Will we ever shake hands again? What about hugging grandma? Kissing on a first date (or even going on one)? Will we always have to wear masks and count the days till vaccine appointments?
It feels like the pandemic is changing everything, but as vaccine rollout progresses and we squint at what appears to be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, the question to ask now is whether any real changes we’ve had to adopt during a year of pandemic life will stick around in the years to come.
Predicting the future is hard. Just ask the people who do it for a living: speculative fiction writers like Seattle’s Seanan McGuire.
The author of eight books about future pandemics, McGuire thought nothing would surprise her when COVID-19 flipped our world upside down last year. Instead …
“I got something really, really wrong in all of my pandemic novels,” McGuire said. “And I got the wrong thing wrong. What I got wrong was optimism.”
The Nebula, Hugo and Locus award-winning author realized her books like “Feed” and “Kingdom of Needle and Bone,” written under the pseudonym Mira Grant, had too rosy an outlook when compared to real-life events.
“I wrote [about] diseases that destroyed civilization as we know it,” McGuire said. “But in the lead-up to that destruction, people [in the books] actually acted like their neighbors mattered. They actually listened when told, ‘OK, if you do this thing, it will go away.’”
Instead, we acted like we did (and continue to do so).
“And I don’t understand it. It’s very confusing,” McGuire said. “So optimism was my greatest flaw.”
As we pass 500,000 deaths in the U.S. and commemorate (or, mourn) the one-year anniversary of when our pandemic lives began — Feb. 29, 2020, when a King County patient became the first person in the U.S. reported to die of COVID-19 — we’ve asked folks from all walks of life to join McGuire and play futurist for us. There’s no question COVID-19 has changed our futures and our future behavior — the way we touch, date, vote, spend, consume, work and socialize. The question is: How much?
McGuire now sees an even wider disparity between the rich and the poor, leading to dark scenarios like increased illicit human organ sales, education only for the wealthy and a general lack of what she calls “cultural generosity” as we follow our Calvinist underpinnings to their illogical conclusion. Some of our pandemic prognosticators agree.
“I’ll be honest with you: My biggest worry is that things are not going to change,” author Malka Older said. “I am a disaster sociologist, among other things, and one of the things that you see is that almost every disaster is predicted. And after every disaster, governments and other agencies do evaluations and talk about what went wrong and those lessons very rarely make it into policy. So we see this repeated over and over again.”
Most of our forward-thinkers agreed on the smaller points — and not many of the outcomes are positive. There will be less hand-holding and shaking in our future, more elbow-bumping, namaste-ing and awkward waving. We’re going to be online way more, and AI is not always your friend.
And if you get sweaty navigating around (potentially infectious?) people in the narrow aisles of your local hardware store, that’s not likely to change anytime soon. The way we gather in large numbers will be altered for years to come, especially considering the slow and inequitable rollout of the vaccine.
As Olympia psychologist Dr. Matt Goldenberg put it, there will be no “big collective return” to seminormal life. It’s moving in fits and spurts, and masks appear to be here to stay.
“When it first happened, I definitely pictured a big return to common space,” Goldenberg said. “Now I think it’s not going to be that way. It will be much slower. It will be a transition. I wonder about people who have gotten hired during the pandemic and are working from home. They’ve never seen their co-workers. They’ve never seen the building.”
Goldenberg also wonders about the lonely children. There’s a sizable number of children who will have spent their formative years largely alone, with a small group of caregivers and little social interaction. It’s likely those children will act differently than the freewheeling kids raised during pre-pandemic times.
“So we’ve got some pandemic babies who did not in their first couple of years of life have an experience of being around a lot of people, a lot of caregivers,” Goldenberg said. “I’m really curious to see how those kids deal with stimulation and being around a lot of other people, loud noises, different types of foods and things that a lot of other kids are exposed to.”
Our group of future thinkers uniformly believe some of us will change and others will strive to return to normal — whatever that is — at all costs, continuing our national divide.
Seattle author and IT professional Brenda Cooper reminds us, however, that the future remains in our control. It’s up to us whether it’s more “Back to the Future” or “Mockingjay.”
“We’re going to have to make collective choices,” Cooper said. “We’re kind of at a crossroads or a fork in the road, and Seattle can get worse from here or it can get better from here.
“But I think we’re really at a point where we can make personal choices as we come out of this that will make us a greater city. Or we can keep turning our back. And I think it’s really important how we as individuals act.”
Let’s take a look at what the future might hold.
The Roaring 2020s?
Remember those heady days of March 2020 when pictures of spring breakers partying in the face of oblivion alarmed a nation on lockdown? Or even the New Year’s Eve revelers in Florida?
Those who look back for a living could have easily predicted those scenes. They’ve played out over and over again over the last millennia, on scales large and small.
University of Washington professor Steven Goodreau teaches a class on the history of infectious disease and how it has affected society. He says that Europeans alternated their reaction to the bubonic plague, swinging wildly from piety to, well, wildly swinging over the centuries that the Black Death haunted the Middle Ages.
“There were kind of these polar responses,” Goodreau said. “One was sort of people who became more religious, and there were a lot of traveling mendicants that [had a] sort of ‘repent now or you’ll die’ flavor of things.”
And then, “there was the other extreme of people living for now and partying and, ‘The future’s uncertain, so let’s have a good time now,’ sort of living it up,” Goodreau said.
Goodreau said those looking for a more modern comparison can turn to the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed somewhere between 50 million and 100 million worldwide, mostly over a 16-week span.
The years right after the 1918 flu pandemic were interesting because “things sort of bounced back, and I really don’t know of any kind of long-term social changes that we can pin on it,” Goodreau said. “It happened in the middle of World War I, so there was so much else going on as well. But there’s the question of how much of the ’20s were a reaction to the 1918 flu.”
In the short term, post-COVID-19 pandemic, Goodreau predicts we may see a new version of the Roaring ’20s, vaccines and variants be damned.
“Once travel opens up, people are going to be going wild, having parties and traveling — all of the things that they missed out on. And that will last for a few years in some version,” Goodreau said. “Long term, I think we’ll just settle back into our regular routines.”
Ann Bostrom, an environmental policy professor at UW’s Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy & Governance, agrees those who want to party will find ways. It’s pretty much human nature, no matter what the cost.
“We are social animals,” Bostrom said. “Massive investments in emerging disease surveillance, vaccines and health technologies seem more likely than changes in social gathering customs and proclivities.”
Settling, or maybe not
Some likely future outcomes are sadder, and the future of romantic relationships seems … a little chilly.
A pair of Seattle psychologists have already seen new trends in relationship behavior due to COVID-19, and none of them are positive.
On the front end, the search for new partners is taking a blow as our social circles shrink. Just the simple act of going to work exposed us to new people every day.
“We get to interact over the water cooler or at the latte line,” said psychologist Wallace Wilkins. “And there’ll be some of that, of course, but there won’t be as much of that, which might put more pressure on people to fulfill their social needs romantically and socially. And that means people might not be dating as much. They might settle for somebody rather than having the freedom to really experiment around and to consider other options.”
Settling, of course, leads to other problems. And the pandemic has had a way of exposing those cracks in a relationship.
“Couples that I’ve seen are much, much less tolerant of each other as they were before the pandemic,” said Seattle psychologist Sheppard Salusky. “The cabin fever that’s occurred is creating this pent-up kind of hostility and unwillingness to sort of work things out with people. People are getting divorces at much higher rates and I think that that’s going to translate into a reluctance to engage socially after this thing is over.”
Stack those bills
UW economics professor Fabio Ghironi’s prediction about our post-pandemic spending habits comes with a caveat: “I am a macroeconomist, and many would say that we have a very bad track record at predicting the future.”
Ghironi’s take on our future spending habits sounds pretty convincing, however: “I expect the pandemic to have lingering effects on household precautionary behavior (and therefore savings) that will take time to dissipate — if they ever will,” Ghironi said. “We have learned to live without going out to restaurants and bars, without going to movie theaters, without the amount of travel that we used to do.
“If the crisis of 2008 had not done enough to show the importance of accumulated buffers, the COVID crisis showed once again the importance of being able to draw on accumulated, easily liquidable assets in time of need.”
So will there not be an economy-healing spending boom once everyone’s vaccinated?
“I may very well be underestimating how happy people will be to return as quickly as possible to pre-pandemic spending behaviors,” Ghironi said. “Time will tell.”
Yes, it will.