Revived trust in institutions.
The coronavirus pandemic, one hopes, will jolt Americans into a realization that the institutions and values Donald Trump has spent his presidency assailing are essential to the functioning of a democracy—and to its ability to grapple effectively with a national crisis. A recognition that government institutions—including those entrusted with protecting our health, preserving our liberties and overseeing our national security—need to be staffed with experts (not political loyalists), that decisions need to be made through a reasoned policy process and predicated on evidence-based science and historical and geopolitical knowledge (not on Trump-ian “alternative facts,” political expediency or what Thomas Pynchon called, in Gravity’s Rainbow, “a chaos of peeves, whims, hallucinations and all-round assholery”). Instead of Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, we need to return to multilateral diplomacy, and to the understanding that co-operation with allies—and adversaries, too—is especially necessary when it comes to dealing with global problems like climate change and viral pandemics.
Most of all, we need to remember that public trust is crucial to governance—and that trust depends on telling the truth. As the historian John M. Barry wrote in his 2004 book The Great Influenza—a harrowing chronicle of the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide—the main lesson from that catastrophe is that “those in authority must retain the public’s trust” and “the way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one.”
Expect a political uprising.
The aftermath of the coronavirus is likely to include a new political uprising—an Occupy Wall Street 2.0, but this time much more massive and angrier. Once the health emergency is over, we will see the extent to which rich, well-connected and well-resourced communities will have been taken care of, while contingent, poor and stigmatized communities will have been thoroughly destroyed. Moreover, we will have seen how political action is possible—multitrillion dollar bailouts and projects can be mobilized quickly—but only if the cause is considered urgent. This mismatch of long-disregarded populations finally getting the message that their needs are not only chronically unattended, but also chronically dismissed as politically required, will likely have drastic, pitchfork consequences.
Electronic voting goes mainstream.
One victim of COVID-19 will be the old model of limiting voting to polling places where people must gather in close proximity for an extended period of time. We have been gradually moving away from this model since 2010, when Congress passed a law requiring electronic balloting for military and overseas voters, and some states now require accessible at-home voting for blind and disabled voters. Over the long term, as election officials grapple with how to allow for safe voting in the midst of a pandemic, the adoption of more advanced technology—including secure, transparent, cost-effective voting from our mobile devices—is more likely. In the near-term, a hybrid model—mobile-phone voting with paper ballots for tabulation—is emerging in the 2020 election cycle in certain jurisdictions. We should expect that option to become more widespread. To be clear, proven technologies now exist that offer mobile, at-home voting while still generating paper ballots. This system is not an idea; it is a reality that has been used in more than 1,000 elections for nearly a decade by our overseas military and disabled voters. This should be the new normal.
Election Day will become Election Month.
How do we hold an election in the time of coronavirus? By making it easier to vote when citizens want and where they want, so that Election Day doesn’t become a health risk of big crowds and long lines. The change will come through expanded early voting and no-excuse mail-in balloting, effectively turning Election Day into Election Month (or maybe months, depending on the closeness of the election and the leniency for late-arriving ballots postmarked on Election Day). This transition requires considerable thought and planning to ensure that all communities are treated equally, and to prevent fraud. But facing the prospect of crowded polling places staffed by at-risk poll workers (who tend to be older), states will come under tremendous pressure to develop plans so that the election can go on regardless. This will mark a permanent change. Once citizens experience the convenience of early voting and/or voting by mail, they won’t want to give it up. More convenience will generate higher voter turnout, potentially transforming partisan competition in America.
Voting by mail will become the norm.
To date, five states—Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland and Ohio—have postponed their presidential primaries. More states may well follow. But these elections cannot be put off indefinitely. Parties need to hold their conventions and select a presidential nominee before the autumn general election. The coronavirus might, according to some reports, continue to menace Americans through June or even the end of summer. In most states, this means elections policy is inviting an electoral train wreck. The clock is ticking.
Fortunately, there is a time-tested means for the country to escape the choice between protecting public health and allowing voters to exercise their right to vote: voting by mail. Military members overseas have voted by mail for decades. Some states, such as Washington, Oregon and Utah, already let everyone vote at home. They send every voter a ballot and then let them choose to cast it either via mail or at a polling place. Unfortunately, most states have set the toggle to voting in-person and requiring individuals to request to vote by mail. Voters already receive registration cards and elections guides by mail. Why not ballots? Given the risks that in-person voting poses, states now have urgent cause to move immediately to modernize their hidebound systems—and we should soon expect them to.
The COVID-19 pandemic poses an unprecedented threat to the way that most people vote: in person on Election Day. But there are several obvious steps we can take to ensure that no one has to choose between their health and their right to vote.
First, every eligible voter should be mailed a ballot and a self-sealing return envelope with prepaid postage. All ballots postmarked by Election Day should be accepted and counted. Ballots cast by mail should not be discarded based on errors or technicalities without first notifying voters of any defects and giving them an opportunity to correct them. At the same time, states can preserve in-person voting opportunities for people who need them—such as voters with disabilities, with limited English proficiency, with limited postal access or who register after mail-in ballots have been sent out.
Elections administrators should receive extra resources to recruit younger poll workers, to ensure their and in-person voters’ health and safety, and to expand capacity to quickly and accurately process what will likely be an unprecedented volume of mail-in votes. Moreover, states should eliminate restrictions prohibiting elections officials from processing mail-in ballots until Election Day (15 states currently have such restrictions). And the media should help set public expectations that, in an environment with record levels of mail-in voting, tabulating results and forecasting winners may take longer than we have grown accustomed to.
If a state cannot do all of the above, it should take as many of these steps as possible. The current crisis makes these changes all the more necessary—and all the more likely to happen.
More restraints on mass consumption.
In the best-case scenario, the trauma of the pandemic will force society to accept restraints on mass consumer culture as a reasonable price to pay to defend ourselves against future contagions and climate disasters alike. For decades, we’ve sated our outsized appetites by encroaching on an ever-expanding swath of the planet with our industrial activities, forcing wild species to cram into remaining fragments of habitat in closer proximity to ours. That’s what has allowed animal microbes such as SARS-COV2—not to mention hundreds of others from Ebola to Zika—to cross over into human bodies, causing epidemics. In theory, we could decide to shrink our industrial footprint and conserve wildlife habitat, so that animal microbes stay in animals’ bodies, instead. More likely, we’ll see less directly relevant transformations. Universal basic income and mandatory paid sick leave will move from the margins to the center of policy debates. The end of mass quarantine will unleash pent-up demand for intimacy and a mini baby-boom. The hype around online education will be abandoned, as a generation of young people forced into seclusion will reshape the culture around a contrarian appreciation for communal life.
Stronger domestic supply chains.
In the ancient days of 2018, the Trump administration was panned by experts for imposing tariffs on imported steel on a global basis for national security reasons. As the president tweeted at the time, “IF YOU DON’T HAVE STEEL, YOU DON’T HAVE A COUNTRY!” But to most economists, China was the real reason for disruptions in the metal market, and imposing tariffs additionally on U.S. allies was nonsensical, the argument went: After all, even if America lost its steel industry altogether, we would still be able to count on supplies from allies in North America and Europe.
Fast forward to 2020. Just this week, U.S. allies are considering substantial border restrictions, including shutting down ports and restricting exports. While there’s no indication that the coronavirus per se is being transmitted through commerce, one can imagine a perfect storm in which deep recessions plus mounting geopolitical tensions limit America’s access to its normal supply chains and the lack of homegrown capacity in various product markets limits the government’s ability to respond nimbly to threats. Reasonable people can differ over whether Trump’s steel tariffs were the right response at the right time. In the years ahead, however, expect to see more support from Democrats, Republicans, academics and diplomats for the notion that government has a much bigger role to play in creating adequate redundancy in supply chains—resilient even to trade shocks from allies. This will be a substantial reorientation from even the very recent past.
The coronavirus pandemic will create pressure on corporations to weigh the efficiency and costs/benefits of a globalized supply chain system against the robustness of a domestic-based supply chain. Switching to a more robust domestic supply chain would reduce dependence on an increasingly fractured global supply system. But while this would better ensure that people get the goods they need, this shift would likely also increase costs to corporations and consumers.
The inequality gap will widen.
Discussions of inequality in America often focus on the growing gap between the bottom 99 percent and the top 1 percent. But the other gap that has grown is between the top fifth and all the rest—and that gap will be exacerbated by this crisis.
The wealthiest fifth of Americans have made greater income gains than those below them in the income hierarchy in recent decades. They are more often members of married, highly educated couples. As high-salary professionals or managers, they live in Internet-ready homes that will accommodate telecommuting—and where children have their own bedrooms and aren’t as disruptive to a work-from-home schedule. In this crisis, most will earn steady incomes while having necessities delivered to their front doors.
The other 80 percent of Americans lack that financial cushion. Some will be OK, but many will struggle with job losses and family burdens. They are more likely to be single parents or single-income households. They’re less able to work from home, and more likely employed in the service or delivery sectors, in jobs that put them at greater danger of coming into contact with the coronavirus. In many cases, their children will not gain educationally at home, because parents will not be able to teach them, or their households might lack access to the high-speed Internet that enables remote instruction.
A hunger for diversion.
Some trends already underway will probably accelerate—for example, using voice technology to control entryways, security and the like. In the short term, universities will add courses on pandemics, and scientists will devise research projects to improve forecasting, treatment and diagnosis. But history suggests another outcome, as well. After the disastrous 1918-19 Spanish flu and the end of World War I, many Americans sought carefree entertainment, which the introduction of cars and the radio facilitated. Young women newly able to vote under the 19th Amendment bobbed their hair, frequented speakeasies and danced the Charleston. The economy quickly rebounded and flourished for about 10 years, until irrational investment tilted the United States and the world into the Great Depression. Probably, given past behavior, when this pandemic is over, human beings will respond with the same sense of relief and a search for community, relief from stress and pleasure.
Less communal dining—but maybe more cooking.
For the past few years, Americans have spent more money on food prepared outside the home than on buying and making their meals. But, now, with restaurants mostly closed and as isolation increases, many people will learn or relearn how to cook over the next weeks. Maybe they will fall back in love with cooking, though I won’t hold my breath, or perhaps delivery will triumph over everything else. Sit-down restaurants also could close permanently as people frequent them less; it is likely there will be many fewer sit-down restaurants in Europe and the United States. We will be less communal at least for a while.
A revival of parks.
People often see parks as a destination for something specific, like soccer fields, barbecues or playgrounds, and all of those functions must now be avoided. But that doesn’t make the parks any less valuable. I’m sheltering in place in Brooklyn with my family, and every day, the one time we go outside is to walk a loop north through Brooklyn Bridge Park and south down the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. I’m seeing people asking Golden Gate Park to close the roads so there’s even more space for people. In Britain, the National Trust is trying to open more gardens and parks for free. Urban parks—in which most major cities have made significant investments over the past decade—are big enough to accommodate both crowds and social distancing. It helps that it is spring in the northern hemisphere.
Society might come out of the pandemic valuing these big spaces even more, not only as the backdrop to major events and active uses, but as an opportunity to be together visually. I’ve been writing a book about shopping malls, and I would certainly not recommend a visit right now (all those virus-carrying surfaces). But, in suburban communities, malls have historically served the same function: somewhere to go, somewhere to be together. What we have right now is parks. After this is all over, I would love to see more public investment in open, accessible, all-weather places to gather, even after we no longer need to stay six feet apart.
A change in our understanding of ‘change.’
“Paradigm shift” is among the most overused phrases in journalism. Yet the coronavirus pandemic may be one case where it applies. American society is familiar with a specific model of change, operating within the existing parameters of our liberal democratic institutions, mostly free market and society of expressive individualism. But the coronavirus doesn’t just attack the immune system. Like the Civil War, Great Depression and World War II, it has the potential to infect the foundations of free society. State and local government are moving at varying and sometimes contrary speeds to address a crisis of profound dimensions. The global economy has entered the opening stages of a recession that has the potential to become a depression. Already, large parts of America have shut down entirely. Americans have said goodbye to a society of frivolity and ceaseless activity in a flash, and the federal government is taking steps more often seen during wartime. Our collective notions of the possible have changed already. If the danger the coronavirus poses both to individual health and to public health capacity persists, we will be forced to revise our very conception of “change.” The paradigm will shift.
The tyranny of habit no more.
Humans are not generally disposed to radical departures from their daily rounds. But the recent fantasy of “optimizing” a life—for peak performance, productivity, efficiency—has created a cottage industry that tries to make the dreariest possible lives sound heroic. Jordan Peterson has been commanding lost male souls to make their beds for years now. The Four-Hour Workweek, The Power of Habit and Atomic Habits urge readers to automate certain behaviors to keep them dutifully overworking and under-eating.
But COVID-19 suggests that Peterson (or any other habit-preaching martinet) is not the leader for our time. Instead, consider Albert Camus, who, in The Plague, blames the obliteration of a fictional Algerian town by an epidemic on one thing: consistency. “The truth is,” Camus writes of the crushingly dull port town, “everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits.” The habit-bound townspeople lack imagination. It takes them far too long to take in that death is stalking them, and it’s past time to stop taking the streetcar, working for money, bowling and going to the movies.
Maybe, as in Camus’ time, it will take the dual specters of autocracy and disease to get us to listen to our common sense, our imaginations, our eccentricities—and not our programming. A more expansive and braver approach to everyday existence is now crucial so that we don’t fall in line with Trump-like tyrannies, cant and orthodoxy, and environmentally and physiologically devastating behaviors (including our favorites: driving cars, eating meat, burning electricity). This current plague time might see a recharged commitment to a closer-to-the-bone worldview that recognizes we have a short time on earth, the Doomsday Clock is a minute from midnight, and living peacefully and meaningfully together is going to take much more than bed-making and canny investments. The Power of No Habits.