What the Pandemic May Have Changed Forever
History classes are taught sequentially for a reason; it allows us to understand cause and effect. It allows for a deeper appreciation of the throughlines that invariably connect distant points in history. American students are taught about the colonies; they are taught about the War of American Independence; they are taught about Jefferson, Jackson, and Johnson. They learn about the most significant events of any given time period, and things that may have been considered noteworthy in a different era are overshadowed by the unprecedented and the unimaginable.
History will write the global Covid-19 pandemic as the event that overshadowed all else. Good news, like the successful drive to cure a second HIV patient, and bad news, like the locust swarm that is currently endangering the food security of more than 20 million people, are succumbing to coronavirus coverage.
This, then, leaves a relevant question unanswered: how will the pandemic change us? The 9/11 attacks altered our perceptions of security and travel. The Great Recession changed our ideas surrounding job security and financial independence. Covid-19 will be no different. While the ‘why’ of this change is known, the ‘what’ is still far from certain.
Calamities act as agents of change, and we can look to history to understand why. The flu pandemic of 1918 - the Spanish Influenza - resulted in a leap forward for the field of virology that may have taken decades to accomplish without the motivation of the pandemic.
The prevailing medical theory as to the cause of flu was woefully incorrect in 1918. Doctors of the day believed that influenza was bacterial in nature. Further investigation into influenza spread and immunity spurred a line of research that, in part, led to the discovery of the first virus in the 1930s and the development of a polio vaccine in 1950.
Some events have effects that are less tangible, events that affect our perceptions about the world. The 9/11 attacks were one of those events. Prior to 2001, the last attack on US soil (aside from the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing) was Pearl Harbor, pre-dating American involvement in WWII.
Pew data indicates that 83% of Americans think the US changed after the 9/11 attacks, and 49% of those people think the country changed ‘a great deal.’ The 9/11 attacks also spurred Americans to feel uneasy; even recently, 42% of Americans have said they feel less safe since the 9/11 attacks. These events caused a nation that prides itself on individual liberty and autonomy to accept rigorous and invasive safety measures in airports, all in the name of enhanced security.
Post-Covid: Here's What's Tangible
This crisis will end. There will be a day when the coronavirus pandemic is relegated to history books and trivia nights, but that day is nowhere in sight. As Americans eventually emerge from stay-at-home orders, as the economy starts to recover, and as the grieving process truly begins, what changes will be lasting? What parts of our zeitgeist will have their origins firmly entrenched in Covid-19? The easiest place to start is with the visible, more tangible possibilities.
Mask culture, or the acceptance of wearing protective masks in public, has been prevalent for much longer in eastern Asia than in the US. This can partially be traced to the region’s experience with SARS in 2002 and the Bird Flu in 2006. Yet, it was only within the last week (April 3rd) that the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended that the public wear cloth masks outside their homes.
While it’s too soon to have hard data about compliance with this policy, anecdotal evidence – along with clear shifts in the mask market – suggests that a large portion of Americans are taking the recommendation in stride. This may be a facet of society that sticks around well after Covid-19 fades from headlines. After all, it has been over 100 years since the US experienced an outbreak of this magnitude.
[Graph shows interest in "masks" as a search term spiking over the period of January 10, 2020, to April 10, 2020. Courtesy of Google Trends.]
According to data from January 2020, roughly 40% of Americans don’t wash their hands after going to the bathroom. Even worse, studies have found that doctors wash their hands only half of the time between patient visits. Considering the deluge of reporting surrounding the lack of hand sanitizer and soap, it is possible that Americans are changing this habit. If we’re lucky, a post-Covid world may be one that is a great deal more sanitary.
The notion that the US healthcare system is subpar isn’t a new one. Americans consistently report that their healthcare is too expensive, unsatisfactory, and complicated. The coronavirus pandemic has placed these concerns on a pedestal for the world to view, in horror.
Hospitals that operate at near-capacity are being overwhelmed with patients. Strategic national stockpiles of supplies are nearly gone, due in part to negligence to replenish them. A federal government that has fought against universal healthcare for decades is being forced to recognize that this decision hinders our ability to fight outbreaks of disease.
Covid-19 may push the United States to join practically every other developed nation that offers the protection of universal healthcare or at least consider the possibility. While studies on the left and right of the political aisle indicate universal health care could be more cost-effective, politicians and health insurance companies stand firm in saying that such a change would be preposterous. Assuming Americans can go to the ballot box in November, the manner in which local, state, and federal elections play out will be the first indication of any possible changes.
Post-Covid: Here's What's Less Tangible
Perhaps the most interesting and meaningful changes will come in forms that can’t be measured as easily with numbers or dollar signs. Around the country, small businesses are asking for help to keep the lights on, and all around the country, people are answering. There appears to be a true recognition that the local coffee shop, restaurant, and hardware store are operated by actual people. People who work tirelessly to benefit and enliven their communities. A post-Covid-19 America could be one that better recognizes the importance of these community actors.
This pandemic has shown us that while wealth and power might help you get tested, it surely can’t guarantee you from getting sick, and tragically, won’t stop you from dying. The very real fear of falling ill and not having the proper healthcare resources to cope is something that millions of Americans have felt every single day, long before the coronavirus. Now, overburdened hospitals are making this dilemma an increasingly real possibility for even the comfortably insured. This pandemic may serve as a stark alert to the physical and emotional trauma that befalls the un- and underinsured.
Likewise, more people have filed for unemployment in the last two weeks than the last two years, combined. States with unemployment systems that are horrendously difficult to navigate and seemingly punitive in nature are recognizing that unemployment isn’t a bounty for the lazy but rather a first-world safety net for the unfortunate. A post-Covid-19 America could be one that chooses to counter unemployment with solutions and dignity instead of barriers and disgust.
What May Have Changed Forever
Eventually, the dust will settle. Covid-19, named as such because of the year it started, may well extend into 2021. There will be a final number of infected persons worldwide. There will, however tragically, be a final death toll. Volumes will be written about failed government responses, insistent denials, and tragedy profiteering. There will undoubtedly be tears, grief, and loss.
At that point, America will stand at a crossroads. We can choose to look back on the pandemic while focusing on the bad, or we can choose to recognize that the pandemic has brought about some of the absolute best that America has to offer.
We can look at stories of companies, big and small, working tirelessly to produce ventilators, donate masks, and contribute funds. Or we can remember individual people that volunteered to 3D print masks, worked on the front lines in hospitals and came out of retirement to bolster our healthcare capacity. The single greatest thing that Covid-19 may change is American empathy. The coronavirus has laid bare what is truly important to this country regardless of age, sex, creed, or color: the people. We can only hope that this is what will eventually be taught in history books.
Article written by Patrick O'Hare on April 10, 2020.
Cover image courtesy of Undraw.