(based on online-discussion panel dedicated to prognosis)
COVID-19 is a unique global event by its nature, it has never happened in the history of the human race. The pandemic has affected at least every human being on the planet, the only other thing comparable to it, presumably is climate change which will affect every human being on the planet. Both of them have a characteristic of being global and also that they will potentially affect choices and life changes both at the individual level and national level. With the pandemic, we are not sure what the end state will look like, we don’t know about how many rebounds there will be, there’s a lot of inhomogeneity in the system and different countries have reacted rather differently to it, some countries like the US, UK, Spain, and Italy got themselves into big trouble by not acting quickly enough. Much of this goes to something that I hope does change and that is a much deeper appreciation for science and experts’ advice, it has to be taken seriously in certain areas. Another important thing related to what the outcome will be and what kind of changes it will engender is that there’s a tension between the obvious fear and threat that many of us feel obvious reasons on the one hand and the other that one could imagine in a year or two, that people will look back and say “Well, actually it wasn’t that bad” and gradually the system might “relax” back to where it is or was before; these are two extremes. In my viewpoint, the consequences of the pandemic will stay with us for the foreseeable future and it will take time for us to adapt to it. Also, it is not clear whether a vaccine will be developed or if we will become immune to it naturally.
I term this event to be a “mother of all butterfly events”: some random mutation of the virus in a Chinese city – who would believe it that within a couple of months football matches no longer would be played in Spain, a shortage of yeast in the United Kingdom, a crash of the markets in the United States and so on… all these totally unintended consequences and I think psychologically it’s hard to believe that that won’t have an effect. Also, many, I hope will have an appreciation and an understanding of what transmission and the word exponential really means, not that it means very fast, but it signals that if you don’t control something it may lead to serious trouble. So what might really change in terms of the social? Apparently, there will be much less social interaction. I think despite all of the pressures people return to having football matches, concerts, social and cultural events. Some of that will happen, but I think there will be a degree of caution and degree of restraint in people participating and that of course also depends on the age profile. Senior citizens will be much more cautious and restrained for obvious reasons. Besides, most of us have some underlying condition which only exacerbates the problem.
Transportation will change and cities may have to adapt to that, roads are not cleared of traffic and there will be more room for walking and bicycles. It may be that the time of electric bicycles or electric kinds of transportation on a personal level will go to another level. I think the other thing that will happen is that it will exacerbate inequality, which is already a serious problem globally; rich people will look to remove themselves from the potential threats or getting infected, they might not actually move out of the city, but they will buy more and more second, third homes. The aforementioned will inevitably change the social structure of the city. The other aspect which we already see is the very fundamental dynamic that has given us all of the great things that we enjoy, the quality and standard of living, many of us were privileged to have arises out of social networks, social interaction, the transmission of ideas, creating wealth, creating innovative. But it turns out that it is exactly the dynamic that gives rise to a pandemic. One the one hand, if you diminish social interaction and tie to physicality then you are going to decrease, potentially, innovation, wealth creation, etc, and that’s of course represented by the decrease in socio-economic activity. Cities and social organizations will inevitably adapt to that and it is unforeseen what the end outcome will be. Besides, in an event like this, a major change over a very short time also tends to accelerate processes that are already in play and we are participating in exactly one of those. Obviously, internet communication was already there before and probably it will develop regardless of the outcome. It has its advantages but it reduces everything to a two-dimensional scale and the world we live in is multi-dimensional.
All of these dynamics will be in play in the near future. So I think the other thing that is is crucial it is that and I wish this were true. I had hoped, when this began and it was very clear that it was a pandemic that people would unite to fight the threat. It happens at the national level during a war when people come together, feel the bond between them, and “rally” together to fight it. Unfortunately, the United States may be one of the worst cases of this where we have not seen that, quite the contrary we’ve seen greater forces of polarization that play. There has been sort of coming together, I do not want to deny that but nevertheless in times of world wars, and even during the 2008 meltdown, there was much more of a feeling of unity. We do not see is truly a global unity to fight the common enemy and, ironically, even though the use of the war as a metaphor, which I do not like, has not led to another metaphor that “we need to galvanize together as an army”. That might have profound effects on at least the near future and it may have long-term effects.
Dr. Geoffrey Brian West
Theoretical physicist, former president and distinguished professor of the Santa Fe Institute. He is the author of several books among which is Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies. He is a visiting Professor at Imperial College, London and an associate fellow at Oxford University.