacity. The restaurant industry operates on such tight margins that this level of occupancy is not economically sustainable. Increased carry-out provided the only alternative.
In many cases, restaurants had to re-think their menus. Some items which work well when served at an on-premise table don’t hold up on the average 20 minute drive home after carry-out.
But restaurants have stepped up. Not only have most traditional dine-in restaurants increased carry-out offerings, but many have also developed delivery options. A few have even dropped dine-in service completely.
Thus a consumer can get restaurant-prepared meals delivered to their door. No longer is it necessary to ‘go out’ to have this type of meal.
The appeal of a restaurant meal, coupled with the convenience factor of delivery, is a trend likely to continue long past the pandemic crisis.
The pandemic created an imbalance in the labor force worldwide. Employees in some industries were furloughed or had their jobs eliminated. But other businesses – those allowed to remain open – sometimes found themselves short on staff to meet the demand.
A few companies – more prevalent in Europe than the U.S. – began working together to create rapid bridge employment through cross-industry, supply-demand matches. This concept, like many others, was under consideration before COVID, but rapidly expanded in the early weeks of the pandemic. There was an opportunity to rapidly redeploy workers from industries facing reduced demand, such as airlines and hospitality, to businesses experiencing increased demand such as food retail and logistics.
For example, in Germany, McDonald’s fast food was forced to close. But the company agreed to transfer several thousand furloughed employees to the supermarket chain Aldi. Aldi, as a retail food store, was allowed to remain open but faced increased demand from people concerned about the future availability of food items.9.
This can provide a model for increased cross-industry cooperation going forward.
The world after COVID promises to be considerably different in the way we work, the way we interact with other people, and in the way we purchase goods. While most of the changes we are seeing were in discussion for ‘sometime in the future’, the ‘future’ is here.
The pandemic response has shown us that there are different, and in many ways better, methods of accomplishing traditional activities. As Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1787, “A little revolution now and then is a good thing.”
What do you think the post-COVID world will look like?
Do you have other examples of ways you think our world will change as a result of the pandemic?
Let us know in the comments section below.
- “Coronavirus Cases: Worldwide.” Worldometer, 6 Nov. 2020, 16:45 GMT, www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/
- There is also a consideration of our sense of empathy as we face ever-larger numbers of COVID victims.
- Neate, Rupert. “Zoom Booms as Demand for Video-Conferencing Tech Grows.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 31 Mar. 2020, www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/mar/31/zoom-booms-as-demand-for-video-conferencing-tech-grows-in-coronavirus-outbreak. Accessed November 3, 2020
- The Kentucky attorney general sued the governor to stop his executive order that people wear masks in public. The governor’s authority was upheld.
- As of August 2020, New Hampshire is the only state which does not legally mandate the wearing of seat belts in automobiles.
- As of late October 2020, numbers from Japanese health authorities show 93,607 confirmed coronavirus cases and 1,676 fatalities in a nation of over 126 million people. In comparison, the United States has reported 8.2 million cases and more than 220,000 deaths among its population of 328 million. (Welle, Deutsche. “How Japan’s Mask Culture May Have Saved Lives during Coronavirus: DW: 19.10.2020.” DW.COM, 22 Oct. 2020, www.dw.com/en/how-japans-mask-culture-may-have-saved-lives-during-coronavirus/a-55321518. Accessed November 2, 2020.)
- Andrews, Evan. “The History of the Handshake.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 9 Aug. 2016, www.history.com/news/what-is-the-origin-of-the-handshake. Accessed November 3, 2020.
- Gunia, Amy. “Fauci on Life After Coronavirus: We Should Never Shake Hands Again.” Time, Time, 9 Apr. 2020, time.com/5818134/anthony-fauci-never-shake-hands-coronavirus/. Accessed November 3, 2020
- “Resetting the Future of Work Agenda: Disruption and Renewal in a Post-COVID World.” World Economic Forum, Oct. 2020, www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_NES_Resetting_FOW_Agenda_2020.pdf. Accessed October 27, 2020.