“One can properly think of most human lives as caught in a precarious equilibrium between the microparasitism of disease organisms and the macroparasitism of large-bodied predators, chief among which have been other human beings.” — William McNeil, Plagues and Peoples
My grandfather lived through the Great Depression. He had to move across the country — from rural Minnesota to Los Angeles — to find enough work to keep his body and soul together while the nation sorted out its problems. It worked. He started working every Friday in a furniture store in Long Beach, eventually bought the store, and became a prosperous Southern California merchant.
But he never forgot the Great Depression. He never believed that anything truly belonged to him in a way that could not evaporate in an instant, so he worried constantly about money, saved a huge portion of his income, and never spent an unnecessary dollar — just like almost everybody else who lived through the Great Depression.
Periods of great economic instability change people. They change whole societies, who never quite forget what it was like to have everything they ever owned taken away from them in a matter of days. Wars change people too, in ways that are difficult to predict. The generation that came of age during World War II — young people who were shaped by fierce fighting and purposeful sacrifice on the home front — developed into largely patriotic people who felt that their country could do anything. The generation that came of age during the Vietnam War saw the world, and their own country, very differently.
Nothing, though, changes whole populations the way that pandemics do. A plague in the early years of the Peloponnesian War killed 2/3 of the people in Athens and changed the course of a history-defining war. A thousand years later, a plague in Constantinople frustrated the Emperor Justinian’s plans to bring back the Roman Empire and drove people in to the waiting arms of apocalyptic Christianity. And these weren’t even the big ones. The Black Death of the 14the century depopulated many of the world’s nations and redefined the relationship between laborers and landowners.
I don’t know how the world will change because of the Coronavirus. But I know that it will. And it won’t always be in predictable ways. When Politico recently asked thought leaders and trendsetters to predict how the virus would change society, the answers were fairly predictable, and based largely on what the people responding considered important. Those who want to decrease political polarization felt that the virus would help to decrease political polarization. Those who favor universal health care felt that the experience would lead to people demanding universal health care. And so on.
I’m not sure that the changes will be that obvious. I doubt that the experience will eliminate the structural factors that produce political polarization, and, while the United States will probably move towards some kind of health-care or health-insurance reform, it will probably follow the trajectory that was already laid out before the Coronavirus came calling.
There are deeper experiences at play here that could produce shifts that are much less obvious, but perhaps even profoundly more consequential. Consider, for example, the following emerging realities for millions of people in our nation and our world:
- The Coronavirus has lead a kind of work-infused quarantine that the world has never seen before. Many of us are commuting from home for the first time — and learning that there are far more tools for this sort of thing than we ever understood. Millions of people are getting hands-on training on productivity tools that they will be able to continue using when the epidemic subsides. Such a to move has the potential to free workers from space constraints at a level never seen before. This will have profound impacts on the labor markets of the future.
- We are, as a society, learning very quickly to determine what is crucial to life, what is important, and what is optional. Human beings have always framed necessity in a social context. What is “necessary” is what allows us to thrive in the world we live in. When that world changes, what we need changes. And, to put it crudely, we are discovering in a hurry what we can live without. I would be very surprised if this does not end up altering consumption patterns for a very long time.
- We are rapidly developing a much clearer sense of collective responsibility than we have had before. Because the coronavirus affects different demographic groups in very different ways, many people are less worried about getting the disease themselves then they are about passing it along to someone else. This is almost unprecedented in the history of epidemics. There have always been altruists willing to sacrifice their lives to help others during a plague, but that is not quite what is happening this time. People are being asked to make much less dramatic sacrifices to keep other people from getting the coronavirus. Some of them are taking up the challenge to live in a self-imposed quarantine for an indefinite period of time, and some of them are publically flouting the advice to stay home to protect the weakest members of their tribe. Both groups are hardening positions that may, in the future, have profound consequences for the way that society works.
- We are figuring out what information we should actually pay attention to. Many people have pointed out a person’s political beliefs determine how seriously they are taking the coronavirus threat. This should not surprise us. One’s political beliefs determine which news sources one consumes — and, therefore, the frame into which one puts any current event. But this time it is different. A dramatic epidemic is the sort of thing that one can make objective statements about. And this means that we can tell — in ways that can’t with most other issues — which news sources were right and which ones were wrong. I believe, perhaps too optimistically, that this will change the ways that we consume news and information in the future.
- We are getting a little better at being alone. 400 years ago, Blaise Pascal wrote that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I think this is an overstatement, but not by much. Our lives are fast. We are always connected and always engaged, and we rarely slow down long enough to look at what we are actually doing. For the next (indefinite amount of time) we are all going to be doing a lot of sitting in a room alone. And then talking to each other at safe distances. Dare I hope that we use this newfound solitude to solve some of Pascal’s problems. And ours too.
- We are all having a formative experience together. The outbreak of the coronavirus, its rapid spread to the entire world, and the isolation of quarantine are all experiences that the entire world is having together. And we have the technology to share that experience with each other in unprecedented ways. This has never happened before. To some extent, the whole world experienced the two great World Wars of the 20th century, but we experienced each other as enemies in that war. Now we have a common, albeit microbial, enemy attacking us, which means that, for the foreseeable future, people of all nations will have a common ground that we did not have before. Will it be enough to build a better world on top of? It will if we want it to be.
And, along with all of these things, Americans will lose their epidemiological innocence — and this will hopefully allow us to respond better to the next plague than we responded to this one. Nations like Taiwan and Singapore, who experienced the ravages of earlier outbreaks in the last 20 years, have done better than anyone else in containing the coronavirus. They knew what they were up against when they first saw the outbreak in China. If we learn at all from the coronavirus, we will do the same thing next time.
But for now, depending on how long this national quarantine continues, we may all end up like my Grandfather and almost everybody else who survived the Great Depression: a little bit more grateful for what we have, a little bit less secure that we will always have it, and never able to shake the persistent dread in the back of our minds that we will have to go through it all again. And this, too, could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on what actions it compels us to undertake.