|An unintended consequence of COVID-19 is that the practice of social distancing might remain long after the threat posed by the virus subsides.|
It seems as if COVID-19 (aka the Coronavirus) has appeared out of nowhere. At the end of 2019, we were all unwrapping out holiday gifts and looking hopefully into a new decade. Now, in March of 2020, schools are closed for weeks, if not months, major tech conferences are canceled, the NBA has suspended the season and the shelves at Walmart and Costco are bare of daily essentials.
We’ve gone from zero reported cases at the end of January 2020 to over 120,000 worldwide six weeks later. (See Figure 1, below).
Figure 1: Total confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of March 12, 2020. Source: By Our World in Data – OWID, CC BY 4.0.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that we are in a pandemic. COVID-19 is spreading around the globe and its spreading fast. People are dying from it. As of March 13, 2020, sources report that Italy had 1,016 deaths among the 15,113 cases of infection. Another source reports that in mainland China, at least 3,158 people died from the 80,778 infected. The number keeps growing. What’s amazing is that in November of 2019 there were no reports of deaths from COVID-19. To say that this is the stuff of science fiction made real is no understatement.
Social Distancing as a Tactical Response to COVID-19
COVID-19 is a contagious disease. The rate of infection is pretty high when people gather together in large groups. To address the risks, gatherings of over 250 people have been discouraged, if not banned outright by business and government. This tactic has been given a name, “social distancing.”
Social distancing means that we keep our distance from large groups of people. As with any change in social behavior, there are economic impacts. Most people go to a workplace to do work. Take away access to the workplace and work stops, the economy comes to a halt. At least that’s how it was in the old days.
Today we live in a wired world that makes online interactions as easy as a stroll down Main Street. As a result, many of us work online thus allowing commerce to continue even when access to the physical workplace is restricted. Yet, most of us—working online or not—are still tethered to a common, physical workplace, at least we were until COVID-19 kicked in. Now we’re going home and telecommuting. Once the threats posed by the virus have passed we’ll all go back to business as usual. This current episode of social distancing will be but a memory.
Or will it?
What if social distancing becomes a way of life that stays with us for the foreseeable future? What if we all just get so accustomed to social distancing—employer and employee alike—that we just stay home after this all blows over? What then? Think about it. It could very well happen and the implications are significant.
Social Distancing Is Not New
Social distancing has been a trend even before COVID-19 came along. Before the introduction of mass-produced private homes, people either lived in cities or in the rural countryside. Urban dwellers congregated in public spaces, Venice Beach, Boston Common or Central Park for example. They ran into each other walking down the street. They rideshared on mass transit.
Then the automobile came along and social distancing set in. More people started to prefer riding in the isolation of the privately-owned automobile than on a crowded city bus or subway. The interstate highway system emerged to support the millions of new cars on the road. These highways and the 30-year fixed mortgage gave birth to suburban living. Also, television reduced movie-going to a predominantly entertainment experience. Who needs to see a newsreel in a movie theater when the news is getting piped into your television set every day?
The suburban house became the castle of any man or woman who could cough up a relatively small down payment to buy one. The next thing you know the house becomes the social center: barbecues, cocktail parties, Super Bowl Sunday and legions of teenagers wreaking havoc at alcohol-fueled backyard pool-parties while their parents are out of town.
Eventually, the introduction of video streaming (neé cable-based HBO) big-screen TVs, and movies on the demand made the family entertainment center a permanent fixture in residential house design. Finally, along comes high-speed internet and dad’s den gets replaced by dad’s home office and mom’s home office.
But, we still had to go to the store to get stuff. Hence the rise of the shopping mall as a common ground in which to socialize. And, we still had to go to work to pay for it all … for a while, anyway, until Amazon comes along and brings social distancing to the shopping experience and telecommuting gizmos such as Slack, Zoom and a plethora of mobile apps make working from home a feasible way to conduct business. The only catch is that employers needed to get on board with telecommuting. Some did and some didn’t until COVID-19 started killing people. Now, they’re on board.
Living in a Social Distancing World
COVID-19 is forcing everyone to stay put. Every day an increasing number of companies are mandating that if you can work at home, you are to work at home. Late-night television shows are broadcasting empty theaters. There’s even talk of canceling the Democratic National Convention. It seems as if we’re all going home.
The risk is that we just might stay there.
Let’s face it, we’ve created a digital infrastructure that can support a situation in which most of the population of the developed world stays in a state of social distancing permanently. All the things required to make it happen are in place. Today, we can buy just about all we need online and have it delivered to our doorstep. An increasing number of the ordinary activities of daily life happens on the internet, everything from a casual chat on Skype to a game of cards with our friends on Trickster Cards, are typical. And yes, people have been having romantic interludes online since personal computers could support video conferencing.
In the not-too-distant-future, home healthcare devices will do away with most visits to the doctor’s office. Soon, if we need to get somewhere, we’ll call a driverless vehicle to get us there. Manufacturing automation will continue to improve to the point where we won’t work in factories directly anymore. We’ll just control the robots that do work in the factories from computers in our home office.
As finance and services continue to become a growing part of the economy, the work that industry requires can be done from home, too—quite easily in fact. Yes, we’ll still need human plumbers, electricians and nurses. But these workers will occupy a special place in a socially distanced world. They’ll be well vetted and well protected.
So, the long and short of it is that current events might very well be a harbinger of things to come. And, if anything, the hazards of COVID-19 are pushing forward the propensity to make social distancing the norm. When that happens the really big question to ask is this: If all of us are socially distanced by default and more of our interaction with, and understanding of, the world comes from that which we see and hear on cell phones, computers and television sets, how will we know what is real and what is well-contrived fiction? It’s an important question that deserves serious consideration. I hope we can answer it. Then, once answered, the even bigger question to ask is: Will we care?