Covid-19 has moved like wildfire — at first seemingly far away, then unnervingly close — as it has ripped across the world in a few months, leaving tens of thousands dead, economies flattened, and the futures of hundreds of millions of people in limbo.
As many of us shelter in place with no end in sight, it’s only human for us to imagine how life will resume, even if the unfamiliar and unpredictable behavior of the virus has made it difficult to know with any certainty.
The longer the global effort to stymie the pandemic through lockdown continues, however, the less likely we’ll reemerge into a world we recognize. Already, some things are clear: Health care, stretched to horrifying extremes in afflicted cities, must change, and it will. The world’s Instagram-fueled love affair with travel will cool. Many will keep stashes of personal protective equipment at the ready; many more will lose faith in governments to assist us, much less protect us.
It will shift us to online living
From Zooming clients to neighbourhood WhatsApp groups, digital platforms have become the only way for many of us to work, get fit or be educated and entertained.
We’re more relaxed about screen time hours for us and our kids, a huge culture shift from just a few weeks ago. It feels unlikely that’ll disappear overnight.
We now know the infrastructure can cope, on the whole. There have been wobbles, like Monday’s Virgin Media outage, but broadband providers and mobile phone networks have handled the big surge in traffic.
In March, BT said it was “well within manageable limits”, and it is still intending to roll out ultrafast full-fibre broadband to 227 rural communities across the UK in coming months.
Going forward, with lines between home and work blurred like never before, we’ll need to think carefully about which platforms we use and what we say on them.
Still, video conferencing, once the poor relation to face-to-face meetings in the corporate world, is – for the moment – the norm. Remember that meme: “This meeting could have been an email”? Perhaps it’s finally within reach.
We will start to save
Retail was already having a tough time. The lockdown and its ripple effects will speed up the huge structural changes under way in our High Streets. It’s now all about survival of the fittest.
Businesses in good financial health, and able to give customers what they want, will prosper. But weaker players – already grappling with falling sales, rising costs and intense competition – will fall by the wayside during the next 18 months.
But there’s also a more immediate question. How many outlets will reopen at all?
Some small firms may simply run out of cash and throw in the towel. Some larger retailers are also in administration. Many others will be looking at the profitability of stores and whether they could hand the keys back to landlords.
After lockdown, there’ll be an immediate sales bounce and stores are likely to lower prices to shift stock. But it may be short-lived if people have been made redundant and are unable to spend.
Fashion relies heavily on shoppers with spare cash and many of us will have endured the past weeks buying hardly any clothes at all – and survived!
It will be interesting to see if shoppers rethink their habits and priorities.
The mask will become a wardrobe staple
In the United States, masks are more readily associated with crime than public health. We’re a nation of mask skeptics: Several states have enacted anti-mask laws throughout history as a means of quelling protest and stifling dissent. But the immediacy of the pandemic — the horror stories of bodies stacked up in refrigerated trucks, the overwhelmed hospitals, and the atmosphere of fear and paranoia created in its wake — will force Westerners to reconsider old stigmas associated with masks for the sake of public health.
The mask aversion is compounded by the longstanding epidemic of police violence against people of color, some of whom understandably fear the consequences of purchasing essential goods while cloaked in a prophylactic bandana. Even now, it’s easy for a mask to evoke dastardly connotations or be mistaken for a disguise.
“Wearing a mask may be even stranger to us than wearing a Speedo at the beach,” says Brandon Brown, an epidemiologist and associate professor at UC Riverside. “It’s just not the norm [in the US], so there is judgment, but there is nothing wrong with it.”
In China and other nations, masks are now part of everyday life, Abrar Chughtai, an epidemiologist and researcher at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, says via email. “Asian countries have faced such epidemics and pandemics more in the past,” he says, including SARS outbreak of 2002-2004, which still looms large in the public imagination in China and Hong Kong.
These nations have long understood face coverings as a public health resource and a tool for cultivating national unity. It’s routine, for example, to see people donning masks on the streets of Beijing, Seoul, or Taipei as they take to the streets or socialize with friends, because someone with a cough will likely be hesitant to put their neighbors in jeopardy.