What Will Post-Coronavirus Social Life Really Be Like?

Illustration:  Benjamin Currie/Gizmodo
Illustration: Benjamin Currie/Gizmodo

How many sentences, since March, have started with the words “when all this is over”? Billions, probably, but fewer of late, as each of us reckons with the fact that this will never be over, not really. Psychologically, economically — we’re wrecked. A vaccine will certainly help, but it can only fix so much. Already I can see the articles — morbid accounts of people who, despite the wide availability of a vaccine, still do not feel safe leaving their homes, or socialising in the ways they used to. The aftereffects of the pandemic will almost certainly render public life intolerable for a subset of the population. For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of experts for some varying insights into what this new social reality might look like.

Rebecca Adams

Professor, Sociology, UNC Greensboro

The best way to think about how the pandemic will ultimately affect relationships is to examine how it’s already affecting them.

I’m a gerontologist — I study older adults, specifically their friendships and community ties. I also happen to be right on the edge of retirement age myself, so I’ve been thinking about this pandemic as a kind of mini-dress rehearsal for my own old age. There are, it goes without saying, many bad things about this pandemic, but one upside is that it’s led people my age (and older than me) to engage more with each other by using new communications technologies. For example, thanks to the development of Zoom software, I’m spending time online with friends I haven’t spoken to in thirty or forty years. My high school graduating class has been Zooming. No one would have predicted that before the pandemic hit.

When I started researching friendship, a long time ago in the late 1970s, people thought it was unimportant — that only family mattered. But now we know that friendship is a key component of a healthy life, especially as one ages. The idea of Zoom or other technologies becoming more commonly used and better developed before I have my own mobility issues, or before my social world starts shrinking permanently (as opposed to because of covid-19), is reassuring. After living through this pandemic, many more older adults are going to be set up to maintain contact at a distance. And that will be a good thing for them (or should I say “for us?”)

Adil Najam

Inaugural Dean of the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies and Professor of International Relations and Earth & Environment at Boston University

There is not going to be a world “after” covid. A new world is already here. Being constructed by our new habits, right now. The idea that the ‘storm’ will pass, and we will come back out, and things will go back to whatever they were before, is nonsense. The idea that we’re in a ‘holding pattern’ and we’re going to come out of it — I’m not convinced that’s going to happen. Changes that would have happened in ten years have been accelerated — grocery buying from home, for instance, turned out to be easier than we thought it would be. Even fun. Remember, there’s an economic incentive, too, for companies like Zoom and Instacart to try to make these new habits stick. To retain the new customers they have created.

This is not to say that nothing will go back to what it was. We won’t stay hidden at home forever. We can’t. But the new habits we are developing in these days of covid are going to be the habits of the future; there’s never going to be another January 2020, vaccine or no vaccine. Habits are difficult to create, and harder to break. Will we go back to the handshake? Or we will just develop new non-contact ways of greeting. I haven’t shaken anyone’s hand in six months — has my life become worse for that reason? No, not really.

Also, right now, we might think that we want to go back to how things were, but do you remember March? Do you remember January? It wasn’t that good. We didn’t live in a world without trouble where everyone was happy. Far from it. We have this opportunity, now, to create a new world; I’m not sure I want to go back to the old one. I want a world that’s better than the one we have now, but better, also, than the one we left behind in March.

Robin Dunbar

Emeritus Professor, Evolutionary Psychology, University of Oxford, whose research is concerned with trying to understand the behavioural, cognitive and neuroendocrinological mechanisms that underpin social bonding in primates (in general) and humans (in particular)

Life will return to normal in a couple of years. On the basis of previous pandemics, people will be a bit cautious at first but as the evidence for more cases and deaths declines, people will gradually return to doing whatever they did before.

Everyone is talking about the new way of working from home, but it won’t last. People have forgotten that we already tried this in the 1990s/2000s, and it didn’t last. It will be very nice to work at home for a while, get up an hour later because there is no need to commute to work, take the kids to school, have a game of golf after lunch, etc., but for most people, and especially young people on their first jobs, work is their social life. They will want to go into work. In addition, companies will gradually find that their workforce doesn’t work as efficiently at home because it loses sight of the company’s aims and purpose: people will no longer have the sense of belonging to a community and especially a community that has a purpose-in-life. They will either leave to work for a company that expects them to come into work or petition to come into work more often. And before you ask: no, digital media won’t make a difference. Zoom will have to be much, much better than it is before it has the same feeling as face-to-face interactions — not least because you cannot sit together round a table in the pub and have a beer. A virtual bierhaus is not a bierhaus… as every good Bavarian knows!

Nicole Vincent

Senior Lecturer, Transdisciplinary Innovation, University of Technology Sydney

What will life be like once the pandemic is over? That is a no-brainer! Life will go back to normal, and I’m not being sarcastic. Yes, there will be suffering. It will take time, sacrifice, and pain to dig ourselves out of the wreckage, and even once that’s over, we’ll still occasionally find shattered artefacts from the BC era. But things really will eventually return to how they were before the virus.

What blows my mind, however, is why we even want to go back to normal? Normal was abusive, ruthless, unjust, toxic, and utterly vile! Do we all have Stockholm Syndrome? Or perhaps the unprecedented levels of stress we’ve all been under have raised our cortisol levels and impaired our memory? In case that’s it, please hold my hand and let’s take a stroll down memory lane, and then let’s extrapolate to what normal is going to do to us if we rekindle that relationship.

Remember all those times when, despite coming down with a monumental cold or flu, you still had to find a way to drag yourself to work? For decades, ruthless workplace conditions helped coronaviruses spread and mutate. Dosed up on cold and flu meds that concealed the horrible symptoms and even made us feel positively energetic, we headed off to work even though we were actually sick and highly contagious.

Because this pandemic is framed as a medical problem, we keep searching for a medical solution. However, what is constantly overlooked are the numerous non-medical causal factors, like those that our beloved “normal” has contributed to enabling the virus to do what it has done. Looking forward, though, to dodge the bullet of human extinction we must rapidly sober up and leave the normal for good. It’s time to stop pretending that the lives we wish to live after the pandemic… are innocent, innocuous, causally inert.

We have a situation. That is the most accurate description of our predicament. Once we’ve let this sink in, and after we’ve purged ourselves of our unhealthy fixation on the medical framing, we can start to figure out what range of causal factors contributes to making up this complex situation. Only when we have a firm grip on reality — which will include such causal factors as expecting everyone to travel to and from work at the same time, which creates overcrowding and helps the virus spread like wildfire — that’s when we will be in a position to start formulating a causally effective covid-19 strategy.

Rather than placing the incredible burden of fighting this pandemic squarely and almost entirely on the shoulders of the allied medical and health professionals — incredible people whose devotion to saving our lives is now claiming theirs at an alarming rate — we should urgently seek help for our life-threatening addiction to the normal. Instead of hanging our hopes on a vaccine, a treatment, or a cure so that we can get back to what life was like before the pandemic, how about we take a path that might avert human extinction by asking ourselves what else our lives could look like, regardless of whether we find a viable vaccine for the virus?

Srividya Jandhyala

Associate Professor, Management Department, ESSEC Business School

Here are two possible — but very different — scenarios. In the first scenario, the challenges of the pandemic begin to wane. Governments around the world are able to bring the virus under control. Vaccines show promise and are effective. Travel and physical distancing guidelines are relaxed. The huge government stimulus has an effect and the economic recovery is more V or U shaped (rather than the feared L). Geopolitical tensions go down a notch and cross-border flow of people, goods, ideas, and services resumes, or even accelerates. In this scenario, life is likely to look more like the pre-pandemic times (or more optimistically, perhaps even better).

Alternately, the pandemic accelerates the challenges to globalization and the liberal economic order. Governments view restrictions as semi-permanent. Travel restrictions and quarantine rules may be relaxed but don’t go away — whether domestic or international. Economic recovery is slow. Trade conflicts escalate and there are greater divisions across countries. Social life, in such a scenario, will look very different from the pre-pandemic era. Travel will be expensive — both in time and money — so few people will undertake it. Locally grown produce will boom, not because of environmental concerns but because food flown in from distant farms is no longer possible. Supply chains will be rejigged, and product choice and quality may be limited. People may invest in deepening social interactions locally because they can’t rely on cheap flights to take them across the country or world to their support systems.

Ultimately, post-pandemic life is not going to be the same for everyone. Social life on the other side is going to reflect a combination of lived experiences and broader economic and political circumstances. The pandemic may end up altering it in significant ways, or do no more than cause a ripple.

Do you have a burning question for Giz Asks? Email us at [email protected]