If theres a light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel, its faint. Most of our eyes are still adjusting to the darkness.
No one knows how long this will last, or what the final toll will be in lives, in economic turmoil, in changes to the world as we knew it.
When the pandemic finally passes, what will our new normal look like?
San Diego scholars and futurists offered some ideas:
For many years now, for a variety of reasons, theres been a move toward more people working from home.
The pandemic is fast-forwarding how quickly that shift is happening, said Elizabeth Lyons, an assistant professor of management in UC San Diegos School of Global Policy and Strategy.
Many organizations have been forced to make large investments in work-from-home equipment like laptop computers, and in the organizational capabilities required to facilitate the change. Now that these investments have been made, Lyons said, the cost of remote work for these organizations will be lower going forward.
Assuming good training and managerial direction, employees will get better at it as time goes on, too, she said but companies that dont make the necessary adjustments will see productivity decline.
Particularly in this time of economic uncertainty, I think that how well firms manage remote work now will have implications for how likely they are to survive the next year or two, she said.
Noah Arceneaux, interim director for the School of Journalism and Media Studies at San Diego State University, researches how society reacts to technological change (the telegraph, mobile phones). Theres always resistance, he said, because people think the new way is inferior to the old one.
The COVID-19 outbreak is knocking down the psychological barriers surrounding remote work and remote learning, and it will force a permanent acceptance of certain online activities as normal, Arceneaux said.
With theaters shut down, studios are releasing first-run films to streaming services for home viewing.
He thinks that will apply to movies, too. With theaters shut down, studios are releasing first-run films to streaming services for home viewing. Customers will demand that from now on, he said. I think thats going to be a permanent change, not just a hiccup.
David Brin is a North County science fiction writer. Several of his stories involve pandemics, a familiar theme in his genre.
Joshua Graff Zivin is an economist at UC San Diego with an expertise in the impact of health interventions.
Both have their eyes on a future where scientists have developed a test that shows who has already had the coronavirus and developed an immunity to it. Those people, in theory, would be able to return to work and bring some stability to a free-falling economy.
Well-versed in sci-fi plots that imagine worlds with characters segregated for all kinds of reasons (and wearing cloaks or badges identifying themselves as such), Brin sees workplaces divided, too, into shifts: Some filled with employees who already had the disease, others with those who havent.
Zivin said researchers are pursuing immunity tests, and theres hope for a saliva-based one that could be produced at scale to enable mass screenings quickly.
There are probably huge numbers of people who have had it and recovered and they might now have immunity, he said. We dont yet know how long immunity might last, but these could be the people you would want to send back into the workforce. Right now theyre sitting at home like everybody else.
Two other areas of research and development are in full swing, and Zivin has hopes for them, too. One, of course, is a vaccine, which is being pursued in numerous places, the Holy Grail of a medical intervention that experts believe is 12 to 18 months away. The other involves medicine to treat the disease, which could lessen the symptoms and keep hospitals from being overrun by patients who need ventilators and other assistance.
If we make progress on all three fronts, Ill go out on a limb and say that in the next 18 months to three years, we will be in a place where this coronavirus looks like the seasonal flu, he said. But what happens between then and now in terms of loss of life and our ability to control the economic impact depends on the policy responses of our politicians and government leaders.
In this March 8, 2020, photo released by Xinhua News Agency, a staff member walks down a corridor of an empty makeshift hospital in Wuhan, central Chinas Hubei Province. The makeshift hospital converted from a sports venue was recently closed after its last batch of cured COVID-19 patients were discharged. (Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua via AP)
People have already begun comparing the government response in China, which got the virus first and and after a slow start has largely brought it under control, to the United States, which has it now and every day sets a new record for the country with the most cases.
Of course, China isnt a democracy, and its authoritarian leaders have far more power to enforce lockdowns and other measures. No one in this country expects the U.S. to head in that direction.
But to Tai Ming Cheung, director of the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, the pandemic renews fundamental questions about the role of the state. What should the government do, and when? How much responsibility should be left to the private sector?
He thinks the well-documented flaws in the supply chain of medical equipment here too few masks, gloves, gowns, swabs and so on will lead to changes that embrace the national-security implications of being caught shorthanded. A lot of manufacturing of those items takes place overseas.
I think there will be a new emphasis on the U.S. rebuilding its production base, Cheung said.
Dan Hallin, a communication professor at UC San Diego whose latest book is about media coverage of health and medicine, also predicts a renewed investment in our public health infrastructure.
He believes we might also be rediscovering the fact that we do need the government. There are certain things that only the government can provide, and that requires a competent government.
And that could dovetail with a renewed respect for expertise in general, he said, and a move-away from the anti-science populism and post-truth skepticism that have taken root in some segments of society.
Public health officials have been trying for decades to get people to wash their hands.
Public health officials have been trying for decades to get people to be more serious about washing their hands. Not just with a splash of water with soap, for at least 20 seconds.
Its finally happening, everywhere.
And I bet that will be the case for quite a while, Hallin said.
Seems hard to believe now, but even many doctors used to scoff at the importance of hand-washing. Maybe you saw the Google doodle last weekend of Ignaz Semmelweis, a 19th Century doctor in Vienna, who got ridiculed by his peers for suggesting that their germ-filthy hands were why so many women died after giving birth in the hospital.
He was right, of course, which is why the doodle included a pair of dripping-wet hands poking out from one of the Os in Google.
Hallin said he suspects other things were doing with more vigilance now avoiding handshakes, covering our mouths when we cough, isolating ourselves when were sick will linger, too. Our increased health-consciousness will last, he said. Weve all been consuming a lot of health advice, and that will probably have some spillover.
Alison Wishard Guerra, an associate professor at UC San Diegos Department of Education Studies, has been thinking about silver linings in the coronavirus clouds.
One is the opportunity this shared trauma offers for a re-focusing on what makes children feel safe and secure enough to learn in the classroom, she said.
The emphasis in recent years on standardized testing has degraded the social and emotional quality of classrooms, she said, and now is a good time for all the stakeholders to step back and question their own deeply held assumptions about how schools work.
With so many parents now at home with their children, participating in remote-learning lessons, they may develop a new appreciation for the work teachers do, Guerra said. Theyve been undervalued for so long, and maybe that will change. It may also lead to improvements in parent-teacher engagement, which research shows plays a key role in how well children do in school.
Guerra also sees hope for improved gender equity. Men working from home are getting a fuller picture of the child-care responsibilities that traditionally have been handled by women. They know what its like now to have a toddler crawl in their lap while theyre on a conference call.
I think its lifting the veil on the reality that men and women with families are having to manage their careers, child care and family practices all the time, she said. Women for the longest time have been discouraged from even referring to the fact that they have families. Now comes the virus, and it is a great equalizer. Were all in this together now.
Karen Dobkins is a psychology professor at UC San Diego who studies loneliness and leads workshops on how to combat it.
Nobody teaches us how to connect with each other, she said. Thats why when we go to dinner parties and meet someone new, one of the first questions we ask is, What do you do? even though nobody really wants to talk about work. Thats the kind of superficial conversation were comfortable having.
Now, with the pandemic, she sees people having truer, more authentic conversations, even as social distancing forces us to do it by phone or video-chat. Shes talking more often with her relatives on the East Coast, via Zoom, and catching up with friends she hasnt spoken with in months. She knows others who are having virtual happy hours to commiserate and comfort.
These deeper connections will last, she believes, at least for a while. Thats what happened after 9/11, and once the danger subsided, people went back to their lives and their familiar ways of doing things, she said. But some of it survived. I can still remember what it felt like to have all that brotherly love going on.
Dobkins thinks people are also using their shelter-at-home time to take stock of their lives, a re-evaluation thats likely to have ripple effects.
We get conditioned to believe that our self-worth is tied to our accomplishments, she said. But now that people arent going to work during rush hour, arent rushing around all day on the job, theyve been afforded an opportunity to see what happens. Has everything fallen apart? Is my self-worth any less?
Old ways of doing things will no doubt return, she said. But not the changed sense of who you are. Not entirely."You cant unring the bell, she said.
And once the pandemic passes, and the dinner parties return, she offers this as the first question to ask a stranger: What makes your heart sing?
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