I’m going to do something I don’t normally like to do: speculate about the future without a surfeit of evidence. That’s not to say I have no evidence on which to base these thoughts, but I do have a brain that’s trained to try to put together a full picture from tiny shards of fact.
We know how epidemics and pandemics work: Usually a large initial outbreak, which eventually is either controlled or exhausts itself, followed by secondary outbreaks, often seasonal, until there is either sufficient herd immunity or a vaccine. Effective treatments for the symptoms may help control the spread and the ferocity of the disease. We know that vaccines usually take 18 months, at least, to develop, although we also know that for this one, we already have multiple potential vaccines entering the testing phase, and the fact that so many labs are now focused on this may help shorten the time frame. But no one is expecting a miraculous vaccine to come available in the next month (or months). More promising is the possibility of treating the disease with antibodies made from the plasma of those who have recovered.
We also know how taming an outbreak works. The current “flattening the curve” is designed to tamp down the spread of the virus in the community. As that starts to come under control, testing and monitoring of the population becomes even more important. Once the stress on hospitals starts to ease, the focus can shift to beginning to snuff out community transmission. This has to mean testing to see who is immune and monitoring of symptoms. But what else will happen during this phase? I suspect we will see the following:
- Physical distancing measures will remain in place, but in a way that allows non-essential businesses to re-open. Masks will probably be de rigeur in the community. I think you will see restaurants re-jig their dining rooms to limit the number of guests, and retail stores will begin to limit the number of customers in store–which we should be very accustomed to by then. Service industries and health care providers will need to adjust the way they do business to accommodate more PPE (once we can get past the current shortages) until we are sure the risk of community transmission has been reduced to near zero.
- A lot of companies that moved to working from home will rejig their business models to allow this to continue, at least until the pandemic is over. Even then, the business case will now exist for effective ways to work from home, and it will be hard to stuff that genie back in the bottle. Similarly, business that have managed to adapt to life under lockdown may find that some of their new practices make sense to continue.
- Large sporting events and concerts may be off the table for awhile–but they may opt to reopen their facilities with a reduced number of available seats, along with (in the case of sports) lots of testing for athletes. (Perhaps the NHL will adopt the face shields common in junior hockey.) Or they may choose to play in empty or mostly empty facilities. Big stadium concerts are probably off for awhile. Smaller concert halls might sell fewer seats to allow physical distancing. Again, orchestras, ballet, and theatre companies would need to keep close tabs on their own members to ensure they are able to perform in as low risk environment as possible (so maybe no performances of the Mahler Symphony #2 for awhile). And everyone would need to be ready, if another surge of infection appears, to shut things down again.
- I don’t seen international travel re-opening until there is a vaccine or a treatment that is highly effective. This includes both business and leisure travel. You may see a limited return to local or inter-provincial travel. Tourist destinations will need to re-jig for physical distancing, limiting the number of guests in their facilities at any one time. Large conventions are likely off the table for some time. Cruise lines may never really recover, unless they can show they have the equivalent of sufficient lifeboats for everyone on the Titanic. Even with this, they’re another industry that will likely need to wait for a vaccine or an effective treatment.
- Long term care facilities are going to need to change their procedures. Not only are staff going to need to be tested frequently, so are visitors, and I expect that visits to residents’ rooms are going to be off the table–I suspect you will see visits confined to a single room and needing to be scheduled. Staff are going to need to work at one facility only. And, of course, this is likely where the need to deal with the aftermath of trauma is going to be the most intense.
- In general, everyone will need to be prepped for another round of stricter measures, and public health officials are going to need to jump on this as soon as any recurrences start to pop up. This will require a great deal of testing and monitoring, including penalties for those who disregard public health directives as well as provisions to help people comply with those directives. (A fine to a homeless person who cannot physically distance does not fix the problem.) Depending on how successful we are at “flattening the curve”, we may have many people who still think this crisis is “overblown.” These are the people that will object loudest when we need to shut things down again when there is a resurgence. While I think probably 95% of Canadians are unified right now in fighting the disease, there are still lots of people in that 95% that are chafing under physical distancing measures and who are continuing to willfully violate them for various reasons, to the great resentment of those who are observant. I am hopeful that time will help solve this issue, and that going through the peak of the outbreak will help bring that home.
I’m not going to speculate much on how society as a whole, or even Canadian society, will change going forward. Canada’s government has been, on the whole, focused on people as the key component to a strong economy and a strong society. I would not be surprised to see something like a universal basic income, substantial public works projects (Alberta is already talking about these), and further recognition of a strong health care system –from research and innovation, to manufacturing, to hospitals and other facilities as an essential public utility.
I post these thoughts with an abundance of caution, but also with an abundance of hope, hope based on my observations one month in. There are still lots of moving parts and unknowns, as well as causes for concern (particularly around testing and PPE) but seeing responses such as companies pivoting to make PPE in innovative ways does help to affirm that even where there are difficulties, in Canada we’re at least playing from the same playbook. There aren’t bidding wars for masks between the provinces and the federal government, there aren’t religious leaders promoting mass gatherings in defiance of public health, and Canadian politicians are listening to scientists and other experts and serving as a source of reliable information. That certainly helps to serve to unite the country against the invisible enemy among us, as does the growing understanding of just how interdependent we all are, and that the more those among us are in precarious situations, the more society as a whole is lessened.
Together, we are stronger