Coronavirus: How we travel, work, eat and interact may change forever

In Context: After the plague.

Sunday’s Combat Antisemitism Movement conference (photo credit: COMBAT ANTISEMITISM MOVEMENT)
Sunday’s Combat Antisemitism Movement conference
This is the hour of the bidet.
That’s right, the bidet. That bathroom fixture prevalent in some cultures but long shunned in others. Now, in this age of the coronavirus and a worldwide run on toilet paper, it is witnessing a global revival.
“As Toilet Paper Flies off Shelves, Bidet Sales Go Boom-Boom,” read a story this week on the website of the tech magazine Wired, reporting on an uptick in bidet sales. “This could be the tipping point that finally gets Americans to adopt the bidet,” Jason Ojalvo, a CEO of a bidet start-up, was quoted as saying.
Ojalvo’s words may be merely the wishfull thinking of an entrepreneur trying to take advantage of the moment. Or, as one retail analyst quoted in the piece said, buying bidets in the face of a toilet paper shortage is “as ridiculous a trade-off as not finding a toothbrush and deciding to go with dentures instead. I mean, it’s a nuclear option.”
On the other hand, Ojalvo could be way ahead of the curve and capitalizing on one of the myriad ways in which the novel coronavirus might alter – perhaps forever – how we live our lives in the most basic ways.
From how we interact with other people, even family members, to how we travel, work, study, eat, play, pray, love and shop, the current plague has completely upended our lives. And one of the many questions is how – when humanity gets past this – everything will change.
Is this a transformational moment in history that will fundamentally alter how we live, with history now to be divided between life before corona and life after? Or will it be merely a passing, though dramatic, episode – like the 1918 Spanish flu, or the AIDS epidemic, or 9/11 – an event that changes certain patterns of our life in the short term, but then recedes into memory?
DAVID PASSIG, a futurist, author of The Future Code and 2048, and a professor at Bar-Ilan University’s school of education, where he heads its Virtual Reality Lab, posited three different scenarios.
In the first, which he said is the most probable, the pandemic will dissipate in one or two years, and cost about a million lives, much like a major influenza epidemic. In this scenario, he said, humans are likely to forget it and “get back to their usual lives as we knew it up to a couple months ago.”
He said that in this scenario the virus would leave the same kind of imprint left after a major economic crisis – in other words, nothing very long-lasting.
“Memory tends to be evasive,” he said. “People try to repress things, push them away. People try to forget trauma and go back to what they are used to.”
Passig’s second scenario is one where – like the Spanish flu – the pandemic will last up to five years and lead to up to 100 million deaths.
“In a case like this it will take people another five years to recover, and people will remember the impact of the trauma.”
Calling this a “possible future,” he said that in this case it will be much harder to emerge from the economic impact of the disaster.
Nevertheless, Passig said that people did not fundamentally change their lives after the Spanish influenza. “Humans tend to go to what they think is familiar, and what is familiar is also the best way to live.”
The third scenario, he said, is the most extreme, calling it the “wild card scenario.” In this scenario the pandemic lasts from five to 10 years, and the casualties range from 100 million to 300 million people.
This situation, he said, would usher in long-term behavioral changes. “Human contact will diminish, and it will take more than 10 to 20 years to recover from the fear of being with others. As a result, new services, new industries, new sciences will develop with new characteristics.”
For instance, he predicted, life sciences would become dominant, at the expense of computer science and software development, which are so prevalent today.
“It is really important to pay attention to the world order, or geopolitics, that will develop as a result of this scenario,” Passig advised.
He took a pessimistic approach, saying that this type of tragedy would not lead to more global cooperation – though it might in the beginning – but, rather, fierce competition over resources: food and medicine.
“Local interests will be much more dominant than now, as people will tend to believe that they can only rely on close relationships, infrastructure and institutions – not global ones. People will revert back to national interests and identities in a manner hard at this time to imagine.”
Human character, he said, “is very simple – it is very egoistic. Survival is a very egoistic characteristic. Competition becomes very, very tense and even violent. Every nation will have to take care of its citizens and not rely on anyone else.”
Another professor, Dov Greenbaum, who heads the Zvi Meitar Institute for Legal Implications of Emerging Technologies at Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC), took a less dystopian view of the future after the plague, though he did agree that it could have a significant impact on how society organizes itself and does business.
In the dramatic Health Ministry regulations issued on Tuesday that essentially put most of the country under a form of lockdown, Greenbaum noted, there was one sentence in the middle that was highlighted in bold font.
“Refrain from smoking cigarettes – this is a good opportunity to stop smoking,” the statement read.
Behind that seemingly innocuous suggestion lurks something deeper, Greenbaum noted: “This is a great time to try out things that we may not have tried in other situations.”
Those things, Greenbaum said, could range from long-distance teaching and medical care – with the current crisis giving a push to technologies that people, by form of habit, were resistant to trying in the past – to tapping into cellphones for surveillance purposes.
“I think it is politically a safe time to try things that you might not do otherwise, because there is so much else going on,” he said. “Things that may be politically more problematic might be tried by people in a desperate situation, and something that would be a political hot potato in other times is now accepted.”
Beyond this week’s controversial government decision to use cellular phones as surveillance devices, Greenbaum talked about how there now seems to be a willingness to expand government to deal with problems. One idea that is emerging is a “universal basic income” to be provided by governments.
“We are seeing a lot of government handouts, we are seeing a lot of effort by the governments to relieve people of some of the burden of working for income during the crisis,” he said, citing the example in the US of talk of giving every American $1,000. In other words, more government involvement in lives, rather than less.
Asked whether he thinks we are at a historical turning point, Greenbaum said: “We are definitely at a moment, whether we turn is another question.”
He said that technologies that have been underappreciated for a long time and that are being tried now may end up being integrated much more in our daily lives after the plague.
Erez Cohen, a lecturer on political economy and public policy at Ariel University, said that the crisis may change consumer patterns, with people – perhaps now unable to buy cheap products from China – realizing that they can do without.
He also said that the wave of layoffs and unpaid vacations will lead companies and factories to try to be more efficient when it is all over. Some plants may see now – during the crisis – that they can get by with fewer employees and as a result cut back. This, he said, could in turn force Israelis to work in industries that they have shunned for years, such as in the construction and caregiving fields, relying instead on foreign workers.
And finally, he said, the current crisis is likely to fundamentally change education and medicine. Now that many schools and universities have gone to long-distance learning to weather this storm, something many teachers and professors were suspicious of in the past, “we might see that it is easy, and get used to it.”
Over time, he said, “many professions either change or disappear, and it could be that education will fundamentally change from what we now know, and that the frontal lecture will be a thing of the past.”
The same is true of medicine, he said, with people who were reticent in the past of relying on telephone or computer consultations with their doctors now preferring that to a visit to the clinic.
Another specialist who monitors trends, Guy Hochman – the head of the MA program in behavior economics at IDC – referred to this phenomenon as “impact bias.”
“Many times people refrain from major changes in their lives because they are afraid, and don’t think they can deal with it well. But in times of crisis, like now, when we have no choice, we suddenly do things we were afraid of in the past and realize that it is not that bad.”
That being said, Hochman predicted that when the plague passes, people will return to familiar patterns. He said the virus will have a very strong influence on life in the very short term – for instance, it will take a bit of time before people go back to traveling – but very rapidly people will go back to their routine.
“We forget very quickly, and people will go back to their routines,” he said.
Hochman pointed to 9/11, and noted that while immediately after the terrorist attack in the US many people stopped flying – leading to an increase in traffic deaths on the highways – “very quickly everything returned to normal.”
He said that one longer-term impact the virus may have is a philosophical one.
What it has done, he said, is demonstrate that “despite all our progress and technological advancement, we are still so vulnerable. This is an acknowledgement that I think will impact people and get them to think about human limitations and boundaries; an acknowledgement that with all our progress, a tiny invisible virus can shut down the entire world.”