For many Americans right now, the scale of the coronavirus crisis calls to mind 9/11 or the 2008 financial crisis—events that reshaped society in lasting ways, from how we travel and buy homes, to the level of security and surveillance we’re accustomed to, and even to the language we use.
Politico Magazine surveyed more than thirty smart, macro thinkers this week, and they have some news for you: Buckle in. This could be bigger.
A global, novel virus that keeps us contained in our homes—maybe for months—is already reorienting our relationship to government, to the outside world, even to each other. Some changes these experts expect to see in the coming months or years might feel unfamiliar or unsettling: Will nations stay closed? Will touch become taboo? What will become of restaurants?
But crisis moments also present opportunity: more sophisticated and flexible use of technology, less polarization, a revived appreciation for the outdoors and life’s other simple pleasures. No one knows exactly what will come, but here is our best stab at a guide to the unknown ways that society—government, healthcare, the economy, our lifestyles and more—will change.
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The personal becomes dangerous.
Deborah Tannen is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown and author, most recently, of You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships.
On 9/11, Americans discovered we are vulnerable to calamities we thought only happened in distant lands. The 2008 financial crisis told us we also can suffer the calamities of past eras, like the economic meltdown of the Great Depression. Now, the 1918 flu pandemic is a sudden specter in our lives.
This loss of innocence, or complacency, is a new way of being-in-the-world that we can expect to change our doing-in-the-world. We know now that touching things, being with other people and breathing the air in an enclosed space can be risky. How quickly that awareness recedes will be different for different people, but it can never vanish completely for anyone who lived through this year. It could become second nature to recoil from shaking hands or touching our faces—and we may all fall heir to society-wide OCD, as none of us can stop washing our hands.
The comfort of being in the presence of others might be replaced by a greater comfort with absence, especially with those we don’t know intimately. Instead of asking, “Is there a reason to do this online?” we’ll be asking, “Is there any good reason to do this in person?”—and might need to be reminded and convinced that there is. Unfortunately, if unintendedly, those without easy access to broadband will be further disadvantaged. The paradox of online communication will be ratcheted up: It creates more distance, yes, but also more connection, as we communicate more often with people who are physically farther and farther away—and who feel safer to us because of that distance.