Op-Ed: How will the coronavirus change us?

Written by: Peter Reichard

The reactions to coronavirus range from prudence to panic, and there’s reasonable debate about which reaction fits where. But regardless of your view, and leaving aside the economic issues, the virus will probably change the way we live and operate.

To begin with, the crisis is exposing businesses, government agencies and vast swaths of the population to new ways of working. Utah Foundation, with support from UCAIR, has undertaken a study of telecommuting in 2020. The sudden shift to telecommuting (a condition under which Utah Foundation’s own staff is working at the moment) will cast new light on this study as the virus forces a range of enterprises into a large-scale experiment.

For some businesses and government agencies, it may hasten a move to telecommuting that they were already considering. Others may uncover limitations.

Along the same lines, the virus may change the way we meet. In-person meetings and gatherings have been canceled across the board, from international conferences to community get-togethers. One businessman with whom I spoke this week mentioned that travel for in-person meetings in his company was already excessive and that his company should have already moved to more online meetings anyway. In some cases, however, the experience may reinforce the importance of face-to-face interactions.

The virus may change the way we learn. With student debt burdens and the cost of higher education already a concern, pressure has been growing for post-secondary institutions to ramp up their offerings of lower-cost online classes. Here again, a mass experiment is now underway, with higher education institutions sending students home to learn exclusively online. For some institutions, this may open new vistas and opportunities. For some students, it may open the way for new preferences.

Utah Foundation is currently working on a series of reports looking at how this state can boost post-secondary attainment levels. An expanded range of flexible online opportunities may be an important part of the picture.

Meanwhile, at the K-12 level, a mass experiment in homeschooling is suddenly underway. Some schools may realize new opportunities to use technology to better reach students. Others may uncover negative effects of overexposure to the internet. And some parents may decide permanent homeschooling through online programs is worth pursuing for their kids, having been forced to try their hand at it.

Naturally, hygiene standards will change. We are in the process of creating stronger habits as to handwashing and the like. Businesses and institutions are putting a greater emphasis on cleanliness.

Our approaches to elder care may change. Brushfires of coronavirus have burned through nursing homes in certain cases. Looking ahead, the public may perceive that home care is a better option in more cases.

The coronavirus may also change the way governments operate. With governments taking unprecedented measures — and using public health authority to an unprecedented degree — there are bound to be ripple effects.

On the one hand, some governments might feel emboldened as a result of this event and begin to expand their authority more generally. On the other, if the public feels that the authority government has taken turns out to have been overreach, new levels of public distrust of government authority may emerge.

On a more mundane level, depending on the economic pain and the speed of recovery, governments may see an increased need to bolster reserves and rainy-day funds in the future.

Finally, we may be unlocking new potential for cooperation. If citizens are able to come together and take reasonable individual actions toward common goals in this case, they may discover in the process new means of cooperating on other worthy endeavors.


Originally published in the Salt Lake Tribune on March 21, 2020: https://www.sltrib.com/opinion/commentary/2020/03/21/peter-reichard-how-will/

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