By Paul Meade, M.Sc, MPH

In any scenario planning situation, you start by looking at the macro-drivers of change. In other words, what’s happening in the world that is driving change? Before you can come up with potential scenarios, you have to understand what’s changing in a number of areas: the political environment, the economic environment, technology, health, and society. In today’s article, we’ll take a look at these macro-drivers of change and try to understand how they might affect our post-COVID world.

The political environment. We’re going see a dichotomy wherein countries choose between isolation and partnership. Some countries may decide to close up all their borders, deal with the situation alone, and contain their people from the rest of the world.

The other option is that we recognize that we’re all human beings, and that this virus doesn’t discriminate against any demographic; it’s attacking everybody, from China to Brazil to the United States. While certain ethnic groups and medical conditions may predispose one to a less favorable outcome, we are all at risk of getting the infection. Therefore, we may realize that we need to come together as a global community to effectively fight this virus. I believe we’re going to see bits of both: countries that choose to isolate, and countries that choose to form partnerships. We’ll likely see this play out over the next couple of years.

The economic environment. Some economists are saying that we’re headed into a global recession, one that we haven’t seen for years and years. They believe it’s going to impact everybody. And yet, there are others arguing that this is not an economic situation; this is a virus, a public health emergency. These people believe that although we’ve shut down the economy very quickly, we can reopen it quickly. Once again, we have a dichotomy: Some foresee a slow, painful recovery leading to a recession, while others expect a rapid return to normal. But as Anthony Fauci has stated, “the virus dictates when we should open the economy,” despite some areas in the United States showing a blatant disregard for the science over the economy.

Technology. We’ve already seen the explosion of technologies like videoconferencing. Zoom, for instance, went from two million customers to three million customers in a matter of 30 days. Going forward, videoconferencing is going to become the new normal. If people are concerned about exposing themselves to the novel coronavirus, then the best way to move forward is by using tools like Zoom, Teams, and Google Meet.

On the other hand, technology will likely drive us toward self-monitoring. We may be able to wear technology that will constantly monitor our health status. If we get near someone who has been exposed to the virus, or a known contact, we’ll get a warning signal on our wearable devices letting us know we’re at risk. These devices may also indicate whether or not we possess protective antibodies. We’re almost certainly going to see major strides in the development of these monitoring technologies.

Health. The optimistic route is that we quickly develop cures and vaccines that fight COVID-19. We may see these develop over the next 18 to 24 months, or possibly longer. The downside is that the COVID-19 virus continues to mutate, causing multiple recurrences because we can’t develop an effective cure or vaccine for an ever-changing virus. Since this is a “novel” virus, there is so much we still have to learn about managing it

The health of our natural environment is another important factor here. One of the benefits that we’ve seen from stay-at-home orders and social distancing is a huge decrease in pollution levels. You’ve probably seen pictures from the northern Indian state of Punjab, where residents can see the Himalayan Mountains for the first time in decades. Governments and citizens all over the world are suddenly realizing that we can effectively work from home and cut our pollution down significantly. Is this the new normal? Is this the way to get a handle on climate change and protect our environment?

But we also have to consider why this virus mutated in the first place, and why it spread so rapidly. Is this the new normal? Should we anticipate that viruses are going to keep mutating at such a fast rate? Is this Mother Nature’s way of saying, “I don’t like what you’re doing to the environment, so I’m going to send out a few viruses to stop you”?

It’s not just the novel coronavirus, either–there are several viruses that keep emerging, like Ebola. But Ebola shuts down quickly because it’s so virulent that it kills the host in a matter of days. In other words, it’s not a smart virus. COVID-19, on the other hand, is a very clever virus. It infects the host and makes them contagious for at least a week or two before they even realize they have symptoms, if they develop them at all. Thus, it has a chance to spread widely before you can do anything to stop it.

When the Fall hits, we will have to worry about an influenza strain coming onto the scene and “piggy-backing” on COVID-19, creating a double whammy effect.

Society. I believe we’re going to see some jobs disappear forever. These jobs won’t come back–but the good news is, we’ll also see new jobs created. Many people will have to retrain themselves and retool their careers, because what they did in the past is no longer available. These people will move into new jobs in droves.

Social distancing may linger, and we’re already seeing a number of mental health issues around this. We are gregarious beings by nature. We work in packs, in societies, in groups. Social distancing is not our norm. Perhaps the youngest generation will be okay with staying at home and connecting via online communication software, but older generations may experience a great deal of mental anguish because of this new normal, especially grandparents unable to visit their grandchildren.

If we consider the macro-drivers of change in this pandemic, we can put a few stories together. Stay tuned for the next installment of “The Point,” in which we’ll explore these possible scenarios.

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