Life in a post-coronavirus world: will it feel so very different?
Opinion by NRI Herald Australia, 30 Nov 2021
The majority of people will drift back to their baseline mood of cheery or curmudgeonly, even after seismic events.
Has there ever been an easier time to be a futurist? I’m distrustful of the profession at the best of times, since it involves making pronouncements about a time that hasn’t arrived – and not being held to account for your errors when it does arrive, because then it’s no longer the future, and thus no concern of the futurists. But these days, as the world staggers uncertainly out of lockdown, it’s even easier. All you need to say is that in life in general, or in whatever field you’re supposedly expert, everything’s going to change. Education, the economy, travel, work,dating, sport, the advertising industry, the world of aluminium can manufacturing: recent stories have promised massive transformation in them all. Or as a great sage put it a quarter of a century ago: “If you’ve got a history book at home, take it out, throw it in the bin – it’s worthless.”
My objection isn’t that any of this is necessarily false. (Although taken literally, it is, because history never unfolds in absolutes: for example, it’s always jarring to be reminded that most people spent the Great Depression in work, not unemployed.) Rather, it’s the implication that life, in years to come, is going to feel very different indeed. And one of the few things we can be pretty sure of is that it won’t. For most of us, most of the time, it’ll feel normal.
Part of the reason is “hedonic adaptation”, our tendency to swiftly adapt emotionally to positive or negative changes in our circumstances, drifting back towards our baseline levels of curmudgeonliness or cheer. Another is the “focusing illusion”, whereby we overestimate the impact that any given change will have on our lives. The cumulative result is that any future change in your situation – like never shaking hands again, wearing a mask in public, or even something huge, like losing your job – is likely to make less of a difference than you think. Each time a huge event disrupts a civilisation’s ordinary way of life, the “ordinary way of life” it’s disrupting is what people formerly thought of as the terrible climate ushered in by the last huge event.
None of this means things will be fine. They may well be worse: a world with less human contact, or more joblessness, is surely objectively worse, however normal it feels. But it does mean that if you found life generally meaningful in the post-9/11 world, or the post-financial-crisis world, the chances are you’ll do so in the post-coronavirus world as well.
1. Masks forever?
How much Human influenza did you see this year? How about Respiratory Syncytial Virus? Well, we saw none in either of our ICUs, and the Centre for Disease Control reported less than 1%. Accordingly, we think it’s an easy, albeit perhaps depressing, prediction that masks are here to stay.
It’s one thing to wear a mask for minutes, quite another to do so for years. We predict that, over time, more people will take less delight in uttering the “face, hands, space” mantra, but most will, nonetheless, carry on. This is because most people are decent and always will be, and that is worth remembering. It is also because the restrictions are backed by current science, and so they should be followed, even if wearily. However, because science can mature, these ideas may too. As such, we also predict—in fact we implore—more research concerning where and how humans can safely congregate and when we can safely drop our masks. After all, isolation, even if well intentioned, is hardly risk-free.
2. More working to live, less living to work
We predict plenty of people will be cured of their “workaholism” (another portmanteau) whereas others will go back to failing to practice what they earnestly previously preached. Take, for example, us: please! Despite both of us working in ICU, and already having witnessed a huge amount of premature death, this pandemic was an especially powerful reminder to never put off that trip, or skip that celebration. The hippies were right all along: the only certainty is the here and now, so embrace it. While work can be meaningful, the last year highlighted how it pales compared to nature and friendship. Similarly, when it comes to time away from work, the last year highlighted that an evening of Netflix can be heaven, and a month can be hell.
3. Online consultations, and conferences: zoom zoom!
With a market cap of 130 billion US dollars, Zoom is now worth more than IBM and ExxonMobile. Therefore, we confidently predict that communication and congregation will continue to become the new oil. Before covid-19, it was not uncommon to drive hours to see a medical specialist only to be told what you already knew: “sorry, but you’re not a candidate for surgery.” We predict that zoom consultations will continue to grow apace. Interestingly, we have heard lots from doctors about the brave new world of 2-D communication, and many were pleasantly surprised. It’s now time to hear what patients think. In fact, it’s always time to hear what patients think.
It’s tougher to predict the future of online medical conferences. This is because covid-19 has underscored how many still crave interactions in 3-D. For example, we used to love going away to a good conference. Truth be told, we loved going away to a bad conference, if it was in a nice place. We appreciate the simplicity of Zoom (and Microsoft Teams and whatever bandwagon products are yet to come), but are not mad keen about lecturing into a feedbackless cybervoid. Because audiences can now log-in without engaging, we fear that is exactly what many will do.
4. But then again, maybe it never ends
Making povid predictions is difficult because coronavirus’s spike proteins mutate, populations hesitate, and those in power complicate. Regardless, virologists believe that covid-19 will remain in low level circulation for decades. After all, the 1918 influenza strain persisted into the 1950s.
While many are focused on the race between vaccines and variants, it doesn’t take a genius to foresee endless dissertations into what went right and wrong. This is because covid-19 not only ravaged personal health, but our shared economy, our cherished freedoms, and often neglected community responsibilities. In short, it deserves a proper debrief
As the old quote goes, “predictions are notoriously difficult, especially about the future.” Accordingly, it’s often wisest just to hope for the best while bracing for the worst. Once again there is a portmanteau, namely “anticipointment,” and we expect plenty of it. We cannot know if the word “povid” will enter common parlance, but it offers a useful shorthand for contrasting the world before covid and after. Therefore, even while covid still rages, let’s start the povid discussions now. After all, who would have predicted that corona would become so much more than an innocent patio beer.