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As America continues to fight the coronavirus it seems increasingly likely that when we look back, the pandemic of 2020 will be a time when the world changed in sudden and profound ways. It will affect everything from where we live and work to how we communicate with others, and even what counts as patriotic service.
If there’s one thing the COVID-19 pandemic is almost certain to shift into hyperdrive, it’s the movement of more and more of our activities online – but reliance on digital connection will also leave many behind.
Life in American cities may not be the same. Many urban areas have been shrinking for decades; the pandemic may accelerate this movement as people flee to the perceived safety of open spaces.
The nation’s sense of what constitutes patriotic service may change after COVID-19, which demonstrated that not all heroes wear camo. It is everyday Americans, from doctors and nurses and EMTs to grocery workers and delivery drivers, who are putting their health and lives at risk to protect and provide for everyone else.
As history Professor Margaret O’Mara says, “Great crises can change the rules of the game and people’s attitudes about political possibility really fast.”
As America continues to fight the COVID-19 virus it seems increasingly likely that when we look back, the pandemic of 2020 – like 9/11 and the 2008 financial crash – will be a time when the world around us changed in sudden and profound ways. It will affect everything from where we live and work to how we communicate with and relate to others, and even what counts as patriotic service, worthy of the nation’s salute.
That does not mean the post-coronavirus world will be different beyond recognition. The pandemic will not change the basic direction of history so much as accelerate it, according to Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. The importance of the United States to other nations may decline, while that of China increases; but that is happening in some form already. Our screen time may skyrocket along with reliance on Zoom, FaceTime, and other video connectors; but that basic trend preexists. Manufacturers may diversify suppliers to create redundant globalized production chains; but far-sighted managers have pushed this for some time.
Nor are coming changes completely predictable. The influenza epidemic of 1918 turned the world upside down and ravaged the U.S. population. What followed was not a new seriousness of national purpose, but the Roaring ’20s, a free-spending decade remembered today as one of the shallowest eras of American life.
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But crises can shake up the status quo. They override tendencies toward inertia, open room for the consideration of new ideas, and push aside past impediments. The ideas for the big government programs that became the New Deal had been bouncing around U.S. politics for years before Franklin Roosevelt became president, says Margaret O’Mara, a professor of history at the University of Washington in Seattle. It took the shock of the 1929 stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression to make them law.
“Great crises can change the rules of the game and people’s attitudes about political possibility really fast,” Dr. O’Mara says.
Life moves online
If there’s one thing the COVID-19 pandemic is almost certain to shift into hyperdrive, it’s the movement of more and more of our activities online.
The most obvious of these changes are occurring in the midst of the outbreak as tens of millions of people struggle to keep up some semblance of their old routines. Virtual schooling is now part of the curriculum for many of the 124,000-plus U.S. schools affected by a coronavirus shutdown, for instance. In the past, many school systems have resisted widespread online learning or found it difficult to integrate into existing lesson plans. Now they have little choice.
But today’s basic diet of Zoom lectures and student show-and-tells don’t fully reflect what online education can do, say its advocates. For instance, a more sophisticated integration of virtual and live instruction could help high schools match the achievement gains primary education has made in recent years.
Meanwhile, telemedicine is exploding. Right now, doctors are still struggling with such basic questions as how online health care fits into existing billing practices, but in the future it could allow much greater collaboration among diverse team members and health organizations. And of course, online ordering of everything from soup to bolts is for many people the new normal.
Related to this acceleration of the digital is the increasing importance of big tech to the national welfare. If this moment in history is the moral equivalent of war, are Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Twitter emerging as the new arsenals of democracy, as GM, Ford, and Chrysler did during World War II?
After all Bill Gates, shed of his corporate responsibilities at Microsoft, is increasingly outspoken about fighting all manner of health crises. Amazon is America’s delivery backbone. Facebook is the new radio, the way an isolated society communicates and receives news. President Donald Trump turned to a Google division to construct a website for locating COVID-19 test sites – though that hasn’t progressed much so far.
“The tech companies are really part of this now,” says Dr. O’Mara, author of the recent book “The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America.”
This could mean a significant shift in big tech’s image, Dr. O’Mara notes. Until recent years Silicon Valley has largely ignored politics as well as any concerns about the more unsavory aspects of its impact on society. Then tech itself became a political headline, with Mark Zuckerberg hauled before Congress to defend Facebook policies on issues such as data sharing and election security.
“It became very clear that tech was not only not adequate to address some of our most complicated social problems ... but that it was not changing the world in the right way,” says Dr. O’Mara.
Then America was struck by a grave public health threat whose effect on society is unmatched by any crisis since World War II, and perhaps could surpass even that for its sheer breadth. Leadership at the top of government, with some exceptions, has struggled to meet the challenge. The economic fallout will ripple through every sector of the economy, devastating some, such as airlines, hotels, and restaurants.
“The only sector that may come out of this with more money in the bank is tech,” says Dr. O’Mara.
With their global workforces and global reach, tech firms are uniquely situated to provide moral leadership and a global perspective, she says. Yet their preexisting problems remain: worries about the privacy of personal data and the little-checked spread of false information.
It’s also important to remember that a continuing digital revolution will leave many people behind. Laptops and Wi-Fi connections are expensive; many low-income families can’t reliably connect for telework or virtual education. Some 42 million Americans, and a quarter of all rural residents, don’t have access to broadband internet, according to a recent report from BroadbandNow Research.
Another urban flight?
Life in American cities may not be the same after the coronavirus recedes. At the least, things probably won’t return to anything resembling the old normal for a long time.
Many urban areas have been shrinking for decades as their populations migrate to inner-ring suburbs and more distant areas. It’s possible the pandemic will accelerate this movement as people flee to the perceived safety of larger open spaces.
Some wealthy Americans packed up and left New York and other central cities for second homes or hotels in the Hamptons, or the Catskills, or on Cape Cod. A percentage of these may not return if their work and family situations allow. Similar dispersions may happen elsewhere around the globe, say some experts.
“We may now be witnessing the outlines of a new, and necessary, dispersion of population, not only in the wide open spaces of North America and Australia, but even in the megacities of the developing world,” wrote Joel Kotkin, executive director of the Urban Reform Institute, in an article in the publication Quillette in late March.
But this may not mean cities per se are set to wither, or that their attributes will become less attractive to people drawn to the pulse of urban life. The terrible flu pandemic of 1918 did not destroy hard-hit cities, after all. Pittsburgh was ravaged, as was Detroit. Both thrived afterward.
“The point is that no pandemic in history – and many have been worse [than COVID-19] – has been enough to derail the force of urbanization,” says Richard Florida, an urbanist and professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and School of Cities. “The clustering of people, clustering of ideas, and trading with one another have made the world a more productive and innovative place.”
What the coronavirus will do is reshape the way people work and interact in cities at a micro level for a midrange period of time, until a vaccine is able to bring it under control, says Dr. Florida. It’s hard to anticipate exactly what these changes will be, he says. People may be worried about returning to city offices and taking mass transit, so it’s possible they will opt to live in center cities and walk, or resume driving to work, creating more traffic congestion. Small businesses will look different, with restaurant tables placed farther apart, hair salon chairs dispersed or divided from one another, and so forth.
Children will return to very different schools, Dr. Florida predicts, with temperature checks at the door and social distancing in the lunch room. Other changes that he believes will need to take place before cities reopen for business include retrofitting airports, convention centers, and other infrastructure for screenings and personal separation, and financial support for arts and cultural institutions that help provide urban areas with vitality.
“We have to prepare our communities, our playgrounds, our arenas to get up and running safely,” Dr. Florida says.
In the post-pandemic world some types of urban areas might do better than others. Los Angeles, a big world-class city built around the concept of sprawling neighborhoods of single-family homes, could benefit from people’s desire to insulate themselves in a bit of space. So could smallish cities that offer some cultural amenities but are close enough to bigger places to serve as a type of satellite.
One example of this might be Hudson, New York, up the river from New York City. People can experience different degrees of density, despite living in the same city, based on their relative wealth and class, Dr. Florida says.
About a third of the workforce nationwide is wealthy enough to afford extensive deliveries of food and other staples, and to carry out much of their jobs through telework. Another third is composed of blue-collar workers who stock the produce aisles, drive delivery trucks, and otherwise are at risk on the pandemic front lines. The last third are poor people, who have little choice but to hunker down.
Yes, the richest of the rich can jet to their second or third homes, moving to physically distance themselves from any health threat. But could they actually root themselves in their chalets? If they have school-age children, they might not find local educational options attractive. In any case, the isolation they see as a buffer might be illusory. Rural health care options are often limited – and rural counties with attractive recreational amenities, such as the ski slopes of Colorado, have had a high per capita incidence of COVID-19, Dr. Florida points out.
Coronavirus refugees have also sparked fear and resentment among those who live in rural areas full time. In one infamous incident on the Maine island of Vinalhaven, a group of locals cut down a tree on March 27 in an attempt to forcibly barricade several New Jersey residents inside the home they were renting. Dr. Florida says such conflicts could become bitter if they pit states against states. “One of the things that worries me is these border battles in general,” he says.
Not all heroes wear camo
The nation’s sense of what constitutes patriotic service may enlarge and change after COVID-19. For years many of America’s red-white-and-blue rituals have centered on celebrating the military. There’s the honor guard for the national anthem, the F-22 flyovers for home openers, the line of greeters saying “thank you for your service” to the troops disembarking at airports for leave.
It’s meant to honor people who have agreed to risk their lives to protect the larger community. Some of it derives from the memory of the Vietnam years, when protesters in a bitterly divided U.S. turned their backs on veterans, and worse.
But not all heroes wear camo. In the coronavirus pandemic it is everyday Americans, from doctors and nurses and EMTs to grocery workers and delivery drivers, who are putting their health and lives at risk to protect and provide for everyone else.
“Hopefully we’ll have maybe a more inclusive sense of patriotism” after the pandemic, says Mark Lawrence Schrad, an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University and author of “Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State.”
Dr. Schrad says he’s come to this conclusion a roundabout way. One of the things he teaches his students about is nationalism. And a part of nationalism, he says, is constructing the “we” that defines the nation, against the “them” that stand outside it.
Patriotism is one aspect used in building that “we.” But in the current situation, the “them” isn’t the Soviet Union, or Al Qaeda, or humans at all. It’s amorphous and as dangerous to our geopolitical adversaries as it is to us.
Dr. Schrad believes that, if the nation is in such a new place, maybe it needs a new kind of patriotism. Election monitors serve the country – and in Wisconsin recently, working amid the pandemic, bravely so. Teachers serve the community. And now, so do UPS drivers, and postal workers, and agricultural field hands, and hospital orderlies, and a whole range of people whose jobs require them to continue to work with others despite the dangers and lockdowns.
Maybe grocery workers will be honored at halftime during NFL games when the league restarts. Maybe the nurses of community hospitals will march at the front of small town July Fourth parades.
But even before then we can all start thanking them for their service. “They didn’t sign on for this,” Dr. Schrad says.
Valuing real connection
The coronavirus crisis is certainly bringing us closer together, in some ways, but also pushing us apart.
Technology has ensured that everybody remains booked – at least, everybody who has high-speed internet and wants to remain connected to friends and relatives. Zoom this, Zoom that, it’s the book club on Mondays, conversations with grandmother on Tuesdays, then the parents group and the church rummage sale committee. That doesn’t even include all the work-related videoconferencing. Isolation has never seen such togetherness, noted Sherry Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a recent appearance on the public radio show “On Point.”
Online communication has long meant trying to present our best selves – pictures cropped and filtered, subjects curated to make our lives look as exciting as possible. But the new online look is more of a human experience, all of us striving to maintain the authentic connections developed in real life, according to Dr. Turkle, author of “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.”
But online meetups can be exhausting. It’s hard to say no – excuses to avoid online chats are more limited than for getting together in real life. And there’s something about them that is just more restrictive. They can’t really duplicate the full experience of personal connection.
And real-life conversation has more to it. There are things you can’t duplicate via video screen. There are subtle pauses, looks, being quiet together without saying anything. Dr. Turkle calls these communication extras “friction.” In this sense, friction refers to the “messiness of politics, of the dinner table, the intimate conversation, the playground, the public square.”
When the pandemic is over, we may come out of it, not hooked on the ease of transferring all our conversations to the infosphere, but missing and honoring the small glitches and unspoken connections that real life entails.
“Empathy requires conversations with friction,” says Dr. Turkle.
Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.