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The Week: Coronavirus: Five Long-term Changes to our Lives

Originally published in The Week

A leaked Public Health England document suggests that the coronavirus outbreak will last until spring 2021 and could see 7.9m people hospitalised in the UK.

“I think it will dip in the summer, towards the end of June, and come back in November, in the way that usual seasonal flu does. I think it will be around for ever, but become less severe over time, as immunity builds up,” he added.

While the mid-term effects of coronavirus are still the subject of speculation, there are some long-term changes that look increasingly likely.

Impact on globalisation

The virus has revealed the hidden costs and fragility of global supply chains, triggering a “backlash” to globalisation, says Robert Armstrong in the Financial Times.

There have been bans on the export of medical supplies, while Donald Trump has even tried to buy exclusive access to Germany’s vaccine-making capability. Attempts to prioritise national interest over international interest have mirrored citizens’ individual acts of self-interest, like stockpiling toilet paper and leaving none for others.

“Not surprisingly, the Covid-19 epidemic is already playing into today’s nationalist narratives,” says Harold James, professor of history and international affairs at Princeton University, in the World Economic Forum. “It is entirely possible that Covid-19 will precipitate the ‘waning of globalisation’.”

But coronavirus “is not the result of a flaw in the organisation of the world economy, in the way people, goods and money flow across the globe,” says Armstrong. “It is a global crisis, not a crisis of globalisation.”

And a global crisis calls for a co-ordinated, global response. “Because we can’t do without globalisation, the imperative will be to find ways of managing and governing it,” says Will Hutton in The Guardian. “No more Britain alone. Faced with a deadly virus, working with others is a matter of life or death.

“This emergency will open the way for more, not less, international governance.”

Impact on global finance

The global economy has already suffered badly from the spread of coronavirus.

The virus is “the major uncertainty in the global economy” with “the potential to trigger a worldwide recession”, says Forbes.

Rabobank stated on Tuesday – in the wake of Black Monday – that “a global recession is now all but certain”, while predicting global growth to hit 1.6% of GDP by the end of the year, CNBC reports.

Countries are pledging billions in their attempt to swerve the worst of the economic downturn.

The UK chancellor Rishi Sunak announced in his Budget last Wednesday that the government would provide “whatever extra resources the NHS needs… whether it’s millions or billions of pounds, whatever it needs, whatever it costs”.

Of the £30bn spending package Sunak announced, £12bn was pledged to tackle the impact of coronavirus.

But global efforts to ease the economic effects can only do so much, says The Guardian.

“It also seems likely that the economic pain will go on for longer than originally estimated,” writes Larry Elliott in the paper. “There is also a question of how long it will take consumer and business confidence to recover. Policy action by central banks and finance ministries can help in this respect but only so much.

“The chances are that the imminent recession will be U-shaped: a steep decline followed by a period of bumping along the bottom. There will be recovery but it will take time and only after much damage has been caused,” says Elliott.

“The coronavirus epidemic has come with extraordinary, intense uncertainty,” says The Atlantic. “Officials are not sure how many cases there are and how deadly the virus is. Businesses and households are uncertain of how long the danger will last and what measures governments might take to counter it. People are afraid, as the market panic demonstrates, and it may take months for that fear to abate.”

Impact on working habits

The coronavirus lockdown in countries like Italy and China, and restrictions on movement in many others, has led to a sudden and dramatic change in working practices.

Working from home has gradually increased in popularity, with more than 1.54m British people doing so for their main job in 2018, according to the ONS Labour Force Survey. That figure was up from 884,000 in 2008.

But coronavirus has forced many people who previously worked in the office all or most of the time to work from home.

And the change is likely to be permanent, Karen Harris, managing director of a working trends consultancy, told Bloomberg. “Once effective work-from-home policies are established, they are likely to stick,” said Harris.

Alex Hern, The Guardian’s technology editor, agrees. “It looks increasingly as if the situation will not ever go back to how it was: many employees for companies who have sent all staff home are already starting to question why they had to go in to the office in the first place.”

Impact on consumer habits

Coronavirus has already led to a significant short-term change in consumer habits, even if that change is mainly people buying more toilet paper and stockpiling penne.

But there will be long-term changes felt across the world.

“Consumption is driven by very strong motivations, like emotion, identity and social connection. Those motivations aren’t going anywhere,” Erica Carranza, vice-president of consumer psychology at market research firm Chadwick Martin Bailey, told Forbes. “But the values, habits and norms that shape what we consume and how we consume could shift dramatically.”

People may be more inclined to make choices based on their “underlying sense of identity”, says Forbes. “So, for example, people may be more likely to choose environmentally-conscious brands in the future, a trend that we already see in the culture.”

Impact on investment in science

In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned of a coming “disease X”, a placeholder name for a pathogen that could cause a pandemic but was not yet known to scientists.

Many experts – including those in the WHO research group who made the warning – believe coronavirus is the disease X they feared.

But despite warnings, governments across the world failed to invest enough and prepare for a potential pandemic. And despite pledges of investment following Sars (2003) and Mers (2012), interest in fighting pandemics went away and has left many countries underprepared.

“Too often, the surge of research attention and investment that novel outbreaks generate quickly wane when those outbreaks subside and other priorities take their place,” said Jason Schwartz, assistant professor at Yale’s Department of Health Policy and Management.

Bruno Canard, a virologist at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, said that some countries, most notably in the EU, launched co-ordinated research programmes following Sars, reports The Economic Times.

But when the financial crisis of 2008 hit, funding was cut he said, leaving a “scientific world on financial life support”.

Scientists now hope that the lessons not learned before coronavirus will finally be adopted, and the world may be better prepared for future pandemics.