25 Predictions and Watch Outs for COVID-19’s Impact on Society

Originally published March 14, 2020. Updated March 18, 2020

The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect those of his employer. Links embedded in this article do not indicate the endorsement of the views expressed therein by the author.

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March 11, 2020 is going to be remembered as one of those dates that divides a before from an after. Like September 11, 2001; December 7, 1941; and October 29, 1929, the combination of President Trump’s Oval Office address on coronavirus and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson’s COVID-19 diagnoses on the same day created a watershed moment.

Every American now feels as though they know someone who has the virus. All but the most partisan understand that the president’s speech on March 11th had the exact opposite effect intended, riling rather than mollifying markets and Americans. These were wakeups to Americans who hours before hadn’t fully appreciated the magnitude of the danger or the inadequacy of the federal response to date. The stock market nose dive and consumer panic-buying the next day showed Americans finally got it.

Social scientists like myself are naturally wary of making predictions. The costs of being publicly wrong can be stark. But I’m making predictions anyway, and I’m making them publicly because we need to start thinking about the future more carefully than we have at the outset of other crises in our past.

It’s not all bad news. COVID-19 is bringing to the fore issues that are long overdue for real dialogue, and as with every crisis, we’ll learn from it. Hopefully we’ll be wise enough to act on what we learn and to keep acting on it far into the future.

On the other side of the ledger, we are a fractured country in a fractured world, and COVID-19 is going to highlight those divisions. We’ll be lucky if it only highlights them. It may well pry the fault lines even further apart.

The Positive Predictions

1) The safety net is going to make more progress in the next two years than in the past fifteen. The American social safety net is a curiosity to everyone in other developed countries. Even in America, there doesn’t seem to be anyone who actually believes it exists in a meaningful form, yet fixing the safety net — or creating one, depending on your point of view — never seems to make any progress. As congress tries to tighten the safety net in the face of COVID-19, opponents of a true, permanent social safety net are going to have to explain why, if it’s the right thing to do morally and the smart thing to do economically during the COVID-19 crisis, it’s not the right and smart thing to do all the time.

The answer is that it’s economically expedient — it’s getting money to effected workers to prevent or ameliorate a recession — and that it has nothing to do with what’s morally right. Good luck to anyone who wants to tell that to a voter who asks, a year from now, why they received paid time off during the COVID-19 crisis but not now. Or why they will currently receive paid time off if they are impacted by COVID-19 but not any other illness.

Employers who object to comprehensive paid leave have been benefiting from American workers’ low expectations for employment benefits. They don’t want workers to get used to better for fear that having realized what they’ve been missing out on, workers will begin to demand it. It’s hard to claw back a benefit once someone has it, as Republicans learned on Obamacare. Republicans even sought cover from Trump to pass the watered down versions of paid time off and expanded Medicaid reimbursement in the first coronavirus bill.

COVID-19 will have a similar effect on the debates about universal health coverage and universal basic income. If people believe everyone should have access to affordable care for an epidemic disease, why not for all diseases? If COVID-19 idles workers and we deem it morally right, and economically wise, to provide them with cash benefits, why not provide those same benefits to workers idled by outsourcing, automation, or just the fortunes of business? Paid time off during the COVID-19 crisis, expansion of unemployment insurance, and the prospect of a cash payment all set a new starting point for future discussions — not whether they are beneficial to workers, employers, and the economy as a whole, but when and for whom.

2) America is about to have its first real conversation about eldercare. More than 34 million Americans care for an aging loved one, and they have to decide what they need to do to avoid exposing the people they care for to the virus.

The coronavirus bill that made it through the House includes a provision for paid sick leave for people caring for someone who has the virus but doesn’t cover someone who decides to isolate themselves to avoid exposing a person they care for absent a recommendation or order from a public official covering an entire jurisdiction. The bill extends paid time off to parents of children whose schools are closed, but not to people who have nowhere to send their elderly relatives.

As employers have become more accommodating, with still a long way to go, to working parents, far fewer employers have taken the same positive steps for their employees caring for their aging relatives[1]. Everyone knowingly commiserates about parenting woes, but far fewer discuss the struggles of caring for an aging relative. Most Americans probably don’t realize how many of their coworkers are caring for elderly parents, even though the challenges of being a working caregiver are intense, and many are caring for their own children and their parents simultaneously, the so called sandwich generation.

3) Outdated institutions are going to be forced to deal with changes they’ve been ignoring. Why is the residential college experience the default when college costs are skyrocketing? Why don’t colleges offer a full slate of online degrees? How have we let online education get turned into a legal scam? How is it that colleges have managed to make progress in online education, albeit limited, while traditional K-12 schools mostly haven’t? How can telecommuting be as common as it is while so many companies still refuse to allow it (and forego the many benefits)? Why are sick workers pressured to go to work even when they have paid sick leave and vacation time?

Educators, business leaders, workers, and governments are about to learn an awful lot about distance learning and telecommuting. If colleges, schools, and offices can close for weeks or even longer, it will be untenable to deny the possibility of growing distance learning and telecommuting beyond where they stand now. Some workers in particular might discover the joy of the hour or more they save not commuting each day and be reluctant to give that hour up entirely when their offices reopen. Managers and workers may finally embrace staying home when they’re ill, and maybe even actually staying in bed rather than working from the couch.

The biggest question is government. Can governments learn how to operate remotely?

4) Public health officials are going to become much better communicators. Many people probably don’t remember that it was common not very many years ago for their doctor to dictate to them. Doctor-patient dialogue wasn’t as important as it is commonly seen to be today. Public health doesn’t seem to have caught up.

To those of us who think in terms of systems rather than individuals, it’s been frustrating to hear people reject quarantine and social distancing, and it seems that only since #flattenthecurve began trending that people began to understand the nature of the challenges we’re facing and the value of social distancing. It’s very likely that the spread of the disease would have been much slower if public health experts and the media had done a better job explaining the why and wherefore of social distancing. Public health officials will learn and do better next time. Maybe the media will, too.

5) We won’t have to touch as much nasty stuff in the future. It’s always been gross, and many of us have been attuned to this for quite some time (I have to touch ten buttons and handles to go to a meeting on a different floor of my office and return to my desk). Doorknobs, buttons, escalator rails, bathroom fixtures, paper towel dispensers, pens, pin pads. It’s just gross. It will take a while, but building codes will likely change, and existing buildings will be increasingly retrofitted with touchless fixtures and items as simple as foot pulls on doors. Touchless payment options are slowly growing in use. Their adoption will grow accelerate, and we’ll see new ways of completing transactions that don’t include handing over cash, credit cards, pens or touching pin pads.

6) The labor movement will emerge stronger. Union membership has been declining in the U.S. since 1954, though there have been some high profile labor victories (and losses labor can be proud of) in recent years along with movements like the Fight for $15.

Because of COVID-19, workers are facing shuttered jobs, layoffs, and being idled without pay. Some businesses are vowing to keep paying idle workers, most are not. It’s already the case that union members are more likely to have health coverage and paid time off than non-union workers. At least some unions have seen an uptick in organizing as workers face COVID-19, and unions are in some instances negotiating with employers for at least partial pay in the event their members are idled. Others are using their political clout to advocate for workers in Congress and state legislatures. Americans will be reminded of the value of unions, and absent a strong government response for all workers, we’ll see more Americans turn to organizing during and after the crisis.

7) Americans will do a better job drawing the line between work and everything else. The labor-saving invention of email didn’t save labor, and the flexibility of mobile devices turned out to be the flexibility to always be working or to forego promotions. With millions of Americans about to find themselves telecommuting full time, the blurry line between work and not-work is going to get even blurrier.

Chief among the commons tips for telecommuters is to deliberately separate their work from everything else: a physical space for work versus leisure, making a habit of not answering emails outside certain hours, and ending the day at the same time they would if they were in an office. These are necessary when you don’t have the physical and temporal boundaries of a traditional office to divide work from not-work.

Americans already know they’d reduce their stress and find a better work/life balance if they followed this advice regardless of where they work from. Forced into telecommuting full time, many will likely find they need to follow through on this advice to keep their sanity, and some will continue to practice that kind of self-care when they return to the office.

Some Neutral Predictions

1) Expect Joe Biden to call press conferences to make increasingly presidential-like addresses. The contrast between his speech on March 12th and the president’s on March 11th so clearly distilled the differences between the two men, to the former’s great benefit, that it would be campaign malpractice not to. The fine line his campaign will have to tread is to avoid being cast as undermining the president. Biden will be accused of it anyway, of course, but the Trump administration is doing a remarkable job undermining itself.

2) Companies whose employees can telecommute are going to be closing offices within the next two weeks at most. As of this date, many large businesses whose employees can telecommute are still planning to close offices after the office is exposed to an infected person. Those companies are exposing themselves to needless liability. Some companies are now closing their campuses to outside visitors or only allowing half of their employees in the office per day (the other half works from home).

Moreover, as cities begin to ban large gatherings, someone somewhere is going to reach the obvious conclusion that hundreds and sometimes thousands of people in a workplace is a large, public gathering.

3) Some companies whose employees can’t work from home may have to choose between halting operations and facing legal liability. A worker will be told to come in or be fired, the worker gets sick, the worker’s infection can be traced back to the workplace, that worker passes it on to someone vulnerable, and the company could find itself in an even worse position than it’s already in.

4) There will be a wave of lawsuits. I think pretty much everyone could predict this. Businesses will be sued. Individuals will be sued. Governments will be sued. Healthcare providers are definitely going to get sued.

5) Consumer and human behavior is going to change in generational ways. The endurance of trauma memories is an evolutionary survival tool. Our grandparents who lived through the Depression cleaned their plates and admonished us and our parents to do the same, an impulse we’ve had to actively discourage. Wearing a mask in public is ingrained in different Asian cultures for different reasons, but the 2002 SARS outbreak is a major reason why it became common in cultures where it hadn’t been common before. The reasons why mask-wearing endures have evolved along with cultures. Americans’ saving and spending habits during the Great Recession endured well past the end of the recession and deep into the recovery.

The suddenness of the COVID-19 crisis and the tenseness of the uncertainty after March 11 will linger in consumers’ minds. The unpredictability of a recession caused by a pandemic is likely to be more psychologically traumatic than even the obscure causes of the Great Recession. Expect to see Americans keeping small stockpiles of consumer essentials — shelf-stable food, toiletries — and first aid supplies like masks and gloves on hand for years to come. We’ll likely also see more North Americans and Europeans wearing masks in public after the COVID-19 pandemic passes. Layered on top of this will be whatever adjustments Americans make to the recession that is likely coming.

The Negative Predictions

1) Rural places won’t be spared from COVID-19, and the effects are bound to be worse. What makes a place rural is the low population density, and what makes epidemics spread faster is higher population density. COVID-19 will hit cities and suburbs sooner than rural areas, but when it does get there, the virus will find a population that is older, in worse health, has more uninsured patients, is further from doctors and specialists, and has access to fewer hospitals than a decade ago.

Economically, rural America is poorer, exacerbating the financial consequences of the epidemic and related closures. Even the education of rural children will suffer more because rural America has significantly lower access to broadband internet, making school closures much more challenging than for urban and suburban students who can more easily learn online.

Finally, if COVID-19 hits rural areas as it wanes in urban areas, media may well pay less attention to it, exacerbating the sense many rural Americans already have that urban elites don’t care about them, worsening the social and political divisions between rural and non-rural Americans that already exist.

2) COVID-19 will create social resentment that will manifest in our politics and stay with us for generations. Divisions in how Americans live and work have been under scrutiny for years — the gig economy, the reliance on contractors and adjuncts — and the virus is running a highlighter over those divides. Already, one major company sent employees home while forcing contractors (a debatable designation anyway) to come into the office.

The biggest divide, of course, is between workers who can do their jobs remotely and those who must be physically present at the workplace, which of course correlates with higher and lower income, which in turn correlate with gender, race, urbanicity, and social prestige.

Despite governments’ and some businesses’ steps to soften the financial blow, people who can work remotely and people who can’t are going to have very different experiences of the COVID-19 crisis. Disruptions for telecommuters could amount to an inconvenience and perhaps even benefit them in some ways. The paid time off provisions of the bill the House passed on March 14 do not reimburse workers at 100% of their wages. People who can’t telecommute will face lost wages and the stress of having to decide between paychecks and protecting themselves and their families.

Businesses that rely on in-person interactions are facing hard choices already. A travel sector bailout is being discussed, but the retailers and restaurants — many of them truly small businesses with no cash reserves to fall back on — are facing the prospect of bankruptcy before a bailout might reach them. Some of these businesses will have to idle employees and lay some off in order to survive. Other businesses will have to shut down entirely, and some of those will never reopen. Many workers and business owners who rely on robust public life for their livelihoods face the prospect of personal financial disaster, and many service sector workers already live a more precarious financial life balancing uncertain schedules, punitive cuts to hours, and paychecks too small to enable saving for the unexpected.

All told, when the crisis passes there will be a new divide among Americans: between people who were barely impacted at all and not in any lasting way; people who suffered financially in ways that cannot be fully repaired; and people who exposed themselves to the virus to keep society functioning while others stayed home. How well we as individuals understand the experiences of those across those divides, and how generously we as a society care for those who suffer financially — and physically — from the crisis will determine how wide these divides are and how much of an impact they have on our politics and social cohesion into the future.

There is unfortunately plentiful evidence to suggest we will not understand each other well and that society will not respond generously enough. Every pre-existing prejudice that leaves Americans exasperated and asking why those other people supposedly can’t get their act together when people like themselves supposedly can will come into play. Some of those who suffer will have cause to resent those of us who did not, and some of us who did not suffer will come to resent the degree and duration of help those who did will need.

We saw this during and after the Great Recession. It created the conditions for demagoguery and started an arms race of asymmetric political radicalization. It contributed to the primary-election-as-purity-test that has eliminated substantive overlap between Democrats and Republicans in Congress. It delivered the stunning incompetence of the executive branch’s COVID-19 response.

Already, prior to March 11, we’ve seen people’s inability to consider the world through the lens of others. It slowed the response, it made some people dismiss closures as hysteria and deride those who advocated them as alarmists and fools, and it found expression in the ugliest of ways.

If people forget that others do not enjoy the same advantages; if major industries are made whole while small businesses and average Americans are not; and if the response from the government is inadequate, we will likely see a new wave of political anger ripple into this next era of American politics, and it will never fully fade.

Things to watch for

1) Iran is on the brink of something. In Iran and elsewhere, authoritarian-minded leaders are failing to understand how every lie they tell about the virus has the precise opposite effect intended — it creates fear rather than assuage it and makes the leaders look ineffectual rather than strong. The Iranian government is digging itself a deeper hole.

Iran was already facing an economic crisis and a crisis of governmental legitimacy before COVID-19 was worldwide knowledge. Security forces killed several hundred to a thousand protesters in December, and Iranians know it even if the government won’t admit to the true figure. The legitimacy crisis deepened after the inept attempted coverup of the downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet and the subsequent killing of Iranians who protested the lies and the deaths of those on board. In recent elections, turnout cratered as voters stayed home rather than confer the legitimacy of their votes on hand-picked candidates in Potemkin elections.

Then came COVID-19, and a country that has historically been remarkably adept at fighting epidemics is failing at it now. Iran is dependent on trade with China, largely due to U.S. sanctions, and its government was loathe to close off the lifeline when COVID-19 hit. As the virus spread in Iran, the government tried to hide it and is likely trying to hide the extent of it now. The health minister stood at a podium visibly ill after denying there was a health crisis. A Vice President and other officials have been diagnosed. Top military commanders have died of the disease. A senior advisor to Ayatollah Khamenei died from the virus, and the country’s leadership is elderly and vulnerable. Satellite images now show mass graves are being dug.

It is a sign of desperation that Khamenei has publicly suggested the virus is a bio-attack from the United States — a transparent ploy to redirect Iranians’ frustration with him and his government to an old enemy. The decision to employ the Iranian Republican Guard corps to take over the government response signals both how serious the virus has become in Iran, foreshadows the potential use of state violence to slow the spread and quell dissent, and sidelines civilian authorities.

Exactly what Iran is on the brink of — another round of mass murder by its government, purposefully heightening tensions with the west to draw attention away from its incompetence, a breakdown of public order — is always hard to predict. The collapse of the Iranian regime has been forecasted too many times to count, but revolution, as much a threat to the region under pandemic conditions as that would be, isn’t the only possibility, nor is Iranian miscalculation the only concern. If Iranians flee the country, the Iraqi government next door is hardly better positioned to accept them as refugees. If Iranian proxy militias continue to launch rockets at coalition troops in Iraq, the chances of badly needed international cooperation will decline to zero, and the risk of a larger confrontation and wider conflict will grow. Iranian leaders aren’t the only ones who would have few qualms trying to distract from their government’s incompetence by escalating tensions with a long-standing foe.

2) Indian officials just got away with murder, and they may do it again. As of this writing, India has confirmed only two COVID-19 deaths. The virus will spread in India, and the government will respond. Those are givens. What’s not given is whether the government response and general chaos will be used by the Hindu-nationalist government to continue its assault on the country’s Muslim population.

Beginning on February 23rd and ending on March 1st, Muslims in Delhi were the target of deadly violence. This violence has been mischaracterized as a riot.

President Trump visited Delhi just as the violence began, and an official from the Hindu nationalist BJP party told his supporters on February 23rd, “We’ll hold back only until Trump departs.” The violence largely paused and resumed when Trump left. Some police stood by, and others participated.

A riot is a spontaneous, uncontrolled burst of violence. What happened in Delhi was not spontaneous and was controlled. It was organized. What happened in Delhi was a pogrom.

As we wait to see how coronavirus impacts India, we should be paying attention to the possibility of a renewed, perhaps even deadlier pogrom. India’s Muslim’s may have just had their Kristallnacht. As war creates the conditions for oppression and atrocity, so too can the chaos and fear of epidemics. Minorities have long been violently scapegoated for epidemics and other disasters.

Let’s hope wiser people prevail.

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UPDATED MARCH 18, 2020

I have never witnessed change at this pace in America before. As events have changed by the hour, some additional trends have emerged pointing to additional long-term changes worth noting here. Certain predictions, at this point, don’t even bear explanation. A recession is coming if it’s not already here, and this crisis will get worse both as a pandemic and as social and economic crisis before it gets better.

New predictions

1) More states will be forced to expand no-excuse voting by mail. Currently, 17 states require those voting absentee in-person or by mail to justify the decision by selecting from a narrow list of approved reasons. In some states, depending on the reason selected, the voter must sign their ballot in front of a notary public and get it stamped for it to be considered valid. With so many polling places in senior centers, so many poll workers over 60, longer-than-ever lines anticipated in the highest-turnout election this country has ever had, and with the expansion of no-excuse absentee voting already a front on the fight to expand the franchise, states will find their hands forced. A Democratic bill has been filed in the Senate to do just that and to standardize the process so every vote counts in every state based on the same criteria. In addition, some states do not count ballots that arrive after election day even if they were mailed on election day, the standard required in most states. Expect at a minimum for lawsuits on that subject to gain traction. As overdue as this reform may be, it’s a big logistical hurdle to overcome in a short time, especially if state and local authorities decide to drag their feet.

2) Telemedicine, which has been promising but underutilized as it’s become more widely available, is going to see a big boost. It’s not just surgeries being canceled but routine office visits, and anecdotally, there have been providers pressuring patients to hold their visit by by phone or online rather than cancel, not just for the sake of the patient but also for providers who are suffering financially with the drop in visits. This is especially acute in the mental health field, perhaps best positioned already to benefit from telemedicine, where the majority of providers are not MDs or PhDs and are reimbursed by insurance at lower rates. As more patients and physicians are forced to try televisits, more Americans will find they like and embrace it after this crisis passes. 5G will make the experience even smoother in the future, perhaps the near future depending on who you ask about the technology.

3) There will be a wave of bankruptcies and acquisitions. Government action may lessen the total number, but low-margin businesses without cash reserves are facing a bleak outlook. Some of the businesses hurt by the downturn won’t be coming back. As an example, consider microbrewing. It is already an oversaturated marketplace of small, independent operators, which has driven down prices in an industry already notorious for low margins. Distributors have canceled orders for kegs (served in bars) and upped orders for cans and bottles (sold in stores, which are facing falling sales). The microbrews owned by the larger spirits manufacturers will likely weather the downturn better. Look for the largest players to buy up some of the best of the independent micros as they face hard choices, not just in this industry but across all such industries. This is especially true for the O&G sector that is fighting two wars at once.

4) The Oscars are going to get taken down a peg. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which runs the Oscars, has insisted that films be released in a commercial Los Angeles theater for seven days, with at least three screenings per day, before they’re released to streaming in order to be eligible for an Oscar. It’s a fairly transparent effort to boost theaters and the major studios and to blunt the flow of prestige filmmakers to the streaming services that have become studios and the independent filmmakers who have found a better (or at least less risk averse and more open-minded) partner and wider audience in Netflix, Hulu, Apple, and AmazonPrime. With theaters shuttering due to COVID-19, studios have delayed releases to safeguard the opening weekend box office take they need to survive in the era of eight-figure production budgets. But NBCUniversal and others have released a handful of movies straight to streaming or much earlier than planned. More studios may follow suit if closures last long enough. Revenue from streaming licenses and online rentals are better than no new revenue at all, and at least some theater chains, already a struggling industry, may not survive. Anyone think the major studios are going to let that take their films out of Oscar contention? Not likely. They’ll start with smaller releases to streaming and hold off on releasing their prestige and blockbuster films unless and until they absolutely have to, but this is unmistakably a tipping point.

5) There may not be actual changes, but there will be discussions about changing corporate practices to protect businesses from these kinds of sudden shocks and to alleviate the burden on government. Historical advice from the most respected business consultants is that companies do not need to hold large cash reserves. Trying telling that to the airline industry now, and then go tell it to the rest of the travel sector, retail, food service, and manufacturing. Some companies are shutting down stores and factories, others are shutting dining rooms or curtailing hours, but they are all facing sharply declining revenues and pressure to keep paying idled workers for as long as they can. Practices like stock buybacks, already a focus of reformers, could end up in the crosshairs. If some have their way, any corporate bailout will come with conditions not only on how companies spend the money but on practices in perpetuity. Employers paying low wages, whose workers are always the hardest hit in a downturn and tend to be in the sectors most impacted by this crisis, are often accused of effectively being government subsidized every day because government benefits received by their employees allow these companies, some argue, to pay a lower-than-living wage, relying on government assistance to make up the difference. These companies may face similar pressure to reform pay practices as both the companies and the workers are likely about to receive unprecedented amounts of government money.

New Things to look out for

1) Perhaps the biggest potential change to look out for is how all the players in society — government, media, business, and people — react, whether those reactions break norms, and how permanent any break from the norm appears to be. Staunch conservatives are embracing the necessity of Keynesian economics. Media is admitting mistakes in very unexpected places, suggesting a rediscovered sense of responsibility. Disdain for experts, or at least a professed one, is being repudiated by people who built their careers peddling it. The leader of the political party for which the independence of business is sacrosanct just invoked a law that grants him the authority to compel businesses to produce certain goods. The many rules, policies, and practices that are so common they’re taken for granted and not even noticed are now the subject of harshly critical editorials questioning why, if we are jettisoning them during this crisis, we would ever let them return, whether they come from government of business. The question is, how much of this is permanent? Confidence in the basic premises of American life and governance, our very sense of self, are badly shaken. Will this crisis reshape everyone’s thinking going forward, or will we revert back to our norm? It’s too soon to tell.

2) How long does the shared sense of community and purpose last? Depends on who you ask, but we will certainly see this sentiment voiced more openly and frequently as closures spread and lengthen.

3) The threat to Iranian stability hasn’t gotten better. Hence neither has regional stability.

4) How long does it take America to reach the degree of lock down seen in South Korea and China? We’ll likely never reach the level seen in China, but it took five to six weeks in those two countries from reaching widespread lock down to seeing the spread of the virus sharply decline. As America closes non-essential business and travel ad hoc, we may be smart to assume that five-to six-week countdown won’t start until more jurisdictions make the call or have it imposed on them, which the president and most governors have been reluctant to do. So far, no state or locality has put in place the movement restrictions seen in Italy, which today recorded the largest increase in fatalities for a single day of any country fighting the virus.

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[1] Disclosure: I wrote and fielded this survey on behalf of my client, Home Instead Senior Care.

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Facts & Figures

Facts & Figures

The author is a social scientist, and humorist who doesn’t find many things funny these days. Writing anonymously to be candid.