Notes on what the COVID-19 pandemic is changing and likely will never revert to “normal”
Meredeth Turshen 24 April 2020
This is a brief on what we can expect, based on what has happened in the recent past. It is an attempt to pull together observations from as many sectors as possible, rather than try to say something new. The impact comes from the accumulation of news, which shows the magnitude of the crisis.
Executive power grabs will not be relinquished. Not only national guardrails have been relaxed or dropped, but also international organizations are being weakened to extinction, beginning with the World Health Organization.
Criticism of WHO’s handling of the West African Ebola crisis was unrelenting and led to many recommendations to restrict the organization’s broad primary mission as the world’s guide on global health to the narrow one of first responder to outbreaks of contagious disease (Turshen and Gezmu 2017). We recognize this attack for what it is: an assault by the private health sector on state-led public health.
Education: College classes will remain online for the vast majority of subjects; shrinkage of the faculty will follow; tenure will be phased out; and academic freedom, beginning with ownership of one’s coursework, will be contested as colleges relinquish control to companies like Pearson. Faculty unions will suffer. These changes amount to a deskilling of the population—of both students and teachers. It is questionable whether the greater availability of distance learning will prove useful where there is no infrastructure of schools and universities. Of course, the best education, which is intensive, takes place in a classroom, and is expensive, will continue to be available to elites.
Independent bookstores face their final days. Amazon will profit. Few newspapers will survive the already drastic onslaught of online media consolidators like Facebook (the New York Times reported that 28,000 workers at news companies in the US have lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic). Sportswriters and business journalists find themselves outsmarted by machine-generated stories: a company called Narrative Science can feed data into a computer and print out a story in minutes.
Culture: Art exhibits and sales will shift online; many galleries and museums will close permanently (the mid-April estimate is nearly $5 billion in losses across 120,492 US arts nonprofits). The loss of jobs in all the arts will affect training at colleges and institutes; many will close permanently. Performers are trying to use online platforms, but already cash-strapped orchestras and ballet and opera companies are unlikely to survive. The fate of sports is beyond my ken.
Retail: Small convenience stores, laundries, and dry cleaners, watch and shoe repair shops, gift and clothing stores closed by lockdowns will disappear, to be replaced by corporate chains. Smaller workforce numbers will be reflected in the shrinking retail and service sectors. Amartya Sen (1981) showed in his study of the 1943 Bengal famine that people providing personal services are the first to lose work and fall into extreme poverty. Amazon will profit, again, as orders for all sorts of goods shift online.
Food: Corner bistros will be replaced by restaurant chains, ditto for bars, and the disappearance of small bistros and bars will mean less work for both the kitchen and wait staff. The closure of restaurants and commercial food purveyors is interrupting the food supply chain, affecting agriculture and therefore farmworkers. (Roughly half the food grown in the US was previously destined for restaurants, schools, stadiums, theme parks and cruise ships.)
Industry: Large companies will continue to acquire smaller firms, there will be more consolidation in every industry with fewer employees and fewer unionized workers. Do not underestimate the mechanization of work and the replacement of workers with robots and AI; experiments are already underway to replace the workforce. Over the past decade technology has disrupted (and in some cases, dismantled) high-paying jobs that required a college degree: the publishing, music, retail and service industries have all seen automation-related cuts in their workforce. Automation is replacing some jobs of college-educated workers in banks, financial firms, law offices and pharmacies. Even businesses that survive the coming depression will not hire back all the workers laid off. For those who retain their jobs, working from home will be the new norm, with risks and costs assumed by workers, like supplies and equipment, electricity and insurance, longer working hours and fewer paid holidays.
Housing: The effects of widespread unemployment will ripple through the housing market, as fewer people buy houses and more owners default on mortgages and more renters default on rent. The homeless population will expand.
Health & health insurance: Widespread unemployment reveals the folly of job-based health care insurance in the US. An increasingly privatized, for-profit system will resist nationalization, rationalization, and greater investment in public health (which is not as profitable as medical care—treatment earns, prevention doesn’t). Trump’s timeline on when to end the lockdown is based on the time needed for wealthy whites to protect themselves; the administration will allow a low-level epidemic to rage on among poor people of color, immigrants and refugees, the imprisoned and the homeless. (NB: regarding a vaccine—historical evidence suggests that this is not the solution to the COVID-19 pandemic: a vaccine against tuberculosis has existed since 1921, yet in 2018, 1.5 million people died from TB worldwide.)
Mental health: The need for mental health services will skyrocket, especially among women who worldwide make up 70% of the health and social sector workforce and among those who are victims of domestic violence. In general, the need for mental health services will increase for people who suffered isolation under lockdown and loss of beloveds whom they could not properly bury and mourn. Given the historical record, private services/private insurance will not meet mental health needs.
Health infrastructure: hospitals are closing as non-essential surgery is postponed. The new temporary facilities created for COVID-19 patients are just that, temporary. They will in no way increase the structural capacity of countries to meet the health needs of the poor, especially in rural areas. (We have evidence from the way Ebola was curtailed in West Africa [Abdulla and Rashid 2017].)
Transport: Look for a further decline in public transit systems; this will be a repeat of history, as in the dismantling of streetcar systems in mid-20th century. The oil & gas industries, which are currently experiencing lowered demand as a result of lockdowns, will fund the expansion of turnpikes, autoroutes, etc. They will also continue to oppose the development of electric vehicles and alternative sources of energy (wind and solar power).
As the pandemic solves the “migrant problem” by wiping out refugee camps, some sectors like agriculture will still need low-wage workers. One possible source of labor is the population of educated young people who trained for white-collar jobs and whose future is jeopardized by continuing trends in unemployment in the careers of their choice. (Most US college students, saddled by debt, already have experience of manual and blue-collar work, jobs which they take to pay tuition and loans.)
Inequality: Obviously, inequalities will widen—racial and gender as well as class inequalities. Gaps will widen between wealthy citizens of industrial countries and the poor of Africa and Asia. OXFAM warns that the pandemic could throw 500 million people into poverty worldwide. Malnutrition, the old scourge and underlying cause of most deaths among the poor, will stalk rich and poor countries alike.
Fightback: As we are all confined to our homes, unable to take to the streets to protest, legal protections of all kinds – from civil and political rights to environmental regulations – will be pulled back. The police powers of the state will be used against us if we dare to revolt. We must find new ways to organize and not rely solely on social media (Tufekci 2017).