An overview of how the COVID-19 pandemic will influence some of the other technological, political and economic shifts happening in the world. This guide is written as a plain language overview that can be read in six minutes or less. Given that I have been inside an apartment for three weeks on my own, this post (much like my outfit) is dramatically more casual than normal. Humour is a coping mechanism, so forgive the indulgence.
COVID-19 might be the worlds least charismatic supervillain. It threatens society, divides countries, makes us all hide inside for weeks on end and it doesn’t even dignify us with a standard monologue about its grand plan to end the world. If it did, we’d be better for it – at least then we might be able to plan for the approach it will take to try. But instead, it simply goes from place to place, infecting hundreds of thousands while offering no indication of where it intends to go next or how long it will stay. This is not the behaviour of a good villain – It’s like it never even saw the Avengers movies.
Despite being a boring bad guy personality-wise, COVID-19’s impact is definitely not boring. Its impact is mostly going to be determined by how we respond to it. Social distancing (we are actually supposed to say physical distancing now, since apparently we are trying to stay physically far apart but emotionally connected to each other) and self-isolation measures are one way we prevent the virus from hopping from person to person on our commutes and in our social circles. Washing your hands for twenty seconds is apparently the best defence, which is annoying because I was lead to believe defeating an apocalypse required some mid-level punching and befriending a sarcastic guy with a flying suit.
These changes in our lifestyles are important to slow or stop the spread of this virus. But the scale of the change means that our day-to-day lives have ben disrupted enough that this has affected everything. In a little less than a month, the changes have been big: we now talk about grocery store employees as heroes, we have all developed new hobbies that are both time-consuming and mostly indoor, and we all now know exactly how many people can get on a Zoom call before it crashes. This is – for most of us – new, and this knowledge will change the way we do things moving forward. It will impact our habits and routines and hobbies once all this ends, since it’s unlikely that two months of dramatic change has no lasting impact on our day-to-day lives.
These changes in our habits are going to affect other things as well. Big structural shifts in the world that this blog writes about often – political landscapes, 5G networks, climate change, automation, geopolitics – will also be affected. That’s because the way we behave impacts what we consume, the things we think are important and our willingness to make trade-offs to get those things. If you had asked everyone in the world two years ago if the would be willing to stay inside for months on end to save 0.5%-2% of the population, the answer might not have reflected well on humans. Yet, here we are – humanity’s best trait is its constant ability to surprise, since it leads to some spectacularly wonderful moments and some hilarious YouTube videos.
Now, if COVID-19 brings changes to the way we do things, what might some of those changes be? Let’s take a look at how this pandemic response might touch each of the major topic areas:
Does this change what kind of politicians will run in future elections? 100%, but that was mostly happening anyways. It’s pretty obvious that conservatives aren’t winning elections anymore, and that the people calling themselves conservatives who do win elections are really just populists. The big reason for that is that conservatism is all about resisting change, and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the world right now who doesn’t believe something somewhere needs to change. People are concerned about big issues – things like affordability, climate change and (now) pandemics. Government support is needed right now, and the kinds of conversations we have about government support in the future are going to change. Everyone – even the world’s most uptight conservative thinkers – are asking for government handouts to address this crisis right now, and it’s unlikely that future conversations about health care spending, social programs and unemployment don’t include more discussion of the need for basic supports to ensure if this happens again, people can get the money and help they need. Being entirely self-dependent is only helpful if it doesn’t accidentally kill everyone else, which seems to be a lesson we’re all learning in 2020.
Isn’t all this good for climate change? No. Well, maybe. No one really has any idea, although lots of people have opinions. Some people argue the short-term dip in emissions could lead to changes in behaviour as people begin to appreciate LA sunsets and swans in Venice canals. Others note that following every recession, emissions dip then rebound to higher levels than ever. Ultimately, over the long-run, whether this is good for the climate will depend on two things. The first is whether this changes behaviour in people – will everyone needing to stay home lead to less conferences, less travel for fun or a rise in telecommuting? If yes, then that could have an impact on emissions but it probably won’t be huge. The second point is the more important one. Getting out of this recession will mean spending trillions on new projects and infrastructure. If we create jobs by building oil pipelines, emissions will go up. If we create jobs by building things like zero-carbon cement factories and electric buses, emissions in the long run will go down. Changing the way we do things, rather than what we do, is still going to be the best way to reliably make emissions go down over the long-run.
Wouldn’t more robots be a good way to keep the economy going while we all stay inside? This one is tricky, but the answer is no. Factories operated by robots can continue to make stuff we can buy and use if we all have to go inside during a pandemic, but they still need materials to make stuff with. Not every single part of a supply chain, from digging materials out of the ground to shipping them to manufacturing all the different parts to getting it to people, can be 100% automated. We still need people along the way. So while automation could be helpful to lessen the dip, it likely wouldn’t do very much to help because there would still be part of the supply chain that would be affected and would therefore mess up everything else. One area where robots and AI could make a difference is in managing the pandemic itself. Health care apps, digital care robots deployed inside people’s homes and monitoring systems can make it easier to manage people and track the spread of a virus. It can also help people stuck inside their houses feel less alone. That won’t be a big bonus for the economy, but it will be nice for people if it helps them feel more connected, healthier and safer during a crisis. So it’s likely the overall rate of automation doesn’t change, but we change the way we think about automation as we start to consider where more robots might offer the greatest benefits.
Now, onto the ever-important issue of data privacy. I still don’t care about data privacy. Well, I still do and this is my blog, so hush. Governments trying to relax quarantines and let their citizens outside when there is no vaccine can only prevent another wave of outbreaks by testing everyone almost constantly. Testing is great, but you have to keep track of who was tested where or its mostly just a feel-good exercise. Apps that track people, their test results, medical histories and movement are now in use in a few countries so governments can make sure infected people stay inside, and their citizens are kept safe.
Think about that for a second – in some places, the government is now actively tracking you and how warm you are constantly. When managing a pandemic, it’s a good idea because it can help countries stay one step ahead of mass death. But do you really think that a government who has this level of access to citizens lives is suddenly going to abandon that once this pandemic ends? The US government didn’t repeal anti-terror legislation passed after 9/11 for national security reasons. It also wouldn’t be hard to justify keeping that level of surveillance in place – you could say you were trying to avoid another pandemic, or bring on the next wave of digital health care. Which sounds great, until you realize this wold give a leader like Donald Trump access to the location of everyone whenever he wanted it. Exporting millions of illegal immigrants, tracking political opponents and avoiding being caught for corrupt acts gets dramatically easier when you can legally and simply track your citizens. Whether these systems stay in place will be decided in elections (or in China’s case, by the people who benefit from tracking everyone) but you should remember that a good government in a crisis is different than a good government when everything is supposed to be okay.
Would 5G networks stop my Zoom calls from crashing? Yes! 5G would be real handy right now. They offer dramatically faster upload and download speeds, would help a higher volume of internet traffic and could support more complex virtual systems like tele-health robots. This crisis will probably accelerate the desire to have 5G networks in major cities while also making it clear just how left behind some rural areas are that still don’t have broadband access. Building out these networks will likely still take just as much time, but there will be more demand for them in developed countries and they will make virtually everything about working from home easier. The only thing we’re dealing with today that 5G probably won’t help with is kicking your ex off your Netflix account.
COVID-19 and our extended indoor time aren’t going to usher in the end of malls, the airline industry or any other weird pet theory people have put forward. The thing about events like these is we always overestimate the amount things are going to change in the coming months, and underestimate how much things are going to change in the coming years. Even if COVID is one boring supervillain, it’s still going to have an impact on everything we do in ways we can’t necessarily anticipate. So for now, sit inside, enjoy the ride and try to be thankful that we can avoid this global apocalypse by just practicing good hygiene, ordering Uber Eats and binge watching the Office.