How long does it take to change a culture? The spread of the coronavirus is a timely test for this! With social-distancing policies strongly in place (Massachusetts has extended its restrictions until May 4th), people must go about their lives as usual but with a few key modifications. However, how many, if any, of our pandemic habits will survive?
People on the Streets
In the United States, we are advised to wear masks in public and are ordered to maintain a length of no less than 6 feet between ourselves and others. Now, when I jog or walk in the open air, I find myself and others making wide circles as if fellow humans were profoundly offensive in some intangible way. Of course, these policies are meant to protect us and reduce the spread of the disease, however, I can’t help but feeling rude or stuck up when I so overtly avoid another person. The severity of the policies is making our nation, if only temporarily, more circumspect when it comes to strangers. Months from now when the virus is seen as less of a threat (hopefully), I wonder how seriously we will take our personal space. Will we sidestep away from someone who stands too closely to us in line? Will we decline a handshake and offer a friendly wave and smile instead?
Days before the stay-at-home orders were put into effect in Massachusetts, an errant cough or loud sniffle could cause a noticeable shift in the atmosphere. At any sign of sickness, we turned our heads out of the line of fire and shifted a few inches away, without trying to draw attention to ourselves. Some people have chronic coughs; I’m sure we all know someone like this, however, in the age of the coronavirus, every cough is an alarm bell. Scientists have drawn up a range of scenarios detailing the lifespan of this crisis. With no medical intervention, the pandemic could end as soon as this autumn with devastating loss of life, or with carefully timed government policies, sometime between summer 2021 and 2022. While I hope this is all baloney, it makes me wonder how long we will be mistrustful of a cough.
Before the coronavirus, a gentle splash of water on our hands was the norm for many of us (admit it) after leaving the loo or before a meal. Now, there are videos circulating showing tips and techniques to make sure every centimeter of skin below the wrist is disinfected. Hand sanitizer bottles have cropped up in my place of work and residence available for public use. I wonder what will happen to hygiene immediately after social distancing. For example, I wonder whether restaurants will present their guests with disposable wipes before their meals or whether first-class cabins will leave their passengers with a travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer.
Whether we want to or not, companies have mandated work-from-home policies. At my organization, we have discussed how to handle sensitive data, how to use videoconferencing, and how to submit and process paperwork that was formerly dealt with in print. An interesting side effect of the pandemic is that companies are fortifying their remote-work capabilities. Will we still be able to take advantage of this infrastructure after the virus? For example, if an employee’s work can be completed 100% online, then could this employee make an argument that they should be able to have a few home-office days each week?
Peanuts, Salads, and Hot Food Buffets
Food is and will always be great, but in the age of the coronavirus, putting out a bowl of peanuts at the bar is no longer a low-risk activity. Dine-in service is banned in the state of Massachusetts at least until May 4th, so restaurants and bars were not forced to confront how they would handle communal food. However, after the crisis has passed, will establishments still operate self-service salad bars and hot food buffets? Before Starbucks closed its doors to diners, they instated a policy that no reusable containers would be accepted. Instead, only the store-supplied cups would be serviced to mitigate the spread of germs. Will Starbucks and other cafes continue these policies, and if so, for how long?
Healthcare, Unemployment, and Benefits
The pandemic has taught us that our social infrastructure is far less resilient than it needs to be. Unfortunately, many businesses have been forced to close their doors, furlough and let go of employees. Many people are dropped without anything more than a few parting words on a typed screen. The government has been struggling to cope with the effects. Stimulus packages have been debated and emergency aid allocated. While ad hoc funding will make at least a little difference to those who need, it is a band aid for the social system. I don’t have to be a political scientist to predict that a primary debate in this next election cycle will be about health care and workers’ rights. It will be interesting to see what future policies are signed into law as a direct result of the pandemic.
What will happen next is unclear, however, I quite enjoy pondering the present. We could live in a post-coronavirus world where hand sanitizer is stationed by every entrance. Decades down the line, an inquisitive child may ask you why this is, and you can passionately tell them all about the “2020 Pandemic” that temporarily brought the world to its knees.
Stay healthy, Dear Reader!