The SARS-Covid-2 strain is zoonotic, meaning it is transmitted between animals and people. Like Ebola, Covid is a disease that circulated among animals and then leapt to humans for reasons we don’t yet understand. Now that it’s in the human population; it will be among us forever. It will keep circulating even after we get vaccinated because it has a reservoir of animals in which to live.
The good news is that Covid has a good chance of becoming more benign. Eventually, it could even become another illness we contract as children and develop immunity to; much like measles. And because it mutates, every year there’ll be a new Covid jab for people to take.
Given Covid is not going away anytime soon, it is worth exploring the longer-term impact this virus will have on our lives and the opportunities and challenges this represents for individuals and businesses.
A health hangover
Post-vaccine, people’s focus on hygiene will remain high. Beyond remembering to cover our mouths when we cough and washing our hands more regularly, we now want to see what is going on in terms of hygiene. Hygiene signage at entrances is reassuring in a way that was unimaginable in January 2020. Touch-free payment and check-in processes meet people’s need for a sense of safety, something that was previously a given, and air quality monitors inside buildings that allow people to see the “health” of their working environments, will become more popular.
It’s not just technology companies that will benefit from our interest in hygiene. Interior product designers have also picked up on this trend, and are now promoting handles and other stainless steel bathroom accessories with durable antimicrobial coatings, such as copper, that promote greater hygiene in the home. These coatings are not only inhospitable to coronavirus but will also take on bacteria such as Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus.
But this greater focus on tracking our health and wellness will exacerbate the divide between the haves and have-nots. It is already well-documented that those in more deprived communities are at greater risk from the virus. As the wealthy, enabled by technology and design, step up their efforts to monitor their health and avoid germs, the less affluent will continue to suffer higher infection rates. Health is already a form of status-signalling, post-pandemic it will become even more so.
Disruption of the public schedule
The disruption of daily routine is one of the more profound ways coronavirus has changed our lives. As lockdowns drag on, our traditional timetable’s rhythms have been disrupted, causing a mindset shift about the workday.
For decades we’ve been going to work together, taking our lunch together and commuting home together. There was one timetable for all of us. But as we look to return to city centres and offices, we see a shift towards flexible and/or staggered work hours. Staggered shifts reduce congestion for commuters and helps with social distancing within the office. In the future, we will see large numbers of people working in the office part-time and starting and finishing work at different times. One group may work from 11am to 7pm, while others work from 6am to 2pm. One study found that 69% of people expect flexible working to remain an option after the pandemic is over.
The coronavirus has also had a profound impact on local businesses. These were already under threat before the pandemic. As more people move to cities and go online to shop, community-based companies are less in demand. We are learning from our enthusiastic adoption of online “everything” that if we don’t invest in the businesses and shops around us, they will disappear. The future looks rosy for Takealot, but the same cannot be said for your local retailers.
The effect on people’s relationships, especially with family and close friends, will be more positive. Before the pandemic, many of us were too busy “living the life” and posting on Instagram to connect meaningfully with our loved ones. But as life has slowed down, and the number of people we interact with has shrunk, many of us have connected more frequently with family, even if it’s virtually. The positive impact this has on our mental wellbeing will not be given up quickly.
The other side of the coin are the stories of isolation and loneliness caused by lockdowns.
Erosion of trust
Something equally intangible is the impact Covid has had on our trust in institutions and experts, including the mainstream media. Donald Trump, Twitter, fake news, and the media’s tendency to exaggerate rather than report on the pandemic have all contributed.
This lack of faith in institutions is seen in the number of people hesitant about being vaccinated. It is considered good news that 58% of Americans do now plan to take the vaccine. This is a low figure, given it’s probably the only way out of lockdown for many of us.
Within the other 42%, you’ll find a mix of people: anti-vaxxers, “whole foods” lefties, right-wing conspiracy theorists, as well as more rational types who take a wait-and-see approach. Some will be too busy to be vaccinated, some too young, some won’t think they need it. But what all these people have in common is a distrust of what the government and/or Big Pharma are telling them. It would be an interesting brief for designers and behavioural economists to explore how we could rebuild people’s trust in vaccines.
Covid’s legacy will be the acceleration of pre-existing social and technological trends: flexi-time, personal health monitors, distrust in instructions, anti-vaxxers, online shopping and concerns around hygiene. All these are well documented. Covid has simply made them more mainstream.
One novel, and lasting, effect of the pandemic is that it may leave us with a safer world. As people travel less, stay at home more, mitigate their behaviour in public, and generally take fewer risks, we’ll find that there are fewer accidents. Perhaps it will even have a positive impact on the way we consume alcohol…