It’s hard to imagine right now – but there will come a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us. And when it is, I think it’s safe to assume that society will be changed forever, given how disruptive the virus has been in pretty much every aspect of our lives.
I think we all breathed a sigh of relief this week with the positive announcements from both Pfizer and Moderna regarding their vaccine trials.
Realistically and sadly, though, life will not get back to any sense of normality for quite some time. There are still too many unknowns around the efficacy and effectiveness of potential vaccines. Too many unknowns around the distribution and uptake of these vaccines. As well as unknowns around cross-border tranmission – meaning we’re only ever as strong as the weakest (country) link.
We may never see COVID-19, or some mutation of it, fully eradicated.
Crises as a catalyst for change
Global crises usually disrupt cultural norms. Many of the innovations we enjoy today were invented during the war or right after. Crises, challenges, and constraints can be used as a driving force. The COVID-19 crisis is no different.
When thinking through the new norms that we have all lived through over the past few months – a key question is whether these changes will prove to be 'crisis-only' or the catalyst for more fundamental change.
Some of the challenges and changes that come to mind for me:
- Wearing masks, will they be around for years to come?
- Educational deficits, and the impact to the generation currently in school
- Remote work becoming the new norm, permanent or temporary?
- Business travel could halve, which would have huge economic implications
- Downtown areas, how are they going to change? Will they survive?
- Choosing a home, and it's location will change. Commuting also.
- Live events; concerts and sporting events may never be at full capacity again
- What about the significant psychological, social and cultural impacts?
- Is public health and its ability to handle pandemics going to improve?
- The mental health impact is already huge, and will last for years to come
- The ongoing devastating financial effect
- People's trust in governments has eroded
- Youth's resentment toward older generations
- Travel, PCR testing and international relations
- Discord throughout local communities
These are just a few that I’ve made a note of as I speak with friends, experience or witness first hand, as well as those I read about in the news. It’s by no means exhaustive, and I’m sure there are quite a few serious ones that I’ve missed.
From the outset of the pandemic, masks have been a surprisingly complicated story. Unfortunately, at first, the experts thought that simple masks didn’t work. This resulted in demand outstripping supply for N95 masks – the stock that did exist had to be prioritised for front line medical workers.
This meant the majority of the population ended up with no masks.
Over time, data started showing that simple masks do work. And not only do they work, but they make a significant impact. IHME, a group funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation predicted that if everybody wore masks, the US could avoid 100,000+ additional deaths. There was quite a good explainer by El País that made the rounds on the Internet a couple of weeks ago regarding the impact wearing a mask can have.
So with all of this confusion regarding N95 masks, simple masks, etc. I think some people started to question why they should wear masks. A small minority saw it as an assault on their freedoms. With many western countries experiencing anti-mask rebellions and protests.
I think this also gives a window into cultural differences across the globle. It was obvious that populations in the East Asian countries understood and willfully complied with the government requests and recommendations to wear masks to slow the spread. Whereas here in the West; in the US in particular, it seemed to cause problems.
This all means, in my opinion, that over the next couple of years masks will be a constant backdrop.
This week we learned that the first effective COVID-19 vaccine can prevent more than 95% of people from catching the virus. Pfizer's vaccine was tested on 43,500 people in six countries, with no safety concerns reported.
No vaccine has gone from the drawing board to being proven highly effective in such a short period of time.
A vaccine - alongside better treatments - is seen as the best way of getting out of the current restrictions that have been imposed on all of our lives.
The bad news is only a limited number of people may get the vaccine this year. And next year governments around the world will have to embark upon one of the most challenging logistical operations in their histories.
Having a vaccine is one thing, getting people to take it is another.
Considerable thought will need to go into strategies around information dissemination. At first guess, I'd say that around 30-40% of the population in most nations are willing to take the vaccine as soon as possible. The rest of the population will wait to see if the initial batch have any side effects, and if not – it could push nations up to the 70%+ range – meaning transmission exponentially declines.
Countries are also now deciding who should be prioritised. Hospital staff and care home workers will be near the top of every list because of the vulnerable people they work with, as will the elderly who are most at risk of severe disease.
Finally, another consideration worth thinking about is whether or not the vaccine will be a good transmission blocker? We are going to have to wait and see. Everyone is hopeful that it reduces the number of super-spreaders.
Governments will still be learning after the vaccine is out – specifically on how good a transmission blocker each vaccine is. Some vaccines may be better than others – which is where it could get confusing.
Dr Fauci provided quite a good narrative around vaccine effectiveness and uptake:
If you have a vaccine that's 99% effective and 99% of people take it – then you're in good shape. But that's not going to happen. If you get 75% effective and 69% of people take the vaccine, you still have a lot of infection that has the capability of spreading. That means we're not going to get back to normal for quite a while. We are going to get closer and closer through a combination of protective effect of the vaccine and a moderate degree of public health measures –e.g. wear a mask when you're in a crowded situation. Don't fill theaters or sports vents to capacity.
The pace of innovation
I couldn't not write about innovation as it pertains to the pandemic. And I eluded to it earlier: crises drive innovation. There's something about the constraints that are imposed, plus a genuine desire to improve the quality of lives for many people – meaning our innovators go into full speed.
Just look at the global rally for a vaccine – it's crazy when you look at the capital, expertise, and data sharing that happened at a global level. All with one common goal. People really did come together.
Think back to March; Webex, Zoom, and Teams were all kind of clunky. But now with so many people using these tools, the number of new features and improvements that have been shipped is amazing.
Something as simple as the blur background feature, achieved through computer vision and artificial intelligence. Beforehand people were reluctant to put their video on... maybe they were ashamed of their workstation or they had family members walking around in the background, whatever the reason it meant that communication didn't feel as personal. It felt like a phone call. Introduce this blur, or change, background feature and suddenly you have meetings that feel a lot 'closer' to one another because you can see faces.
I think people will be surprised by how quickly the software innovates and improves over the next few years. During this second lockdown I bought a Facebook Oculus Quest 2, and wow – my mind was blown. The technology has improved exponentially since the Oculus I had five or six years ago. By experiencing it, I can easily see a leap to a time when we are using VR headsets to have meetings at work.
Young adults have a heightened sense of anxiety.
Students and young works are suffering from the pandemic's economic fallout more than other group. The pandemic has also amplified previous trends including low wages, stagnant job markets and rising student debt.
These difficulties are translating into growing resentment toward older generations, which are better off and hold greater political sway.
Those aged 25 and under are 2.5 times more likely to be without a job because of the pandemic than the 26-64 age group, according to the OECD.
People are losing faith in their leaders and felt that the pandemic was poorly handled. Trust in government among young people has declined across the developed world since 2016, according to the OECD. In the US and UK, many felt the government had been inconsistent and slow to act.
Public health specialists have warned that the mental health impact of the pandemic will outlast the virus, as millions cope with depression, anxiety and isolation. Studies conducted in the UK and the US showed that those aged 18-29 experienced higher levels of distress compared to other age groups during this period.
On a slightly more positive note, the pandemic has allowed some to take pause and think about their priorities in life.
Lockdown has provided many with the opportunity on how to structure their day, freed from social obligations. They can explore what they want out of life, and find ways to grow and develop. Perhaps allowing them to re-evaluate their priorities.
This time last year, none of us knew what we were about be put through. It has been exhausting. It has been tough. No one should be ashamed to admit this. It has taken so much mental strength and resilience from all of us. But there's now light at the end of the tunnel.
It would have taken thousands of words to cover some of the challenges that I posted in my list at the beginning of this post. My hope is that over the coming months I can start to think seriously about each of them one by one.
For now, I think we’re going to have to double down on the things that we’ve been talking about all along. The universal use of masks. Physical distancing. Avoiding crowds. Doing things in an outdoor setting versus indoor. And washing your hands frequently.
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