how and why coronavirus will change the world as we know it

The coronavirus pandemic may not be apocalyptic, but it came at just the right time to shake the foundations of our increasingly unstable world and expose its problems.
coronavirus render

You know that the coronavirus pandemic is a disaster when people who were busy telling us that it was just a hoax by the liberal media or a ploy by a shadowy cabal of Deep State Satanic pedophiles to crash the stock market in their fight against President Trump are now asking us to stop pointing fingers and focus on getting through the tough times ahead. Yes, we’re indeed in a bad situation and what we’ve seen so far is just the start according to just about every expert. Social distancing may be a way of life for more than a year as researchers figure out how to contain the virus and develop a vaccine so we can return to leading more or less normal lives, and it’s going to cost us all dearly.

But when we do emerge from this pandemic, we may find a very new and different normal, a normal much less stable and far more uncertain that it was before. It’s not because the virus and its effects are downright apocalyptic and we’ll wake up to a world without nations ran by Immortan Joes and their armies of radioactive mutants, though let’s not downplay the fact that it appears to be at least an order of magnitude deadlier than the flu and is especially dangerous to those already living with chronic health problems and weakened immune systems. No, what makes coronavirus such a catalyst for change is its timing. Instead of simply infecting people, it’s exposing and exploiting the flaws in the world we’ve built.

Crises require foresight, surpluses, and a strong social net. Preparing for one means investing a lot of money in supplies and research for which you may have no immediate or short-term use and accepting the notion that others may need to rely on your help, and that’s just part of living in a society. When we demand that governments are ran like businesses, that businesses show ever growing profits, that anything that doesn’t lead to those profits in a few years or sooner is wasteful, and that it’s everybody for themselves in a dog eat dog world, no wonder we find that the economy starts grinding to a halt, people are losing work, required tools are in short supply, and people start hoarding whatever they can when disaster actually strikes.

nineteenth century can’t solve twenty first century problems

Many of the crises we face today are happening because our leaders grew up during the peak of industrialization and appear either incapable of understanding that this era is now over, or are in willful denial. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But we’ve created so many factories that produce so much stuff, our landfills are drowning in it and an entire movement has sprung up around the question of how much of that stuff we actually need and why. And yet, when we try to measure how well our economies are doing, we base our answer around how much stuff we can produce. In short, we’re trying to run the world as it if was a company with thousands of plants, as if nothing has changed in the past century in that regard.

If you imagine the world as a giant factory of stuff, surplus is another word for inventory you’re not moving off the shelves, and researching something that may be useful in a decade or more from now, or in a rare event of a disaster is a waste of capital that could be used to move more units. This is the simplistic, short term profit driven view of the professional management class who believe they’re uniquely equipped to keep the planet turning, and for decades, it’s sapped the ranks of scientists, researchers, and academics whose work can actually change the world, assigned engineers with big ideas to do smaller and smaller things, and turned many service workers into poorly paid, disposable labor.

As a result, just like a factory ran with finely tuned just-in-time inventory and funded through a complex web of loans that assume minimum steady streams of revenue is going to have serious problems if its supply lines suffer anything other than a small disruption. Many parts of our world have very few resources allocated to deal with a crisis, and its citizens have less slack still. The problem is much less severe in nations with strong social nets, but those whose philosophy is to conflate one’s work output and compensation with their worth as a person are bracing for a flood of unemployment claims from those out of a job and have to wait for us to get COVID-19 under control to get back into the labor force.

the world isn’t a factory anymore

Going forward, we simply cannot afford to focus on short term gains and factory-like efficiency outside of actual factories. We’ve being doing it this way for the past 40 years and as a result, we’ve ended up with a fragile ecosystem in which one nasty virus can send markets plunging into a recession and see a fifth of all workers lose income or end up unemployed, putting its future in serious jeopardy. Now, without having to very quickly adopt new policies and inject trillions to make up for lost time and opportunities, we may be staring down the barrel of a full-blown economic depression. Kleptocratic casino capitalism only works if you keep hitting the jackpot every time, and statistically, you’re bound to eventually lose.

All this prompts the question of what we’ll need to do differently to ride out the aftermath of COVID-19 and make sure that when the next crisis hits, we’re better prepared, or if possible, are even ahead of the curve enough to prevent it, or stop it quickly enough to minimize the damage. Bad things happened and will continue to happen. There’s nothing we can do about that. But we can be ready and make ourselves much more resilient in the face of new diseases, economic downturns, and natural disasters. In fact, we’re already starting to either do some of these things or have them on our to-do list to cope with the pandemic, and after six months to a year of these changes, it’s doubtful anyone would want to go back.

epidemics death toll infographic
Historical epidemics and their estimated death tolls, from an infographic by Visual Capitalist

Of course, the really big changes will have to come afterwards and can only be the result of both social and cultural reforms over many years. However, a lot of positive smaller changes will quickly add up and give us room to appreciate what we’ll have and to push the envelope in the right direction. Forget running on the corporate equivalent of a hamster wheel all day so an already large number can grow by a few percent in a given time frame and a small group of very wealthy people can celebrate by giving themselves ostentatious bonuses. The post-industrial modern world will be focused on stability, quality, and long-term gain, not explosive growth in a winner-takes-all race to the bottom.

bullshit jobs and dull offices are now on the chopping block

As a result of the COVID-19 outbreaks, we’ve suddenly found that an awful lot of jobs we were told can’t be done in the comfort of our own homes actually can be. All we needed was a VPN connection. Millions of workers suddenly no longer have a commute, can work in the comfort of their own homes, and have newfound flexibility on their breaks. (Well, those without small children to take care of during our self-imposed quarantines.) Not only is it good for the planet as millions of cars are no longer on the roads, it’s good for workers’ mental health. According to surveys, 98% of telecommuters would never want to give up remote work at least some of the time instead of being tied down to a cubicle.

This is, of course, a huge threat to managers whose management style can be best described as Marissa Meyer-esque, unable to understand that just because there isn’t an ass in a chair for X hours, doesn’t mean work isn’t getting done, and that insane hours behind a desk don’t equal quality, but actually result in errors, exhaustion, turnover, and serious illness. These are the managers who don’t understand how to manage knowledge work and that for people whose labor is intangible ideas, code, and analysis, a salary isn’t compensation of X hours at Y currency per hour, but the price of access to their expertise. Now, more than ever, the blatant and clear shortcomings of their outdated philosophies will be laid bare.

Likewise, the jobs that exist solely to generate reports and keep people busy to management’s liking are also about to face a reckoning. As access to cash becomes tighter during the coming recession, paying people for a job that can be automated or just makes some managers feel important because they have an underling will no longer make sense. The same applies to the distraction and germ riddled open offices in which these managers like to congregate, sitting mostly empty for the next three to six months at great expense, and only partially occupied afterwards. Why force people to come into a place where they’ll get sick and lose their focus if the work is still getting done and the workers are perfectly happy where they are?

underpaid jobs will be taken a lot more seriously

Imagine being able to stay at home and venture out only when you need to without delivery drivers, supermarket employees, cooks, warehouse workers, truck drivers, and many other frontline service workers who keep the modern world running. Many of those whose work is to make things and get them where they need to be on time have long been underpaid and very much underappreciated, with numerous gig economy businesses trying to turn them into the flesh and blood equivalent of disposable drones. So, as their jobs come under threat under the double whammy of a financial downturn and a global pandemic, leaving them to simply fend for themselves is not an option.

Obviously, they’re people and we should be empathetic towards our fellow humans. This is a thing that shouldn’t have to be pointed out, yet often does. But even if you see those who earn less than you as members of a lesser, lazier caste that “needs to get a real job,” you probably won’t want millions of them out of work because the global economy will take a nosedive very similar to that of the 1930s. As already noted, one in five Americans is being laid off or losing paying hours. That’s eerily close to the one in five unemployment rate of the Great Depression, not to mention the horrors its aftermath gave us as people looked for scapegoats to blame and empowered bloodthirsty populists promising a return to prosperity.

History shows us that neglecting people you need to maintain your lifestyle out of classism, or greed, or both, generally backfires in terrifying ways when there’s a major crisis. Today, many service workers are stuck in something very much akin to feudalism and having a plague shift political and financial dynamics in their favor is kind of like history repeating itself. After all, the working theory is that the exploitative system collapsed after the Black Death finally ran out of people to kill, creating a massive labor shortage. Maybe our modern version of it will fall thanks to COVID-19 hitting those who treat service workers and employees in general as disposable right there it hurts them the most: the wallet.

we will need to focus on science and healthcare

If there’s one thing that coronavirus made painfully obvious, it’s that no developed modern nation should lack a national system accessible to every citizen. Again, there shouldn’t be the need to tell some people that empathy is the glue that holds our societies together and we evolved to be wired for it, but we’ll get to that in a bit. But the bottom line here is that when people are afraid to go to the doctor because they can’t afford it and can’t treat chronic and acute conditions for the same reason, letting them worsen, they become far easier targets in the event of a pandemic. This is especially true for COVID-19, which does its nastiest work on the old and the infirm.

elder patient

We may not be willing to pay the cost to create a truly national healthcare system in the U.S., but we’re going to pay for our lack of will to do it in other ways. Hundreds of thousands will die, politicians will be voted out of office for their obstinacy and callousness, markets will tanks as millions lose their jobs while the crisis keeps rolling along, and more and more people will end up spreading the disease, unable to get care when they could have been treated instead of becoming yet one more vector. The simple fact is that national healthcare systems are able to get a better, steadier handle on a fast-moving pandemic through testing and early treatment. The outcomes aren’t perfect, of course, but they at least understand the threat while American leaders bury their heads in the sand.

Likewise, science and research can no longer keep being slashed in government budgets. We need researchers who can prepare for pandemics, explore infectious diseases, find new ways of combatting antibiotic resistance, and contribute to the overall progress of civilization with new, curiosity-driven research that may take many years to pay off. We need to understand that just like to live well we need to eat our vegetables, get some exercise, and not expect miracles after one salad and two pushups, to have a functional society that can’t be derailed by a new virus means we need to spend money on things that aren’t immediately profitable but will indirectly benefit us for many years down the line.

we’ll find out more about ourselves

Ultimately, while we try to ride out what seems like a writer’s fever dreams come to life, we’re going to end up finding out a lot more about us both as people and as societies. Many reacted by helping their neighbors and those less fortunate, and many more are working on the front lines, doing whatever they can to either treat others or get them out of harm’s way. But at the same time, many others refused to listen to experts, demonstratively ignored warnings and bragged on social media about their dangerous and irresponsible behavior like spoiled children with a nasty case of oppositional defiant disorder. As the cliché goes, in times of crisis, people tend to show you who they really are.

So, if you’re spending your days hoarding sanitizer, cleaners, toilet paper, and critical supplies, or even worse, trying to make a profit from your hoarded stash, going out, not caring if you may be infecting others because you just want to party, posting unhinged conspiracies about COVID-19, engaging in racist attacks, pointing fingers at your favorite scapegoats, or panic buying guns, I’ve got bad news for you. You’re probably a bad person and being under real stress from a real threat showed just how bad of a human being you actually are to the world. And if your first thought in response is that everyone else is worse or just as bad as you so your behavior is fully justified, you’re just digging that hole deeper.

Here’s the bottom line. Humans are not loners who exist in isolation from each other or gather in small family groups like big predatory cats. We’re social beings who live together and whose ability to support each other and organize for the common good allowed us to survive far, far worse than the coronavirus. We managed to endure doomsday plagues, ice ages, an asteroid impact, and a supervolcanic eruption. We specialize in certain skills and work together to build something new, and ideally better over the long run. The modern Western notion that we’re all just out for ourselves and whoever gets the most money and toys wins the game of life and can’t owe anything to those around them is just Dickensian sociopathy with good PR.

Of course, this is not about to turn into a plea for some sort of socialist revolution or for us all to give up private property and form hippie communes across the world. That has its own very scary downsides that could be explained in length by historians and former cult members. We will always have inequalities and disagreements. We will always have bad people who show their inner ugliness to us when bad things happen. But we need to start realizing that no one person is an island on to themselves and when we fail to support our societies, they’ll fail to support us when we need their help because they don’t have the resources of which we starved them, or because they’re being ran by sociopaths content to let us die and pocket the money that could’ve saved our jobs and homes, if not our lives.

# health // coronavirus / covid-19 / future

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