As we watch the pandemic play out, we are forced to adjust in trivial and monumental ways but also to consider whether everything should return to “normal.” Consider the ways in which our lives might be altered, perhaps permanently:
- More workers telecommute, reducing traffic and carbon emissions dramatically.
- Having fewer workers in offices means a surplus of commercial real estate that might be available for conversion to residential use, expanding the housing stock.
- Colleges and universities expand their student bodies as distance learning becomes commonplace. College is accessible to more people, and college costs drop. The on-campus college experience is transformed or eliminated altogether.
- SAT testing (requiring dozens, if not hundreds, of students to congregate) is suspended — and potentially discredited, as colleges learn they can select students without the test.
- Everyone can vote by mail, defeating at least some voter suppression techniques.
- Paid sick leave becomes the norm as employers recognize it is better for workers to stay home when they are ill.
- Universal health care — not just coverage — becomes the focus. Telemedicine becomes widespread. We focus on expansion of local clinics and health-care entities (e.g. fever clinics).
- Federalism either intensifies or recedes depending on the ability of local and state authorities to improvise in the absence of federal leadership. (We either strengthen the patchwork system of health care, education and emergency preparedness, or we decide national uniformity is essential.)
- Facts do matter. As the gap between reality and right-wing propaganda widens, the latter loses its iron grip on millions of voters.
- Hyper-antagonism toward government is no longer a viable philosophy as Americans demand a larger role for government in their lives. (Needless to say, the Trump era literally ends in disaster.)
- We begin to relocate parts of our supply chains to the United States, as safety takes priority over reduced labor costs.
We certainly do not know whether some or all of these will come to pass. The basic human urge for communal experience, entertainment and sports almost certainly will not fade, although a season of sports will be curtailed or erased. (Prepare for a shortened baseball season; forget this year’s NBA playoffs.) We might even learn to cherish more intensely those interactions we now take for granted — a family meal out at a restaurant, an afternoon at Starbucks, weekly religious services and kids’ birthday parties.
It has taken a while for all of us to realize that we are experiencing what might be a life-changing experience on a worldwide scale. The only thing comparable in human history might be other pandemics such as the 1918 Spanish flu and wars. As was the case at the start of World War I (“The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”), we have a sense that what follows might be dramatically different from what we have experienced to date.
In the past, cataclysmic events have prompted human beings to act with extraordinary kindness, courage and ingenuity. Let’s hope we see the same now. We might even look forward to a halt in the trend toward a meaner, lonelier, more polarized country.