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NOW Atlantic: Smart thinking for a changing world
Even futurist Nikola Danaylov didn’t see it coming.
The virus that has spread like a fever also scorched his keynote gigs, gone at least until the end of the year. Roughly 95 per cent of his income lost. “We all have to reinvent ourselves,” Danaylov, author and popular blogger, says with surprising calm.
The question now is, how are we going to reinvent ourselves as a human species?
“We will not go back to what life was like before January of this year,” Canada’s chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, said this week in releasing updated COVID-19 prognostications. Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu also summoned our post-pandemic future in a briefing, saying testing is just one layer of the health safety net needed to “arrive at the new normal.”
Canada’s health leaders didn’t elaborate on what this “new normal” might look like. Increased biometric surveillance? One-way sidewalks? Medical-grade face shields at the theatre? Virus-proof, sterilizable body suits to permit “socializing without distancing”? Robot cleaners and servers, immunity-booster consultants, cashless societies, nose swabs and temperature readings at every travel gate?
“How optimistic or pessimistic shall we be?” Dr. Ophelia Deroy, of the faculty of philosophy of mind at Ludwig Maximilian University Munich wrote in an email.
There’s a spectrum of possible post-coronavirus futures, no straight line from here, to there. The new “normal” depends on several unknowns. While the pandemic curve is flattening in parts of the country, we still don’t know if we’re at the front end of the wave, the early days of a wave that will pass over us or the beginning of a multi-wave pandemic, where each crest, each roller, grows smaller, like the trajectory of a bouncing ball. The virus will keep churning through the population, keep “trying to find humans to do what it does,” i nfectious disease epidemiologist Michael Osterholm said in a recent interview, until we achieve 60 to 70 per cent herd immunity.
Many people don’t grasp that this isn’t over, despite the “happy talk,” Osterholm says. We won’t emerge from lockdown suddenly immune. The vast majority of us remain susceptible.
The other big unknown? Will the pandemic virus eventually burn itself out or become part of the annual, seasonal soup of respiratory infections?
Either way, futurists have begun to imagine the post-coronavirus era.
“The world as we know it is dissolving,” influential German futurist Matthias Horx wrote on his blog in early March. “But behind it comes a new world, the formation of which we can at least imagine.” His is a more sanguine view. He imagines our world in autumn: Cynicism is out, physical separation has made us closer. So much seems so unnecessary and superfluous. “Can anyone remember the political correctness debate? The infinite number of cultural wars? What, we will ask ourselves, was that all about?” The summer will have brought new antivirals and drugs to keep COVID-19 from killing. The global economy is recovering; the heart muscle quivered, but didn’t stop, “as if the economy was a breathing being that can also nap or sleep and even dream.” CO2 emissions are down. Backyard vegetable gardens await harvest. We’ll be running through forests and parks, virologists and epidemiologists will be the new celebrities. No apocalypse, only a “new beginning.”
Could it really be so dreamy? When looking at future possibilities, futurists arrive at a range of scenarios.
Under one scenario: The virus spreads. Most everyone is exposed over the next year. As social distancing restrictions are lifted, new infections erupt like brushfires that spread faster than they can be stamped out. We don’t flatten the curve, we just shift the infection peak. Tens of thousands of people tragically die in Canada alone, leaving a tsunami of grief. Many more recover. However, the world doesn’t change that much, says economist and futurist Robin Hanson, of George Mason University.
“The world has a lot of inertia,” says Hanson, who, to the horror of critics, has advocated “controlled exposure,” the voluntary infection of relatively young and healthy people with a very low dose of virus to build protective herd immunity until a vaccine is realized. “We built up the world we had been living in until a few months ago for a long time, and we really got used to it,” Hanson says. “We’ve changed temporarily but most people are quite eager to get back.”
There will be some changes. “Some politicians will get fired. Pandemic budgets will increase. We’ll do a lot more tracing and tracking and trying to prepare for the ‘next one,’” Hanson says. But life returns as before.
The other extreme is we lock down the lockdown. The changes become permanent until someone wins the billion-dollar sprint for a vaccine. The cost is mass unemployment, loss of school, economic hardship, pain, shattered marriages. A crisis as big as the Great Depression, Hanson says. We desperately keep trying to keep the virus at bay, dragging distancing out for a year or years. An enormous new policy regime of testing and tracing. A North Korea-style surveillance state.
A crisis like COVID-19 is perfect justification for any and all measures, says Danaylov, author of Conversations with the Future, “because, when you’re selling physical survival you can justify anything.” A centralized, top-down tracking app that traces people’s contacts in real time is a tempting possibility for people in power. Danaylov, who now lives in Toronto, grew up in the Eastern bloc until he was 14. He remembers state security well.
The future is still foggy, but likely somewhere between a fast-burn and permanent lockdown, with rolling, stay-at-home orders and household quarantines: Pull back on social distancing, turn the economy back on — and clamp down again if infections start to percolate. And repeat until physical distancing no longer becomes necessary.
What then? What sticks? Writing in The Atlantic, Juliette Kayyem, a former U.S. Department of Homeland Security official, envisions a new exodus from densely populated cities, a flocking to the “exurbs. “Airlines will reserve flights according to high or low risk, full-face shields at festivals and ball games. Normally after natural disasters, after the earth stops moving and the floodwaters recede, we gather our wits, mourn our dead and try piecing our lives back together,” Kayyem writes. This crisis is different. It’s like a cancer diagnosis. “The year or years that follow the lifting of stay-at-home orders won’t be true recovery, but something better understood as adaptive recovery, in which we learn to live with the virus even as we root for medical progress.”
COVID-19 arrived in a world that was already trending towards working at home, shopping at home, DoorDash and UberEats, Netflix instead of Cineplex, says University of British Columbia professor and clinical psychologist Steven Taylor. “There has been a trend pre-COVID to make one’s home self-sufficient.” The coronavirus could accelerate those trends, and Taylor worries it could lead to more recluses, more shut-ins, people who create cocoons in their homes or apartments to protect themselves from germs in the outside world.
In fact, fear of infection could make people more weary, more anxious, more germaphobic about trains, planes and shared automobiles. Masks will become a wardrobe staple. No euro-kisses, no high-fives, no handshakes (American physician and immunologist Anthony Fauci recently said that we would never shake hands again.) But how much intimacy would be sacrificed? On Zoom, we’re disembodied from the waist down. Our gazes drift.
“Are we moving to a world where every ‘contact’ (if we can call it that) will have to be scheduled on Zoom, or managed in a non-spontaneous way, keeping distance, and observing rules, and checking that others observe them too?” Deroy asks. This, we may recover from, she said; we may become more familiar with the new rules.
Paradoxically, we may become even more social-seeking once we have to be e-social animals. For we are social animals, first and foremost. If we can’t shake hands, worship together, eat together, the very core of humanity, “what it means to be human and how we thrive,” is undermined, said Danaylov.
People living in “blue zones,” where the emphasis is on community and family and deep social networks — Sardinia, Italy, Okinawa, Japan, Ikaria, Greece, Nicoya, Costa Rica — have the world’s lowest rates of chronic disease and highest concentration of active centenarians.
Spatial distancing is unnatural. Work-from-home orders are liberating for some, burdensome for others. “We are in the midst of a massive ‘real life experiment,” exploring whether our brains and bodies can do without physical proximity,” Deroy and colleagues write in Current Biology.
If there is any perverse upside to the COVID-19 crisis, it’s that it forces us to take seriously that a far worse one may not be far behind. SARS-Cov-2 is plenty infectious, but not nearly as lethal as SARS, which sickened and killed its hosts before it could spread widely. Imagine something as deadly as SARS and as infectious as its successor. We need to be prepared to respond in a much more vigorous way.
We’re all crystal ball-gazing as a means of coping, says Taylor. Most people are resilient, most will come through this relatively unscathed. “Some might actually be emotionally more resilient,” he says.
But we’re also not passive spectators in the Coronavirus TV show, Danaylov says. The so-called “new normal” is not a given. It needs to be publicly discussed and publicly debated, he says.
“Let’s be honest here, we are talking about mortality of maybe between one in 1,000 or one in 100. We still don’t know, but we’re not talking the Great Plague. We’re not talking about nuclear war or three degrees of climate change or artificial intelligence gone rogue or super-enhanced transhumans wreaking havoc, which are all possibilities futurists ponder every day. We’re talking about a relatively weak story that scared the hell out of people, and scared me because it scared people so much that I didn’t expect it would be so profound.”
But we need to be actively engaged in our future. Increased surveillance everywhere, apps for contact tracing may be best for the common good, he says. “But it is the public — us — not the experts and not the politicians who have to ultimately decide,”he adds.
“We need to dig our heels into the ground and say we’re not simply going to accept a ‘new normal’ without debate and discussion and a vote.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020