The COVID Accelerant?

As I’m writing this, the US has vaccinated around 40% of our overall population, and the Bay Area is doing even better at with many counties at 50% or more. With the beginning of summer here, most activities—both outdoors and indoors—are finally opening up. Folks are working through the transition back to pre-COVID routines, and there’s even a sense of unease, in the length of time that we have been locked down and unable to socialize as we would have pre-pandemic, which will make in-person interactions feel weird for a while yet. Assuming that we do ease back into normalcy in the coming months, how much of it will feel like 2019?

For a hot minute early in the pandemic, the “in the know” observation was that COVID-19, for all its viral horror, also had this unusual side effect of accelerating previous trends; that whenever this is all over, there’s no looking back to 2019 and before, as our collective experience will have evolved the world into its new, post-pandemic normal. Hell, I was guilty of this as much as anyone: I wanted companies to embrace distributed offices, and being forcibly banned from in-person meetings and offices forced everyone to default to virtual communications. Certainly everyone agrees that bits traveling over a wire is so much more efficient than people slowly flying over the ocean, right?

Except that, with at least the United States easing itself away from its restrictions, that this early-stage optimism was perhaps misplaced; many companies are either allowing, and in some cases insisting, on employees returning to the office, albeit with more of an appreciation for commuting flexibility. Similarly, there was some thinking that customers would permanently reallocate a part of their spending onto food delivery services from dining in, but restaurants—at least, those who survived this long break—are quickly filling back up anyway. CO2 levels have somehow bounced back as if the world didn’t shut down for a year, air travel and cruises are ticking back up1, and predictions from a year ago now read more like flights of fancy.

In fact, COVID has been credited in requestioning, if not outright reversing, a handful of previous trends. The foremost reversal is in rethinking how maximizing efficiency—in hospital beds, supply chains, labor—has come at a cost of resilience, and we can no longer pretend that optimizing away redundancy and slack in our systems is a singular goal without acknowledging the tradeoffs. The pandemic has also halted previous progress towards more workforce participation for women, and placed a massive damper on population relocation into urban areas.

I guess what I’m saying is that COVID’s effects have been, at best, a mixed bag. If we’re being honest, the main effect of this virus was boosting a set of digital services and behaviors, primarily by ruling out physical equivalents. There was and is nothing magical about this disease that would have triggered unprecedented changes in long-term human behaviors; it feels more like society, where it can, is snapping back to its previous self, though the velocity of this reversion is uneven2.

This is a sad conclusion. A freaking global contagion isn’t disruptive enough, isn’t big enough, to cause a shock-to-the-system to jolt ourselves out of societal complacency. It’s still a hell of an event to have lived through, but in a few generations hence, this may not be quite an acute inflection point that wholly pivots the course of human history3.

  1. Admittedly though, some of the exuberance around travel can be attributed to pent-up demand to get out of the house.

  2. E.g., our levels of employment will likely take years to reach back to pre-pandemic levels.

  3. It’s not over yet, though; I still have plenty of time to be wrong!

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