Three days ago, almost unnoticed amid the corona scare, a small meteor passed close enough to earth to light up the skies with a brilliant fireball. Another is expected to pass just as near quite soon. These meteors make a fitting metaphor, because the “meteor” of COVID-19 has just slammed right into our society. Now we’re all all in the position of hapless dinosaurs staring up as clouds of debris blot out the sky, wondering if we’ll ever see the sun again.
It’s probably too early to be sure just what the true long-term impact of all this is going to be, but it has the potential to reshape our society with a speed and thoroughness not seen since the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 unexpectedly plunged us into World War II. It’s possible we could find a vaccine quickly, and there’s certainly a lot of incentive for us to get back to “normal” as soon as possible. But it’s also possible that the spectre of Corona will haunt us for months or even years.
The novel coronavirus is a flu-like disease with a long incubation period that anyone infected can pass on for days before they even realize they have it. While the disease’s symptoms are not usually much more severe than the flu, and the vast majority of people will survive without even needing to be hospitalized, the severity isn’t actually the problem. The problem is that the disease passes on so easily and invisibly that even the small fraction of the cases that do need medical attention could entirely overwhelm our healthcare system if we don’t take strict measures to cut down on transmission.
The most effective measure is “social distancing”—convincing or requiring the seemingly-healthy and the sick alike to isolate themselves out of close physical contact with other people. If successful, this will keep the transmission rate down until those who have corona can recover to the point where they are no longer infectious. As these simulations demonstrate, the simple expedient of reducing interpersonal contact can actually be extremely effective, if people can be convinced (or required) to stick to it.
But can they? There are still plenty of people out there ignoring these practices—for example, spring break partiers on Florida beaches, churches laying on hands to heal the sick, and those who see social distancing as a government conspiracy to impose authoritarian controls. While it’s tempting to consider that that this behavior will bring about its own inevitable natural punishment more effective than anything a government could mete out, all the people who come into contact with these fools will also pay the price.
However, more importantly, what long-term effects is this going to have on our society even if we succeed?
The corona contagion makes close personal contact extremely undesirable. There’s no way to tell whether that random person you encounter on the street has already contracted corona and doesn’t even know it themselves yet. The disease can spread through bodily fluids (including microscopic droplets emitted into the air when people cough or sneeze) and physical contact. Any viruses that land on surfaces can survive and be infectious for days. While people necessarily don’t have to physically isolate themselves away, they are encouraged to stay at least six feet (or two meters) away from anyone else.
Now just think how many times you’ll be within six feet of another person over the course of an ordinary day. That’s every cashier at every store, for one thing. Doctors, nurses, dentists, barbers or hairstylists, manicurists, masseuses, waiters, clerks. While there are some things where there’s no possible substitute for the human touch (try having a tooth extracted or getting a haircut remotely!), businesses are going to need to find ways to remove close physical contact from the equation to the maximum extent they possibly can.
Check This Out—No, Really, Do It Yourself
But when you think about it, there are already ways to do that—most infamously, self-checkout stands, where people can scan and bag their own groceries without requiring the services of an in-person attendant except when they need to buy age-restricted items such as liquor or cigarettes. McDonald’s has implemented touchscreen kiosks to let diners place their own orders. Prototype touchless stores like Amazon Go or this Swedish grocery let people use smartphone apps to scan and pay for their own groceries.
While these stores have largely remained prototypes because there hasn’t been any perceived need to replace the existing system of checkouts, this smartphone-scanning technology has been deployed by chains like Sams Club and Meijer to give their shoppers another alternative to cashier service. Indeed, I usually use these scan-while-you-shop apps myself, just because it’s more convenient for me to bag groceries when I put them in the cart, and pay on the way out. Sam’s Club’s app doesn’t even require you to stop at a self-checkout; you pay through the phone, too. (But you can’t buy booze with it.)
Some have proudly proclaimed they will never use a self-checkout, because they believe those cost human cashiers their jobs. This concern seems almost naïve now. Who’s going to want to stand within six feet of a potentially-infected human cashier, and let a potentially-infected bagger fondle their groceries, when they’re trying to practice social distancing? Not only could these self-check systems see expanded use, it’s possible we could see more stores implement an Amazon Go-inspired redesign to reduce the human presence altogether.
One For the Books
And then there’s the question of bookstores. Beleaguered Barnes & Noble recently got yet another new CEO—British bibliophile James Daunt, founder of UK independent bookstore chain Daunt Books and savior of similarly-beleaguered UK bookstore chain Waterstones.
I had intended to write about Daunt’s plans to try to rescue Barnes & Noble by giving store managers more independence and encouraging them to adapt their locations to better serve their own regions the same way independent bookstores can. Before coronavirus came on the horizon, it seemed like this plan had a reasonably good chance of working.
But with social distancing in effect, suddenly people have even more incentive to avoid bookstores than Amazon.com ever gave them. Why risk bumping into a person who might give you (and via you, your friends and family) a disease—or even just touching the same book they had handled—when you could just stay at home and order what you need direct to your door? Or, better yet, order ebooks to your digital device—you can start reading immediately, and the only outside infection you need to worry about from an ebook is an infectiously good plot.
Not only does this stand to clobber Barnes & Noble, it could also mark the end of countless single proprietorship bookstores. Unlike corporate entities with investors, small businesses frequently exist hand-to-mouth, and if they have to close even briefly they can get so far behind in their bills that they have no choice but to go bankrupt and close. Unless the government is prepared to bail out practically every small business, we could see bookstores (and other stores, and restaurants, etc.) close in droves.
This could even affect public libraries. They aren’t for-profit businesses, and government support helps keep them in operation, but even that depends on the government having enough funds to continue running them—which could, in turn, depend on the libraries themselves getting enough patrons for governments to see them as worth funding. We could see libraries have to close lower-traffic branch locations in order to consolidate funding to the more popular ones.
Of course, it’s not all bad news for book lovers. We already saw Macmillan abruptly end its library ebook windowing program under the coronavirus threat, but might things go farther than that? Will consumers migrate more toward ebooks from fear of infection and the need to have something new to read immediately? Will publishers stop being so half-hearted in their support of ebooks if social distancing concerns make paper books and bookstores less desirable to people?
Taking People Out of the Equation
And this isn’t even getting into all the other fields where some experimental new technology exists to take people out of the equation but wasn’t considered desirable enough to take seriously. Self-driving cars, drone deliveries…if people are suddenly seen as potential vectors for infection, we could suddenly see a lot more money and effort thrown into perfecting these right away rather than merely tinkering with them. We could see more uses of telemedicine and videoconferencing for counseling, meetings, and so on. More churches and schools will move to remote solutions rather than requiring people to gather together and breathe each other’s air. Within a few years, we could be living in a world that would have looked like speculative fiction just a decade ago.
Of course, if we see an automation explosion, we’ll also see an unemployment explosion like never before—but government will work out ways to deal with that. That’s what we have a government for. Maybe our next President will come from the left, and could work with Congress to implement some kind of new New Deal that will fund retraining and new jobs for all the people who will be put out of work by these sweeping changes.
But all this is just blue-sky speculation. Maybe they’ll get lucky and invent a coronavirus vaccine tomorrow, or next week, and we’ll be able to wipe out the infection just as we clobbered polio. (Though something may have to be done about all the anti-vaxxers.) Maybe life will largely return to normal. We can all hope so, in any case.
But we can’t afford to assume that’s going to happen. If we’re going to survive as a society, we need to start thinking about how we’ll deal with all the possible changes and challenges that might come if things proceed the way they have been. And, just as with social distancing itself, the sooner we begin, the better.
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