It seems odd to write about life after COVID-19 when we are still very much in the daily midst of dealing with the health, economic and financial implications of the pandemic. As we go to press, cases continue to rise – rapidly, in some parts of the country – while families, students, managers, educators, policymakers, business owners, doctors and politicians wrestle with creating some sense of normal life while wearing masks, maintaining social distancing and washing their hands every 15 minutes.
Hope springs eternal that a vaccine is developed and distributed so that life can genuinely get back to normal, but the sobering reality is that many infectious diseases do not have a vaccine (such as AIDS) or mutate often enough to require repeat vaccinations (such as the flu). Whereas a vaccination is the clearest path to the other side of the COVID-19 crisis, another solution might take the form of treatment protocols that reduce the effects and mortality of the disease to a manageable level.
Barrels of ink and billions of bytes have been spilled on the topics of life during COVID-19 and progress toward curing or treating the disease. In the pages that follow, we look a little further down the road and broadly consider what life might look like on the other side of this crisis. What lasting effects will this pandemic have on the way we live, work and learn? The implications of technological or societal disruption are almost always overstated in the short run but understated in the long run. Keep this in mind when you read breathless and sweeping predictions that “people will never go to a restaurant again,” or “never again will crowds gather to watch a live sporting event or performance.” We are a herd species. We delight in the company of other people, and we delight in shared experiences. We will do so again.
At the same time, the expectation that we will simply resume our normal pre-COVID-19 lives once a vaccine is available succumbs to the same cognitive error. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the inventions made necessary by remote living, working and learning will carry over into the post-COVID-19 world. Many of these developments are not new. The close reader will notice an abundance of comparative words in this commentary, such as more, faster, slower, greater and so forth. In other words, COVID-19 will likely amplify and accelerate many trends that were in motion prior to the pandemic.
So, what lessons are we learning? What aspects of this crisis will have a lasting effect on our homes, offices and schools? And when we finally get back to normal, what will we find there?
The Future of Home
As vast swaths of the American economy shut down in March and April to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, the health crisis quickly became an economic crisis. Businesses closed – some for good – and millions of people lost jobs and income. Although swift action by Washington, D.C., and the Federal Reserve prevented the economic crisis from metastasizing into a full-blown financial crisis (at least so far), widespread damage to household finances was already done.
We’ve seen this dynamic unfold before, albeit not as rapidly. People responded to the global financial crisis of 2008-09 by shoring up their personal balance sheets, paying down debt and increasing their savings, and we expect this trend to continue and even accelerate in the wake of the pandemic. It is human nature to become more risk averse after risks have materialized – demand for flood insurance always rises after a hurricane. Households are likely to react to the impairment of jobs and income in this crisis by saving more while borrowing and spending less.