Since it first appeared in late 2019, the coronavirus has rampaged its way around the world and gone on to affect all aspects of modern life. However, while the death toll and health implications have been tragic, the long-lasting changes brought on through the virus are only now starting to come to light.
COVID-19 has changed so many parts of our lives – from the way we socialize to how and where we work. With a second wave well underway in almost all nations around the world, it seems we may still have a way to go before we can see a clear way out of the disruption caused by the virus. Even with the promise of three vaccines being released soon, it’s becoming clear the effects of COVID-19 will be with us for some time yet.
Like previous pandemics, coronavirus may well have changed the world forever. Here are just some of the predicted long-term lasting effects of the disease.
Social distancing may well become the new norm
There is considerable psychological and societal evidence that suggests when communities are forced to adapt to new ways of life, it takes a long time for those newly-established norms to be forgotten. Coronavirus has made us so fearful of close contact with others that it seems highly unlikely we will quickly revert to our old way of life – with or without a vaccine.
The idea of social distancing has become so deeply ingrained in society that it’s changed even the way we greet friends with novel elbow taps replacing handshakes or hugs. While we would hope in the absence of the virus that proximity will no longer be feared, it seems highly possible these new societal norms will prevail a good bit longer.
The economic implications of the virus
The world is in a depression the likes of which haven’t been seen since World War II. Indeed, it was suggested in June by the World Bank that the global economy will shrink by as much as 5.2% through this year – with other predictions painting an even bleaker picture.
As businesses were forced to close their doors through containment measures and isolation, millions have faced redundancy globally – and the forecast for next year looks equally bleak as consumers tighten their belts and the second wave of the virus continues to reap havoc.
Globally, governments have rung up massive debt levels attempting to prop up economies and support workers with furlough payments. Moreover, as individuals, we have faced increased hardship with millions already losing their jobs or facing reduced working hours. With less money available, debt lawsuit consumer protection cases have also skyrocketed through the last year as people struggle to meet existing obligations such as rent and mortgage payments.
In the UK alone, there were an estimated 500,000 redundancies in the first five months of the virus, while in the US, job losses have soared at a rate not seen since the Great Depression. Indeed, in predictions earlier this year, US unemployment was forecast to reach 47 million – or around 32% of the total population.
Many jobs will be gone forever
The virus has highlighted so-called ‘pointless jobs’ that will never return. As the rise of automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) continues, many previously secure careers have been revealed as being perfectly suited to emerging technologies. In particular, through lockdown, jobs that involved employees performing repetitive work have largely been replaced by computers. Longer-term, there is little chance that companies will revert to employing costly staff when compared to the reliability and cost-savings offered by technology.
The way we socialize may have fundamentally changed
With society locked down and a general fear of leaving home prevalent among citizens, populations around the world turned in their droves to video calling and services like Zoom enjoyed unprecedented growth. While video calling services have been around for some time, they have never been more popular than today, and it’s likely these habits too will be hard to break – even after the virus has passed.
Coronavirus has caused us to redress our relationships and question the need to physically meet with others when a video call achieves many of the same goals.
Our views on global travel could change
Before the lockdown, the global travel industry was experiencing massive growth and, in particular, airline operators had been reporting record profits. With aircraft now mothballed in hangars and on runways around the world, multiple reports suggest the airline industry will be lucky to recover to its previous levels anytime before 2023/24. Even then, due to increased awareness of climate change and the damaging effects of air travel on the environment, it seems rather unlikely we will see the industry fully return to its glory days of old.
Increased state surveillance
There can surely be no better reasoning or justification for states to monitor their populations than through the aim of suppressing a pandemic. In China, drones are already being used to check for citizens without face masks while governments in Austria, Belgium Germany and Italy have collected vast swathes of mobile phone data from operators to better understand the movement of people. While this data is currently gathered anonymously, it seems rather unlikely states will ever want to relinquish that level of knowledge and control. Moreover, it doesn’t take a huge leap in imagination to envisage more nefarious uses of data gathering on that level.
Likewise, in Israel, the government already has the power to access private phone records of individuals suspected of being infected with the virus while authorities in South Korea have the right to send text messages to the public informing of the whereabouts of anyone thought to be a COVID-19 carrier. Unfortunately, through the fear of a pandemic, individual privacy rights have been sacrificed for the supposed collective good – and those rights show little sign of returning.
The growing power of governments
The problems with surveillance and privacy don’t just stop there. In the UK, the Coronavirus Bill was rushed through parliament allowing police and immigration officers the right to detain anyone they suspect of carrying COVID-19 until they’ve been tested. Governments in Israel and Hungary both instituted the right to pass laws without interference from the courts. In the US, the Department of Justice has requested the right to suspend courts in emergency circumstances, thereby essentially creating the nightmare scenario where a defendant could be jailed without a proper trial.
Countries around the world have rushed through new legislature to supposedly help contain the virus – but these same laws will likely last long after COVID-19 has passed. As a prescient report by the American Civil Liberties Union stated back in 2008 when detailing what the likely government response to a pandemic might be, these new laws effectively create the situation where “People, rather than the disease, become the enemy.”
Our reliance on technology
From video-calling to binge-watching shows, our reliance on technology has exploded through 2020. With TV and film production virtually ground to a halt through the first half of the year – and sports, live music and theatres also all canceled in the early stages of the pandemic – people had little choice but to turn to streaming services and box sets for their entertainment. Again, these are habits that we will likely be slow to break.
Although sport is slowly starting to return, it’s also quite hard to imagine a time when we’ll see packed stadiums – or any kind of mass gathering. Of course, that may just be a question of time, but people may remain wary of huge gatherings.
The very real possibility of vaccines being imposed
Most democratic governments have stressed repeatedly that the vaccine will not be forced on people and that it will only be taken voluntarily. However, it doesn’t take much to envisage a scenario where businesses might start insisting on proof of vaccination before allowing people access or use of their services. For example, if leaders were to suggest that a company found to be actively helping the spread of the virus could be fined, the specter of businesses vetting customers with proof of vaccination could become very real.
Also, while not confirmed, it doesn’t seem that far-fetched to imagine a time when airline companies might insist on travelers showing proof of vaccination before boarding a flight, for example. Extending that idea, might we even see a day when pubs or restaurants bar access to those not already vaccinated? As with so many other areas of COVID-19, it’s an ever-changing situation, but nothing seems that implausible or unlikely anymore.
Changed political systems
While most of the changes caused by coronavirus have been bad, there are glimmers of hope that it might also give us a chance to rethink the previous status quo and reinvent how the world works. The virus helped highlight just how broken our political systems were and how little states and governments actually did to look after their populations.
Through lockdown, governments had no option other than to flex their collective muscle and step in for the good of their people – regardless of wealth or position. In countries around the world, the ruling powers have had to work for the collective benefit of all, offering unprecedented levels of support in the form of furlough payments for those unable to work. It could be argued that this finally showed what states can actually accomplish when they put their minds to it – and all in record time.
An opportunity for change
Moving forward, there are increasing calls to use the virus as a platform for positivity and good – to transform a previously selfish, capitalist world into one that takes greater care of its people and works for the benefit of everyone, rather than just the few.
If these vaccines do prove to be a success, perhaps it might also offer increased incentive to look at many of the world’s other diseases and put a similar effort into finding treatments. Certainly, the three vaccines currently tabled as being most likely to work have been developed in record time – which gives an intriguing insight into just how much can be done when companies and the state work together to solve problems.
As Albert Einstein once said, “In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity” and a more optimistic view of life after COVID-19 is that it might give us the chance to reset – to reinvent and reimagine how life could be. Of course, that will largely rely on the integrity and honesty of our rulers but after such a trying and testing time, it perhaps doesn’t do any harm to think of a more positive future.
One thing is absolutely beyond question – the world after coronavirus will never quite be the same again. What we do with the lessons learned through this time is up to us all.