Life in the Time of COVID-19

As I write this, the world is attempting to contain an outbreak of the novel corona virus, SARS-CoV-2 and the COVID-19 disease. It is a tricky situation. There are seemingly few to no symptoms during the initial 4-9 days when someone contracts the disease and is contagious. The symptoms are similar to other infections like the common flu. While the disease can be deadly to the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, the mildness of the symptoms for those with stronger immune systems makes it difficult to rationalize being afraid of it, even though they can be carriers/transmitters. Additionally, due to not being prepared with ways to detect and test for infection, the small numbers of confirmed cases has caused people to feel like drastic measures to contain the virus are not warranted.

Though pandemics have happened in the past, none have happened with such potential impact to such a large population within the lifetime of many of those alive today. We’ve seen cancellations or postponement of pretty much every professional sport (e.g. basketball, golf, baseball).

There have been devastating outbreaks in China and Italy, causing lockdowns of large geographic areas. The New Rochelle area of New York is also on lockdown.

This past Wednesday, with the announcement of two detected cases in our area, our local school district decided to close the schools Thursday and Friday. This was later extended to the following week, and then shortly thereafter our governor declared a state of emergency and ordered the closing of school buildings for the next 3 weeks. Our school district is scrambling adapt to the situation and doing a pretty good job of it, I must say: they will implement “remote learning” for the next few weeks, working with teachers to plan to use various web-based tools and arranging to distribute technology such as Google ChromeBooks and whatnot to families that don’t have resources at home; making arrangements to distribute free/reduced cost meals to families in need that would otherwise receive them at school.

I have heard it suggested that one activity the youth of today could do during this time is to keep a journal of their thoughts and experiences. Historians will likely have easy access to articles and video produced by main stream media and social media. However, first hand written accounts of personal experiences will be important artifacts as well.

In that vein, as I reflect on the state of affairs and what it means for the future, I want to capture my own thoughts here while they are still fresh in my mind. This will likely be a work in progress as the pandemic plays out.

  • Many businesses are asking people to work from home if possible. Obviously there are some businesses where that is more viable (white collar professional) than others (service industry, blue collar manufacturing). We live in an area with more of the former demographic, so I don’t anticipate it affecting us as much. But I worry about the latter, and what a reduced or outright lack of income will mean for them. The wealth gap is sure to widen. Small businesses and those without large capital savings may go under. Will the government step in in any way? There are webs of dependencies… business owners leasing space from landlords… will landlords adjust rents to reduce the likelihood of a business going under (and therefore lose their source of income)?
  • The stock market has become quite volatile, first dropping the most since 1987’s Black Friday then recovering (somewhat). What will it mean if a large portion of the country suddenly has little income and less money in retirement. Will the cost of living go down if everyone is in the same figurative boat? Will costs go up, as people try to regain lost ground?
  • Will life go back to “normal” in a few weeks or a few months? What will be permanent changes to our behavior and cultural norms? Will we be more diligent about sanitizing surfaces after the pandemic wanes? I think about the possible parallels between people who lived during the Great Depression and stuffing money in mattresses because of their distrust of banks. We think of that as odd behavior now, but those people experienced true hardship. Will we adopt similar behaviors? Will “social distancing” become a new norm?
  • Some businesses are moving to a cashless model to reduce transmission of germs and whatnot. Will this become a new norm?
  • What opportunities will arise from this pandemic? Who will make fortunes? Who will exploit the situation… either relatedly (private manufacturers of test kits?) or un-relatedly (passing laws or doing shady/illegal activities while the public is distracted)?
  • If businesses have less money, and therefore less money to pay employees, will we adopt different expectations for work? For example, a “standard” work week being 32 hours (4 days) vs. 40 hours (five 8-hour days).
  • Will the increase sanitation kill “good bugs” that open the door for hardier bad “super bugs”? Would we be better off letting COVID-19 run its course, as hard as it would be to accept the short-term consequences?
  • Seeing a time lapse satellite image of pollution over Italy during the lock-down, where the pollution decrease dramatically, I can’t help but wonder if this is a way that Earth is self-regulating itself. Will we see other pandemics in the near future?
  • What other positive impacts will result from our response to this event beyond a reduction in pollution due to reduced travel? Will social distancing cause a reduction in the transmission and possible eradication of other communicable diseases as well? On a lighter note, moving forward, will airlines adjust seating arrangements to provide more space between passengers in Economy class?
  • Will future generations learn anything from this event? Will they consider it when making future policy decisions? I’m afraid that’s unlikely, as we seem to have downplayed the potential seriousness of this pandemic even with the awareness of previous outbreaks throughout history like the black plague, cholera, polio, measles, yellow fever, Spanish flu, etc.
  • What will be the academic impact to the children of today? How will they adjust to remote learning? What about those kids who live in areas that don’t have the resources for remote learning? How will they adapt? Or won’t they? Will they become transmission points? Will outside communities step in and provide resources to prevent that from happening?
  • What about the social impact to those kids? Seniors potentially missing prom. Spring sports being cancelled. Fortunately we live in a time where the Internet makes things like texting, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, SnapChat, etc. make physical isolation less impactful.
  • Businesses are making adjustments to many of their benefits and policies… being more flexible about telecommuting, sick time, short term disability, etc. Will those remain in place?
  • Grocery stores are being emptied of common staples to the point of hoarding: toilet paper, loaves of bread, meat. Also, paper towel, disinfectants and hand sanitizer like Lysol and Purell. Do people realize that hoarding things like paper towel and disinfectant actually puts the population as a whole in jeopardy if others can’t avoid getting sick and becoming contagious? How many will see the error of their ways?
  • If a large percentage of the populace is out of work, will this lead to social unrest? Looting? An increase in crime? I recently saw images on Twitter showing lines of people stocking up on guns and ammunition. Will we break down as a society to the point where physically defending our homes will become a major concern (yes, I realize that is already the case in many areas of the country)?
  • My personal experience has been quite the opposite. People are going out of their way to help their neighbors, helping at grocery stores, sharing books and toys, offering free services on our neighborhood Facebook group. How many other communities are rallying similarly? Is this due to our neighborhood being mostly upper middle-class with financial safety nets?
  • Will more people seek a more “socialist” government now to provide a safety net for situations like this? Universal health care? Basic income? If so, for those who are pushing for such an agenda (e.g. Bernie Sanders) does a situation like this help validate his campaign, or does he lose that as something that differentiates him from other candidates (e.g. Joe Biden) as they adopt similar attitudes?