Our lives after the coronavirus pandemic

Could COVID-19 change our lives forever? We ask experts in tech, economics, medicine and politics to weigh in.

A robot, developed by a start-up firm Asimov Robotics, holds a tray with face masks and sanitizer after the two robots were launched to spread awareness about the coronavirus, in Kochi

The new coronavirus pandemic is upending life as we know it.

More than one-quarter of the world’s 7.8 billion people are now largely confined to their homes, as governments step up curbs on movement and social contact in a bid to contain the virus.

In many parts of the world, borders are closed, airports, hotels and businesses shut, and school cancelled. These unprecedented measures are tearing at the social fabric of some societies and disrupting many economies, resulting in mass job losses and raising the spectre of widespread hunger. 

Much remains uncertain, but analysts say the pandemic and the measures we are taking to save ourselves could permanently change the ways in which we live, work, worship and play in the future. Envisioning that post-pandemic world is key in ensuring we change for the better, not the worse.

So what does the future look like?

Al Jazeera asked experts in various fields, including medicine, psychology, economics and technology, to weigh in:

As the ‘analog world’ descends into crisis, tech firms will become even more powerful

Andrew Keen is a commentator on the digital revolution and author of five books, including How to Fix the Future. He is based in Berkeley, US.

The physical analog world is being decimated, with traditional analog businesses including hotels, restaurants and airplanes in crisis. The digital world, however, is thriving. We are surviving through this pandemic because of technology.

Everyone is sitting at home, and their window to the world is through their smartphone.

In the post-pandemic world, technology will be as ubiquitous as it is now, if not more, and tech companies will become even more powerful and dominant. That includes smaller firms like Zoom, and the big players such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Paypal. And not just Americans firms, but also Chinese. Prior to this, we saw a period in which people were increasingly more cynical and critical of technology. But, as the pandemic increases our dependence on technology, people will forget that hostility towards Silicon Valley, at least in the short term.

We could also see more government use of surveillance. It is a useful weapon to fight the virus – for instance, countries like Israel are using smartphones to figure out who’s been where in order to track clusters of the virus – but at the same time, such moves threaten to undermine individual freedom and privacy. This is nothing new, it only compounds and accelerates forces that have been at play for many years. Moving forward, this will affect not just our ability to hide from the camera, but also determine our socio-political rights.

Separately, China will benefit greatly from this crisis as it was the first country to experience the epidemic and to get out of it. The technocratic authoritarian model in Beijing and East Asia, such as in Singapore and to some extent South Korea – countries that are dealing more effectively with the virus – now appears more viable than the Western democratic one. And for people who care about freedom, privacy and individual rights, the world after the coronavirus looks much more worrying.

Less international cooperation; chaos and anarchy in fragile states

Andreas Krieg is an assistant professor at School of Security Studies at King’s College London, UK.

COVID-19 will fast-forward the fourth industrial revolution and digitalization of all services, including public services. The relationship between the community and the state will become ever more remote, whereby states are now expanding their remote control over civil society and private life. Amid COVID-19, the individual will be sufficiently pressed to surrender basic civil liberties in return for security, which alters the social contract in the liberal world.

By promising security, especially authoritarians will exploit COVID-19 as a pretext to further contract the public space and consume more powers to intervene into private lives. Digital technology makes it possible to create subtle police states whereby state control is not as obvious as it might have been as citizens might voluntarily offer private data in hope the state can provide security.

On the international level, there will be less cooperation. The trend of nationalism and self-reliance will continue, especially as the fear of the “external” and “foreign” can be exploited by populists. Most states are challenged in their resilience economically, socially and in terms of public health.

The public health crisis compounds existing domestic economic crises amid a global economic depression following the end of the COVID-19 crisis. Fragile states will be pushed into chaos and anarchy, and there is a realistic chance that some regimes will not survive COVID-19 as mass dissidence towards the end of mass mortality will bring 100,000s to the street to overthrow regimes whose legitimacy will be undermined by their inability to manage the crisis.

Lasting changes in our habits and values

Pete Lunn heads the Behavioural Research Unit at the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin, Ireland.

I suspect many people will look back and see this as a time when things changed in their lives.

A lot of our lives are habitual, and habits are highly effective in helping us work, look after our families and pursue our goals. What a shock to the system does is change those habits. People work and travel in a different way, their daily routines and the very rhythm of their lives change, including when they eat and how they communicate with their families. And when you are forced to do things differently, new habits begin to form. This doesn’t have to take long – it could be as short as a few weeks or a month.

More than that, what we know about shocks like this and system change is that they can have lasting effects on people’s values. We know societies that go through war generate stronger ties. This pandemic is far from a war, but it requires pulling together. And when people realise what collective action can achieve, it could change how they relate to others, resulting in a greater sense of community.

There are bound to be downsides. We don’t know what they are yet, but this has to be a difficult time for people with poor-quality relationships, such as abusive partners, or those struggling with behaviours such as alcoholism and gambling. Similarly, people who have mental illnesses, such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders and paranoia, may find shocks like this hard to deal with.

A revolution in the delivery of primary healthcare

Vin Gupta is an affiliate assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, US.

We haven’t faced a public health emergency of this scale in a century. It is exacting a massive psychological toll on the world’s population, and there are bound to be calls for action. People across the globe will use COVID-19 as a strong justification to demand universal healthcare. But the ability to respond to a pandemic depends more on principled and transparent leadership. And so there will be calls to elevate health security to the same priority level as other threats such as nuclear disarmament and terrorism.

We could also see governments boost their ability to deploy ICU-level assets, build up stockpiles of protective gear and ventilators, scale up hospital infrastructure of emergency nature and rely more heavily on the military to fight disease.

In the US, we are in for a reckoning. A lot has not gone well here, and that lag has mainly been regulatory. This will be a factor in the 2020 election.  

We are also in for a revolution in the delivery of primary healthcare. Digital technologies will become even more prominent, and we are likely to see a rise in the use of telemedicine as well as home testing. A third of the US population already use telemedicine, and now, people currently have no other choice but to rely on it. The more they use it, the more they will learn to trust the method, allowing for the delivery of faster and cheaper healthcare. We will also see a movement towards people utilising home tests, for illnesses such as the flu or for high cholesterol. In that sense, pandemics are equalisers, allowing us to pinpoint what’s not working and also serving as a starting point to scale and innovate.

The very essence of religion is in danger

Mohd Faizal Musa is a research fellow at the Institute of the Malay World and Civilization (ATMA), National University of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

One aspect of life that has been badly affected by the outbreak is culture, to be specific – religion. In some countries such as South Korea, Iran, and Malaysia, the surge of COVID-19 cases were attributed to religious gatherings and pilgrimage sites. Never before in modern history have holy sites in both the Sunni and Shia Muslim world been closed for worshippers, to be sanitised or for security reasons.

In a month, Muslims will be entering Ramadan, and no doubt the axiology (values) of religion that lies in rituals will be greatly lessened and disrupted. This is something technology cannot help to substitute. Of course, we can still appreciate sermons online, but without the human touch and the sacred ambience offered by rituals and holy sites, the very meaning of religion is in danger. This is so important since rituals often symbolize the essence of religion.

Even after the outbreak, the Hajj for Sunni Muslims, congregational prayers for Christians, gatherings such as Thaipusam for Hindus and the Arbaeen for the Shias will be conducted with great prudence, perhaps with restrictions on number of participants and new rules on sanitation and social contact. These group rituals give believers spiritual experiences, and without proper engagement, that experience could be undermined. In other words, religion – one of the biggest source of culture for the human being, the epistemology of society – will never again be the same.

Coronavirus changes how Muslims worship (2:00)

Stronger global trade and reduced inequality

Shanta Devarajan is a professor of the Practice of International Development at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University in Washington, DC, US.

The COVID-19 pandemic is showing us the huge economic cost when global trade, including transport, slows down. It also demonstrates how dependent we are on the global supply chain, including for medical equipment such as masks and testing materials. When this pandemic is over, my sense is that global trade will resume and become even more stronger, and any disruption to the supply chain will be temporary.

At the national level, this pandemic is forcing many countries to reconsider their social policies, especially social protection and healthcare. In addition, there is an effort to help workers in the informal sector. If these policies, or some variant of them, persist after the outbreak, this will help reduce inequality.

We are also seeing governments providing assistance to banks and companies to cushion the effects of both the virus and the lockdowns. This is mainly to keep the economy from collapsing even further. There might be a shift in the policies towards these companies after the pandemic, but it should be carefully balanced against providing subsidies or tax breaks when they don’t need them.

Source: Al Jazeera