I am so far untouched by the Coronavirus. To my knowledge, I haven’t been exposed. Nobody in my friends and family has it, or is worried they might have it. I’m not impacted by any shortages. My job of making content for the internet is as secure as ever. The only direct impact this has on my life is that my wife’s main job is on hiatus. That sucks, but I gather we’re doing okay by the standards of a state-wide shutdown. My only real concern right now is with what’s happening to other people.
It’s April first, but I’m not in the mood for making joke posts. Instead, I just want to blather about what’s going on. It’s fine if you skip this. Unlike most of my content, this isn’t designed to entertain. I’m making this post because the writing process is therapeutic, and this is what my brain wants to think about right now.
Living in Interesting Times
I’m 48 years old, and I’ve never seen anything like this. Over my lifetime I’ve gotten used to the rhythmic nature of disasters. Oh look: It’s another hurricane, another war, another terrorist attack, another economic downturn, another plane crash, another wave of drug abuse. Horrible things happen and people die, but deep down there’s still a sense of order. “This too shall pass.” We have a sense of how to respond to these sorts of things and we can usually make a pretty good guess about how long it’ll take for the world to get back to normal.
But this time? I have no idea. This is all new to me.
Sometime in the last couple of daysIt was probably sometime on Monday. we crossed the threshold where the number of COVID-19 deaths in the USA exceeded the death toll of 9/11. And as bad as that is, we know that things are just getting started.
Even the lowest, most optimistic projections predict that COVID-19 will kill 30× more people than 9/11And that’s just in the USA! Globally, things are looking even worse.. And yet there are still large numbers of people out there who think this is no big deal.
At this point an article would normally transition into the “blame, outrage, and finger-pointing” section. Maybe I’d rant about various world leaders and blame them for being unprepared. Maybe we could fling some blame at reckless people who continue to endanger themselves and others with large public gatherings. Maybe we could indulge in a little indignation over the liars and fools that have been spreading misinformation that compounds the problem.
But I don’t want to do that. One, it would violate the no-politics rule. Two, that argument would be unproductive. Three, the internet is already thick with that sort of thing. Fourth and most importantly: I really don’t care to read the resulting discussion, much less moderate it.
So instead of asking “How did we get here and who should we blame?”, let’s jump ahead six months, or a year, or two years. The question on my mind right now is, “What will the new normal look like?”
What Will Change?
What kind of changes will this make to culture? What will life be like once the virus has passed, burned out, or been defeated?
By necessity, I’m going to focus on North America right now. I don’t understand other cultures enough to make predictions outside of USA / Canada, and the fog of war is pretty thick these days.
Here are a bunch of completely unsubstantiated predictions / guesses:
1. We’ll see a renewed interest in prepper culture.
I knew a lot of folks who grew up during the Great DepressionThey’re all gone now, alas. who went on to be irrationally frugal. Even when they were flush with cash and the economy was booming, they would still haggle over pennies with the cashier and spend a bunch of time hunting down, cutting out, sorting, and applying coupons. They’d treat morsels of leftovers as precious, and mend out-of-style clothing rather than putting down a few bucks for something fresh and new. Likewise, I suspect this mess will leave an impression on people down the line. In the future, some people with the means and the space will probably keep a few months of non-perishables around in case this happens again. A few people will go overboard and build bunkers full of guns and toilet paper, but for the most part this change will manifest as people subconsciously keeping a reserve of essential items.
If another wave hits in the next few years, I think we’ll adapt better. This time everyone went nuts and bought ridiculous piles of toilet paper. Most of these people bought TP because that’s what everyone else was buying. They didn’t know what they’d need, so they followed the herd.
Right now there’s some poor bastard sitting on a mountain of toilet paper who would kill for a cup of coffee and some Pepto-Bismol. Somewhere there’s a woman trying to bake for her family with four gallons of spoiled milk and no sugar or butter. These upcoming weeks of isolation will do a pretty good job of teaching people what they actually need and how to plan for these situations.
2. Working from home will be far more common than it was before COVID-19.
Most people will still have to leave the house to work, but a small chunk of the population will continue telecommuting. Companies will like the idea of maintaining less total office space, as well as the peace of mind that comes from having fewer people walking around coughing and sneezing all over the equipment and each other.
Workers will enjoy not having a commute. Commuters will enjoy the slight reduction in traffic and crowding on public transit. Everyone will enjoy an overall reduction in the spread of common seasonal illnesses.
This shift has been a long time in coming. All the way back in 1999 I was wondering why so many analysts and programmers needed to congregate all the time.
It won’t be instant, but this is probably the first step in a generation-long shift regarding work attitudes. At the dawn of the 20th century, people had to adjust from working on farms to working in factories. The change was slow on an individual scale, even though it looks rapid in hindsight. We’re probably at the start of a similar shift.
3. We’re going to be a lot better at remote collaboration.
Related to the previous one: Over the next few months we’re going to work out the protocols and etiquette for how to properly work from home.
Setting up a video conference has a lot more overhead and social friction than popping your head into Alan’s office and asking him to explain Project Foo or the whatsit system to you. We’ll need to work out how to exchange information without turning the workday into a never-ending deluge of video calls.
How do you know if someone is working or goofing off? Will we still require professional clothing, or are people going to be attending video meetings in their pajamas? What about people stuck in an office? Will those folks enjoy a less restrictive dress code to help balance things with the people working from home? How much privacy are we willing to give up to work from homeI’m already hearing stories about companies openly putting spyware-type stuff on the machines you take home.? Are people willing to allow their employer to see a live feed at all times, or to see what applications are running? Is eating okay during a meeting? Are we going to adapt our meeting protocol now that our faces are on a grid and we’re no longer having a meeting around a table?
4. More retailers are going to starve.
This was bound to happen eventually, but this outbreak is going to hasten the process. A lot of older folks have been shopping at stores because that’s how they’ve been getting household goods for the last 50 years and that’s what they’re used to. A lot of these people are creating their first Amazon.com account this week. When this is over, a lot of those people are going to find they prefer ordering stuff on their phone rather than driving to the mall.
Some goods will be safe from this, of course. Shipping frozen and refrigerated goods to residential locations is still really expensive, so we’ll probably still go to the store for milk, meat, veggies, etc. Likewise, really big purchases (furniture and appliances) are probably better suited to the old showroom paradigm. Shopping for kids still requires trying stuff on because the little runts grow so dang fast, so clothing retail ought to be mostly okay.
But for electronics, dry goods, toys, personal care products, tools, kitchenware, and a thousand other non-perishable things, the future of shopping is going to be online.
5. People will take this shit seriously in the future.
Right now lots of people have the mindset that this is all overblown. They shrug and say, “It’s so nice out today. I’m going to the beach. If I get it, I get it.” They haven’t yet internalized the danger of the situation.
To a certain extent, I understand why they feel this way. In terms of living human experience, this has never happened beforeBecause the last time it happened was in 1920 and everyone that experienced it is long dead.. It’s a very odd quirk, but people – particularly young people – sort of take the current status quo for granted. The world has been one way for their entire lives, and it sort of feels like it’ll always be that way.
Newton posited the theory of gravity in 1687. One of the implications of universal gravitation was that all stars must therefore be falling towards each other OR be flying apart – a universe of stationary stars is simply not possible. However, it took hundreds of years before people seriously considered this, because it’s natural to assume that the current state of things is the natural and inevitable state of things. If those smarty-pants scientists got bamboozled by this line of thinking, what chance do the rest of us have in forming coherent models of the world around us?
Also, in the west we’re pretty used to hearing about terrible disasters around the world: Ebola outbreaks, SARS, out-of-control HIV. This stuff doesn’t generally impact the average person in the anglosphere, so I imagine there’s a certain attitude of “It can’t happen here”, even though pathogens don’t give a damn about national borders.
Making things worse is that the threat of COVID-19 is completely invisible until it finally gets around to trying to kill you. Aside from the empty streets, the world looks so normal.
The final thing that’s tripping people up is that this pandemic requires us to take the media seriously. The problem is that the media is ALWAYS making dire predictions and gravitating towards far-out worst-case predictions. This recession will be the worst! This snowstorm will be the worst! This product recall is a huge deal and this object might kill your children at any second! Maybe terrorists are trying to kill you right now! Maybe you have cancer! YOU ARE ALWAYS IN PERIL SO FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON’T STOP WATCHING WHILE WE CUT TO COMMERCIAL.
So the quadruple-whammy here is:
- You need to believe that yes, something New and Different really is happening in the world…
- …even though you’re in the First World and this sounds like a Third World disaster and…
- …despite the fact that you can’t see it, you have to somehow accept that…
- …the media is actually right this time, despite their long history of making mountains out of molehills.
This is a lot to overcome, but I imagine this is a problem that COVID-19 is about to solve for us, one way or another. Things look normal on the streets and in your living room, but if you’re unlucky enough to find yourself inside a hospital then it’s going to feel like you’re witnessing the end of the world. Once a couple hundred thousand or so people die, the skeptics will get the idea. They’ll see celebrities die. They’ll probably know someone who died / nearly died. Some of them will get sick themselves and discover that no, this isn’t actually “just another flu”.
Word will get around, and thinking will change. This change is happening already, it’s just frustratingly slow. The full force of COVID-19 is due to land in a month or soAgain, in my part of the world. For you it may be ongoing, or it might be a few months away., and it’s about to make a lot of people into believers.
Once society overcomes this mental block, people will be ready to take this seriously. If COVID-26 comes knocking in a few years, I imagine people will be a lot better about staying put and taking proper precautions.
6. Hobbies and habits will change.
People are turning to non-social hobbies like movies and videogames. In some cases, these new habits will stick and we’ll wind up with slightly more electronic entertainment and slightly less of whatever it is people do when they leave the house. I’m not an expert in this area.
Also, I wonder if everyone isn’t going to be a bit more germaphobic in the future. I was already a germaphobe before this happened. I always washed my hands when coming home and I’m big on defending my personal space in public. I imagine lots of other people will adopt similar unconscious habits.
Also, I wonder if handshakes aren’t going to be phased out as the default greeting with strangers. I’m sure old-timers like me will continue to shake hands, but maybe the younger generation will adopt a no-touchy greeting that will gradually displace the handshake. I notice cons like PAX adopted the “elbow bump” greeting years ago to help control the spread of garden-variety illnesses. Maybe something like that will catch on.
We’re not going to return to the old normal, but sooner or later we’re going to get used to some new thing that we’ll eventually call “normal”. I’ve made my guesses about what that would look like. I imagine they’re wildly off-base and narrowly focused on my corner of the world, but I’m a habitual shut-in trying to extrapolate from current events due to a looming sense of anxiety.
At any rate, I think it’s easier to imagine what life will be like in a year than it is to imagine what life will be like in a month. We’re entering some very uncertain times. Stay safe. I worry about you folks and I hope we all make it through this.
 It was probably sometime on Monday.
 And that’s just in the USA! Globally, things are looking even worse.
 They’re all gone now, alas.
 I’m already hearing stories about companies openly putting spyware-type stuff on the machines you take home.
 Because the last time it happened was in 1920 and everyone that experienced it is long dead.
 Again, in my part of the world. For you it may be ongoing, or it might be a few months away.
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