When CEOs visit The Washington Post these days to talk about what’s ahead in the business world, we often hear the same message: Many of the changes driven by the coronavirus pandemic are likely to be permanent. After it’s over, we’ll have a “new normal” that will look and feel different from the way we were living before.
Dara Khosrowshahi, the chief executive of Uber, was the latest business leader to describe this post-pandemic reality. In a conversation streamed Monday on Washington Post Live, he predicted that his company’s Uber Eats courier service, which exploded in popularity after the lockdown, will be about equal in size to its traditional ride-share business going forward, after the pandemic is over.
Data from polling organizations, consultants and research analysts all make similar points. Some aspects of life will return to the way they were before, but many won’t. A September study of 13,200 Americans by the Pew Research Center reported that 51 percent believed their lives would remain changed in major ways.
Researchers offer some baseline predictions. Technology will allow people to work, shop and study remotely, and many people will continue the habits they’ve acquired since March. Nimble companies and workers will race ahead; others may be left behind. Racial and economic inequalities may deepen unless they’re addressed forcefully.
The pandemic, like past national crises, has demonstrated the nation’s flexibility, as well as its vulnerability. The federal government may have been paralyzed because of political divisions and poor leadership, but studies show that private businesses and many state and local governments adapted with astonishing speed.
A report this month by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. found that companies had shifted to remote work more than 40 times faster than they expected possible. Interactions with customers for North American companies are now 65 percent digital, compared to 41 percent pre-crisis. Changes made to cope with the pandemic – like moving to cloud computing or online purchasing – are “likely to stick in the long term.”
The shock of the pandemic quickly altered some consumer habits. A July report from McKinsey found that Americans were spending more on groceries, household supplies and home entertainment and less on almost everything else. Seventy-five percent said they had changed their shopping behavior, and most said they planned to continue.
Health has obviously been a paramount issue during the pandemic, and changes in this sector are likely to stick, too. A July study by Accenture of 2,700 patients in the United States and other industrial countries found that 70 percent had canceled or deferred in-person treatment, but that 9 out of 10 thought their care was as good or better than before and 44 percent were using new devices or apps to manage conditions.
Americans may demand a stronger social safety net, post-pandemic. A September report by the Pew Research Center found that 63 percent of Americans agreed it is the “government’s responsibility to make sure all Americans have health care coverage,” compared with 59 percent a year ago.
The COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted post-traumatic stress on adults and children, which may persist. Studies this year in China, Britain, Spain, Italy and Canada of COVID-19 patients found PTSD symptoms, such as depression, anxiety and sleeplessness, according to Psychiatric Times. A study of 8,079 junior and senior high school students in China found that 43.7 percent experienced depressive symptoms and 37.4 percent experienced anxiety during the epidemic period.
A cruel aspect of the pandemic is that it has harmed minority groups most and exacerbated America’s racial and economic inequalities. Blacks and Hispanics are far more likely to say they have had trouble paying bills or rent, or have a family member who lost work or had to take a pay cut, according to a September survey by the Pew Research Center.
Like the “greatest generation” that emerged from depression and war, the pandemic generation has been tested – and it seems to be deepening its commitment to a diverse and sustainable America.
A Pew Research Center study found a significant increase since 2016 in the percentage of millennials who believe it’s good that America will soon have a majority of Black, Latino and Asian citizens. The millennial generation is also passionate about the threat of climate change: 92 percent of Biden’s millennial or younger supporters say it’s important; so do 49 percent of Trump supporters in that group.
The shared hardship of the pandemic will change America, as surely as did the Great Depression and World War II. The pain is obvious now, but so is the resilience. We’ll be a different country in the future, but maybe a stronger one.