How will the world change after COVID-19?

Here are a few examples in three areas I’ve been tracking: work, travel and personal relationships.

WHEN 9/11 happened, it was difficult to foresee the far-reaching changes the attack would wreak. (photo credit: 9/11 PHOTOS/FLICKR)
WHEN 9/11 happened, it was difficult to foresee the far-reaching changes the attack would wreak.
(photo credit: 9/11 PHOTOS/FLICKR)
On September 11, 2001, I was in France on a business trip. I had been up most of the night coaching our company’s CEO on a presentation he was to give the next day. By noon, I couldn’t stay awake any longer; I went back to my hotel to take a nap.
When I woke up, the world had changed forever.
As I was walking back to the convention center, my wife, Jody, called me on my cellphone. Terrorists had flown planes into the Twin Towers in New York. The conference was canceled, and our team began a frantic search to find a flight home before, as expected, all air travel was halted.
For many of us, the COVID-19 pandemic is the second time we are seeing the world change in front of our eyes. As Israeli author David Grossman writes, this “plague might become the fateful and formative event in [many people’s] lives.”
When 9/11 happened, it was difficult to foresee the far-reaching changes the attack would wreak. It feels much the same now. When this pandemic is finally brought under control, what will our world look like?
Here are a few examples in three areas I’ve been tracking: work, travel and personal relationships.
By now, many of us have become Zoom power users for classes and community. But videoconferencing tools stand to significantly upend the status quo at work. As Jeff Tennery, CEO of Moonlighting, a US-based job site, told me recently, when employers realize that many of their employees are “equally productive working remotely, they’ll ask why they should drag them into the office.”
Employees will be wondering the same thing.
“It turns out, an awful lot of meetings... really could have been an email,” adds Katherine Mangu-Ward, editor-in-chief of Reason magazine. “And now they will be.”
Moreover, once a certain percentage of your staff doesn’t have to come into the office every day, employees won’t have to live as close to their places of employment. Real estate prices may drop. Traffic-clogged highways could open up. It might even change the calculus on whether to own a car or use public transportation or ridesharing.
There’s another side benefit that’s already being observed: without all those cars on the roads, pollution is down. The air quality in Los Angeles is now among the cleanest in the US. Could Zoom be the unexpected key to addressing climate change?
COVID-19 has put a serious crimp in the Israeli penchant to jaunt off for a cheap trip to Europe, Asia or South America. When the planes begin to fly again, will we need proof we’re not a risk in order to board?
China has already implemented a mobile app that indicates who can travel outside of their homes and who must remain in quarantine. One must scan a QR code in order to enter a school, a grocery store or subway station. Green is good. Yellow or red – not so much.
To avoid an endless loop of lockdowns, some sort of similar system will be needed for global travel, too – a digital certificate of illness or immunization. There are serious privacy concerns that must be addressed; the potential for abuse is not trivial.
As for meal service, “passengers might grab their own beverages and snacks as they board through the jet bridge,” writes Erich Schwartzel in The Wall Street Journal. On the upside, expect cleaner planes as citizen crews wipe down every tray table and toilet seat, adds Chris Shipley, the former executive producer of the DEMO tech conference series.
Personal relationships
After COVID-19, will people resume hugging and shaking hands? Guy Winch, author of How to Fix a Broken Heart, isn’t so sure. He suggests we may face “a prolonged emotional and psychological crisis, even after a vaccine or treatment for the disease is found.”
Interviewed in Haaretz, Winch posits that “it will take a long time before we feel secure enough to draw close to and touch other people.” And the longer we refrain from human contact, “the more difficult it will be to reverse course.”
Feeling comfortable in public spaces may also remain difficult, once the lockdown is over. Would you risk getting sick by dining in a restaurant? Intimate dinner parties at home with trusted friends and food delivery may become the new way of eating out.
“Watch parties” from your living room may replace movie theaters and concerts for a while to come.
Dating could radically change, too, when hookups culture could kill you.
The rise of HIV and AIDS “completely changed sexual behavior among young people who were coming into sexual maturity at the height of the epidemic,” Elena Conis, a historian of medicine at UC Berkeley, explains. “The use of condoms became normalized. Testing for STDs became mainstream.”
What is the equivalent for COVID-19? Netflix and chill that’s really Netflix and chill?
Many of these points ignore perhaps the most important question: do we even want to go back to the way things were? Is this an opportunity to make substantive changes to the political, economic and environmental standards that have, to date, seemed immovably entrenched?
“There is an implicit contract between modern states and their citizens based on the capacity of the former to ensure the physical security and health of the latter,” writes Eva Illouz, a research fellow at Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute. “Without health and a healthy public, economic transactions become meaningless.”
The truth is, just as after 9/11, we really have no idea what’s coming next. And that, like COVID-19 itself, is perhaps what’s most unsettling about the coming new age.
The writer’s book, Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.