Everybody is talking about “getting back to normal.”
That will not happen, not in our lifetime. “Normal” will be different.
All modern major cataclysms have affected us significantly, from the Depression to the World Wars to the Vietnam War to 9/11 to the Great Recession. They gave us Social Security, long security lines at airports, magnetometers before entering public buildings, the end of the draft, tighter mortgage requirements.
Here are some major changes in the “American way of life” that many agree will impact us for years to come because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Millions of us will never go back to a workplace with dozens of other colleagues. Employers have discovered that it’s much cheaper and, some say, possibly more productive to have many workers working from home. Technology, already available and obnoxiously intrusive, will ensure that we really are working. But humans need social interaction; businesses will be challenged to find the new water cooler.
Mass transit will take a huge hit as ridership stays low and public outlays for much needed maintenance and updating decline.
Fewer Americans will take a chance on starting small retail stores, already reeling from online sales. Entrepreneurship will flourish, as it always does in America, but with new and different outlets. Drones, with all their promise and downsides, will become more prevalent.
Getting “dressed up,” meaning wearing heels, ties and business suits, will become even more rare. Informality will rule.
Being out in public will be much different. Temperature checks and social distancing will remain. Restaurants, salons, gyms, coffee shops, arenas and many other establishments will have to redesign to keep customers farther apart. Wearing masks will be taken for granted, as will carrying hand sanitizer, hand-washing and being tested and vaccinated.
Politics will get even nastier. Donald Trump proved that many Americans are receptive to con men, including corrupt ones who use the office to enrich themselves and their families. The barriers between “liberals” and “conservatives” will only get stronger and interactions more bitter. And our national debt will soar.
Trust in institutions will decline even more. From media to the White House, from major sports to major religions, from Congress to police officers trying to enforce stay-at-home orders, a majority of Americans actively distrust anyone in authority.
Medicine will get easier to enter because America has realized the importance of having more nurses, doctors and technicians. The long, expensive path to a medical license is counterproductive. Telemedicine will become routine. And respect for first responders and front-line medical personnel will be as high as gratitude to servicemen and women. But it will take time before we feel comfortable going for routine procedures.
The inequality divide may get even larger, fed by the difference between those who can use the internet for work and those who must endanger their health by working physically. Forty-two million Americans have no access to broadband, which proved a disaster when teachers tried to teach remotely.
It will take a long time before most Americans travel abroad again, but it is to be hoped that the global community will put aside differences and work together on planning for future pandemics, because they will occur. Scientists already have started doing this, reaching across borders to confer on therapeutics and vaccine research.
The next administration in the White House, after Trump leaves, will return to planning for pandemics and natural disasters.
But, sadly, the wave of nationalism going around the world is likely to strengthen. The 1918 influenza pandemic, that killed at least 50 million people, began in Kansas; this one began in China. The blame game always accompanies a pandemic.
We have learned the joys of neighborliness, but we have a new hunger for being together, for appreciating family and friends in person, for celebrating life’s high points, for mourning together, for hope and kindness.
But routine handshakes and the insincere social hug and air kisses may be gone for good.
Daters will have to get more innovative. Dinner and a movie may not seem so enticing. But the boys and the girls do find ways to get together.
The truth, of course, is that our world has been rocked in ways we don’t yet fathom. We will spend years trying to cope with and adapt to changes that will either make us stronger or immobilize us. We have found the weaknesses in our social fabric and find we are not as invincible or as smart as we thought. We may ask ourselves “who are we?” and find ourselves stunned at the answer.
Just as we have largely forgotten 1918, future generations will not fully realize our heartbreak. But the toll we are paying across the board is epic.