Life after Coronavirus: Bet on Less Change Than You Hope or Fear

A woman wears a stars-and-stripes bandana for a face mask in Washington, D.C., April 2, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Old habits and old dreams die hard, even after coronavirus.

When a mysterious bat virus comes out of your nation’s largest geopolitical rival and sends you pacing up and down a driveway or in a small apartment for a few months, only meeting outsiders with the mediation of masks, and “attending” church and school through a video-conferencing software, you may begin to suspect that the whole world is going to change.

It must, right? Some relationships are unsustainable. A substantial number of people are being forced to do without normalcy and to adapt. Business travel replaced by Zoom. Commuting replaced teleconferencing. School displaced by distance learning and iPads. Restaurants replaced with takeout and home-cooking. Travel replaced with . . . nothing at all. And, economically speaking, the world is going through simultaneous supply and demand shocks.

And yet, there is a funny way in which the change that analysts, pundits, and experts prophesy is the change they already wanted. China hawks say coronavirus will require hard decoupling. Trade hawks say it will require onshoring. Environmentalists want us to develop a taste for their cleaner air that comes with less human productivity. Skeptics of the growth of the American university system predict its imminent collapse. Social traditionalists predict a newer wave of stay-at-home mothers and the growth of homeschooling. People who habitually fret about declining adherence to religion predict that more people will lose the habit of religion. Nationalists predict more nationalism. Each of these predictions is framed in a way to alternately elicit hope or fear for the future.

The very perceptive essayist John Gray intones: “The era of peak globalisation is over.” This fits with his ongoing argument that liberal elites have indulged in decades of self-deception about the justice and sustainability of their way of life. He writes:

An economic system that relied on worldwide production and long supply chains is morphing into one that will be less interconnected. A way of life driven by unceasing mobility is shuddering to a stop. Our lives are going to be more physically constrained and more virtual than they were. A more fragmented world is coming into being that in some ways may be more resilient. 

Suffering from cabin fever and worried about potential food shortages, I think that all sounds so reasonable, even inevitable. But I’m not sure it’s true. The fact that most analysts haven’t changed their fundamental analysis of the world is a clue that even they don’t expect change, so much as an intensification.

Having lived through September 11 and the 19 years following it, I’ve begun to believe that social and political transformation is illusory. Very few human beings experience it outside of cataclysmic world war. Things change, sure, but slowly. Humans experience social change as addition and complexification. The transformations are only obvious in hindsight.

September 11 was supposed to change everything. But looking back, it just reads as addition and complexification. When I was eleven years old, my mother pulled me from school during the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Eight years later, in college, classes were canceled for two days. America’s engagement in the Middle East increased and intensified, but on the whole it remains on the same path it has been on since Jimmy Carter was president.

So too with COVID-19. China and the United States were already heading for some decoupling, as evidenced by the efforts put into the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Nationalism was already having a vogue moment. Apple had already started experimenting with moving little bits of computer manufacturing back to the United States. The “eat local” movement was itself an attempt to make more durable, if less efficient, supply chains. If mass immigration continues to fall in disrepute, it was already doing so, with borders hardening all over the world.

Ask yourself: Have you met anyone whose long-term aspirations for themselves and their children have been altered by COVID-19? I haven’t. The short and medium term may be hazy, but our culture’s vision of a good and successful life is unchanged.

Political reality is a product of the beliefs, habits, dreams, and self-delusions of everyday people. Events — even great events — can temporarily interrupt those habits. But we sometimes hold on to our beliefs even tighter when they are challenged. We double down.

Many individual human actors — from people who build and manage supply chains for great enterprises, to politicians and school administrators — will find themselves exhausted at the end of this crisis. Getting back to “normal” will begin to seem like an imperative. And normal means something like the way things were, not some great unknown future. Old habits and old dreams die hard.


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