How life might change as we live with the pandemic
How will we cope if the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is here to stay, at least for the next few years? It is a grim prospect but, given the spread of the virus, the rising number of variants and the unequal vaccination process, it is a future everyone may have to start coming to terms with. However, with proper planning and forethought, the worst effects may be countered.
Despite the incredible and speedy success in developing effective vaccines, the virus is not facing extinction yet. Richer countries may get most of their population vaccinated during 2021. But to vaccinate the 8 billion humans in the world requires at least 15 billion doses. Gavi, the vaccine alliance, which is co-leading the Covax project, hopes to get 2 billion vaccine doses delivered to recipient countries this year, though how long it will take to get them into people’s arms is another matter. This should cover 20 percent of the populations of the 92 poorest countries signed up to the scheme. Such a figure would at least mean vaccinations for most health workers and the extremely vulnerable in these countries, but clearly full immunization is going to take years at this rate. Funds still need to be raised. Who will pay for the booster jabs that may also be needed?
COVID-19 will remain, but as a lesser threat than faced in 2020; a burden, but one the world can live with. Hospitalization may become less frequent and treatments more effective, but it will remain a nasty disease you would not wish on anyone.
Even in countries with a rapid vaccination roll-out, like the UK and Israel, some restrictions will be in place for most if not all of 2021. Herd immunity requires about 70 to 80 percent of the population to be vaccinated. Booster jabs to tackle new variants may also be needed by this autumn, so the efficacy of major vaccine production and delivery will have to improve.
Full vaccination will take time, but also some considerable effort in convincing the doubters. Short of forcibly shoving needles into people, vaccine hesitancy and opposition will limit their efficacy. Levels of such hesitancy vary from country to country and, just as worryingly, from community to community.
Vaccine hesitancy was on the rise even before this pandemic. It shares much in common with what drives populism: A reluctance to respect governments and suspicion of experts and the mainstream media. This is most acute in countries such as Russia, Poland and France. In one poll, only about 55 percent of Russians said they would have a vaccine. Anti-vaxxers spread malicious conspiracy theories, such as that the vaccine will alter your DNA or that it is even more dangerous than the virus itself. And, no, vaccines do not contain mercury, aluminum or formaldehyde.
Face masks will not disappear either. They may well remain a legal requirement indoors and on public transport — a trend in certain Asian countries even before this pandemic. Manufacturers have to find ways to make them more effective, user-friendly and comfortable. Be prepared for more and more tests and temperature checks as standard.
Perhaps the most serious challenge will be the mental health fallout. One fears for the children who have suffered isolation and loss of learning at a crucial stage in their development. This will again test the poorer countries, exacerbating pandemic-driven inequalities.
But life will also change in a host of other ways. More people will work from home and resist commuting. Many will select jobs based on different criteria. Will people desist from shaking hands or hugging?
Will there be a system of digital COVID-19 passports to show that the holder has been vaccinated? China has started using apps to show people’s virus status. Who would blame a cruise company, for example, for demanding this? Will sports clubs insist all members have to present one? Will airlines insist on this for flying? Restaurants are considering demanding proof of vaccine. Will this present another upswing in inequality between the vaccinated and unvaccinated?
Travel restrictions will not be lifted fast. We have to accustom ourselves to a lifestyle where popping on an airplane happens less frequently. Given the vaccine inequality, people from richer, more-vaccinated countries may be reluctant to head to the poorer, less-vaccinated areas of the world. Staycations may prove more popular, but how will countries with tourism-dependent economies adapt? We may see more gated luxury tourist resorts along tropical coasts, with even less mixing with the local population.
On the upside, if we start traveling less and stay closer to home, our collective carbon footprint may decline. That said, the car will be favored above mass transport. The pandemic may, however, push us all to make decisions that climate change may force upon us anyhow.
Even in countries with a rapid vaccination roll-out, some restrictions will be in place for most if not all of 2021.
Improved hygiene might be a bonus. The pandemic has helped promote better habits, which in turn will help thwart future epidemics. People are also looking at their diets and nutrition as a means of boosting their immune system. Lockdowns have helped millions put on weight, but the need for exercise has never been clearer.
Consumer habits have altered and will continue to change. The tendency to hoard may not involve the tragicomic melees of fighting over the last toilet roll, but many will keep larger stocks of essential items. Online sales will remain higher, with a decline in in-person commerce and an impact on physical shops. Major retailers will give customers the opportunity to try on clothes or see furniture in their homes using virtual or augmented reality options. Ikea has already started this.
Online meetings via platforms such as Zoom will be here to stay. This is despite online meetings being more tiring and the impact of too much screen time. Social networks have become even more important, hence a switch to even greater advertising on the likes of Facebook and Instagram.
It raises the question of what will become the new normal. A return to 2019 is for the birds. Those who adapt and learn fast will be ready for the next few years.
Above all, those lucky enough to live in the richer countries with a high standard of living have been given a major shock. The optimistic side of me thinks we may just see people being a little bit more appreciative of how lucky they are and appreciating all those little things they have taken for granted.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech