The COVID-19 pandemic is not yet over, not by a long shot. The virus continues to rampage through much of the world, particularly in places where vaccine supply is limited or where vaccination campaigns have failed to pierce clouds of misinformation and disinformation.
The immediate challenge is acute. It demands the world’s full attention. But it’s not going to last forever. At some point in the future, and hopefully sooner rather than later, we’ll be able to say that the COVID-19 pandemic is through.
Let’s make no mistake. When that point arrives, it’ll greet a very different world. The pandemic might end, but there’ll be no going back to the way things were. The world has already changed forever, even if we haven’t grasped the magnitude of that change quite yet.
To be sure, some of those changes are apparent already. As are many of the pandemic’s indirect effects — effects that will echo for years to come, whether they can be properly considered permanent or not.
1. More Emphasis on Behavioral Healthcare
It’s no secret that the pandemic revealed an urgent need for better access to behavioral health services. As Oceans Healthcare notes in its recent Medium post, an estimated 25% of adults age 55 or older suffer from a mental health disorder that is not considered part of the normal course of aging. Many of those older adults sharply curtailed in-person activity during the pandemic, forgoing the behavioral health services they (or family members acting on their behalf) would normally seek.
Coming out of the pandemic, we’re likely to see renewed investment in behavioral health services and access. We’re also likely to see policymakers address the need for mental health care with renewed urgency.
2. Better Remote Healthcare Services
One upshot of that urgency is almost certain to involve targeted investments in behavioral telehealth — remote behavioral healthcare services.
Telehealth’s benefits aren’t limited to mental health, of course. Early in the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced major policy changes that dramatically increased access to telehealth across a whole range of healthcare segments. Though initially positioned as temporary, it’s clear that those changes will stick, and that the balance of healthcare delivery will shift in favor of remote arrangements moving forward.
3. More Flexible Work Arrangements (And More Remote Work)
Remote arrangements are here to stay elsewhere in the economy as well. Even as many large employers move ahead with “back to the office” plans, the white-collar shift to remote work is almost certainly here to stay. Looking ahead, work arrangements will be more flexible, less centralized, and more accommodating of employees’ personal needs. This shift has already reverberated across the real estate market, driving up prices for residential real estate in once-affordable “lifestyle” destinations across the western U.S. and depressing office activity in big cities.
4. Greater Public Investment in People and Infrastructure
The pandemic has been a collective shock like no other in memory. Localized conflicts, famines, disease outbreaks, political unrest — awful as these threats to order may be, they’re threats to local order. Elsewhere, things carry on as before.
The COVID-19 pandemic is different. It affected and will continue to affect everyone on the planet in one way or another. Which means it demands different solutions than those applied locally.
One such solution to deal with the economic fallout of COVID-19 was the monetary stimulus. Most national governments increased public spending during the pandemic to strengthen unemployment compensation, prop up revenue-deprived businesses, and provide basic necessities for at-risk populations. Those efforts helped stave off economic collapse and saved countless lives.
From this frantic mobilization, policymakers learned that the public supports targeted increases in public investment. That’s the thinking behind the Biden administration’s big plans for infrastructure and human capital investment — plans that, as proposed, represent around $4 trillion in new spending. Whatever becomes of these plans in Congress, they won’t be the last ambitious public spending measures to come out of the pandemic.
The Pandemic Will End. But the World Won’t Ever Be the Same.
It’s worth saying again and again and again. The COVID-19 pandemic will end, eventually. Yet it’s already clear that the world won’t ever be the same.
The pandemic caused some of the trends or outcomes we’ve explored here. It accelerated others. In each case, the world would look very different had the SARS-CoV-2 virus remained bottled up in an animal reservoir.
What’s done is done. Those of us left after the pandemic fades away for good will be responsible for reshaping a world forever changed by it — and applying the lessons we learned from it, painful as they may be.