The drumbeat of unprecedented events come at a daily clip. Disney resorts, for the first time, shut down indefinitely. The stock market, with some of the biggest index drops ever and a place in macroeconomic history books. The highest number of unemployment claims filed in US history, by a factor of 5. The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics postponed for at least a year after a weeks of waiting-and-seeing just exactly how bad the global pandemic has become. Closer to home, there are shuttered restaurants, small businesses and services that likely won’t survive prolonged inactivity, empty trains and busses operating at massive losses, overwhelmed hospitals, and parents moonlighting as teachers while learning how to work distributed1. On more positive notes, it’s been inspiring to see how people are coming together to help and support each other through this period of crisis, whether it’s quarantined cheering or singing or appreciating health workers.
All of that is to way that the world has changed in a major way in a matter of weeks. And while there’s a reflexive reaction to returning “back to normal” as soon as possible, it is impossible to see how the world doesn’t change after such a world-altering event.
Here are some articles that speak to what may be the fallout from COVID-19:
Granted, we are—at the end of March in the United States—still in the early days of the spread of this virus; much of the focus right now is on the immediate response on the ground in medical supplies and social distancing to flatten the curve and prevent a public health catastrophe. It’s admittedly hard to predict even just when the world moves on from this crisis, much less what that world would look like. Nonetheless, the actions and responses to this outbreak themselves hint at societal shortcomings, opportunities, and potential vectors for change. The act of thinking about the future is itself a gesture of optimism, that there is a normal to drive towards, even if it’s not the one we knew a month ago.
My predictions, then:
Online accessibility reaches critical mass. In the early days of the COVID-19 US response, there was much made about how big tech companies sent all their employees home, and everyone learned how to work remotely very quickly. Canceled conferences and gatherings have also tried to move to virtual equivalents, and naturally there are predictions that working in forced isolation will accelerate the previously slow migration to fully distributed work.
I think that the more interesting and impactful take is that this can be a forcing function to bring online those who before may have lacked the means or motivations. It furthers the notion that the internet is a public utility, and when the virtual sphere becomes the only way to communicate, previous reservations quickly melt away. While it’s true that digital divide hurts in the short run, I’m optimistic that the recognition and spotlight on the problem will enable more solutions.
Locality matters more. Much like the how closing your eyes can enhance other senses, removing the likes of travel—for vacations, work, or even an evening out on the town—brings the local neighborhood, and perhaps home itself, more sharply into focus. I’ve met a lot more of my neighbors through evening strolls around the block, and more hours spent inside the house has prompted more effort in keeping it clean and…livable2.
Will people just revert back to previous levels of travel and local disengagement once they have the means? Undoubtedly many will, but this event will sear itself into our collective consciousness, and some of the connections to neighbors, local businesses, and friends and family will persist long after we’ve defeated this virus.
Tourism will shrink. Part and parcel with the prediction above is the expectation that travel and tourism will retain some level of depression after this is all over. There will likely be a period, even after vaccines become widely available and immunity has been developed in the wider population, that people will be concerned about attending large gatherings, and the travel necessary for attendance.
It’s also unclear how much of the travel and hospitality industry will survive through this crisis. For instance, cruise lines were in the headlines for the wrong reasons early on with mishandling of the situation, resisted an operational pause, and have been largely denied governmental assistance; it’s inevitable that some of these companies will slide into insolvency. Airlines and hotels have also been hit hard with much less travel happening now3, and an eventual reduction in overall supply can only raise prices and depress demand.
Gig workers get elevated. In most post-apocalyptic shows and movies, the courier is celebrated for risking life and limb to deliver goods across impassable terrain. It’s ironic—and some sad social commentary—that front-line delivery and warehouse work, enabling most of the population to stay home, is still among the most underpaid and economically vulnerable jobs available.
Some of them have organized a strike this week for better pay and working conditions, which feels like both the right thing to do given the added risk of infection they’re now incurring, but also smart negotiation: deliveries are now not just a matter of convenience and speed, but for many are the primary or only ways to procure household essentials and food for weeks and months to come. The apt new term is now “essential worker“.
To be clear, those office workers who have retained their jobs and can telecommute are very fortunate.↩
Pre-COVID, there was always some extrinsic urge to tidy up when friends and family came over; ironic that it’s now completely off the table as a motivating factor.↩
Some of the earliest layoffs in tech have also been hospitality- and travel-focused startups.↩