The global pandemic is not over, but it is not premature to examine potential long-term impacts. Ultimately, new regulations will emerge, designed to better prepare our nation for the next crisis. Policy makers will continue to debate causes of the pandemic, launch investigations, assign blame, and propose solutions. However, policy is beyond the scope of this article. This article looks forward, but in order to do so, it is first necessary to critically analyze the past 18 months. There are important lessons from the COVID-19 crisis that, hopefully, inform future health and economic policies.
Confronted with a novel coronavirus in spring 2020, policy makers responded with familiar methods developed in much different eras. For example, epidemiological models that continue to guide policy date back to the 1950s and rely on data that proved unreliable. Similar to healthcare, models still utilized for economic policy also date back to that era. Traditional economic models rely on aggregate, top-down data and include assumptions that are often unrealistic.
COVID-19 has affected people quite differently. Disease severity has been highly sensitive to comorbidities and demographic factors, and symptoms and transmission rates varied widely. These heterogeneous qualities presented challenges for managing the spread. They also contributed to multiple, competing theories about how best to treat the disease.
Because some people are more susceptible to COVID-19 and other people are more likely to spread the virus, some researchers have explored new methods and gone beyond traditional approaches. They have built adaptive models from real-time, granular data, such as smart thermometer readings, satellite imagery, credit card usage, and key word searches. The data was compiled from applications created for ubiquitous technology platforms such as smartphones and wearable devices. Several of the adaptive models have proven to be both more accurate and reliable than the ones that had been used for decades.
Reliance on outdated methods should not be necessary during the next crisis. That is an important lesson as newer approaches should facilitate quicker, more effective responses. Technology now exists that provides insight into how people actually behave as opposed to how the average person is assumed to behave. Researchers have built models from data that better define and measure inflation, for example. There are also newer models that more accurately predict the transmissibility of a viral pathogen. The use of technology that collects and analyzes the best available data is an important lesson from the pandemic. The data could be used to develop better, more targeted policies. Better policies should, in turn, result in better outcomes.
Another lesson is that, similar to other crises, COVID-19 has accelerated trends already in place. For instance, subscriptions to video streaming services grew rapidly to fill the void of traditional forms of entertainment that became temporarily unavailable. Electronic commerce became necessary for the safe delivery of basic household needs. The explosive growth of e-commerce during regional economic shutdowns accelerated the Darwinian demise of many brick-and-mortar retail concepts.
Society is returning to “normal.” However, there is debate as to how “normal” will be defined. COVID-19 reinforced the view that crises serve as catalysts for change. Academics have already published prognostications as to how society will change, but inasmuch as some change is inevitable, there will also be a strong desire to return to the way things were. Technology allowed many business-
es to operate efficiently with employees
in distant locales. Zoom and other video conferencing platforms confirmed “work from anywhere” was possible without substantial reductions in productivity. These facts suggest “normal” could include a certain percentage of workers who never return to the office. A person’s work life and home life might no longer involve physical distance.
However, some employers argue “work from anywhere” reduced the frequency of spontaneous, collaborative engagements crucial to the creative process. As a society, one vital lesson of the pandemic has been the importance of face-to-face connections. It is likely that society will never again take for granted the ability to gather with friends and family. It is, therefore, to be expected that certain job functions will remain “work from anywhere,” whereas others will require a return to the office.
The global economy is essentially an adaptive system of interconnected networks. Companies have invested for decades to expand their global reach. Imagine a complex design with nodes and edges that join together in a shifting and growing web of connections. A node is simply a redistribution point, and the strength of a network derives from connections between nodes. However, the vulnerability of a network is dependent on those same nodes.
Companies also invested to optimize operations with an intense focus on efficiency improvements. They eliminated redundancies and constructed supply chains often around a single source. By doing so, supply chains became more and more vulnerable to small disruptions, often at a single node. In effect, modern economic systems traded security for efficiency.
“Without global collaboration and cooperation, the world would not be emerging from the pandemic. That is a source of tremendous optimism for our future.”