Imagining the pandemic continues into 2023: part 1

What happens if we don’t have a COVID-19 vaccine by early 2021? Or 2022? In other words, what might the world look like if the pandemic continues for several years?

In this post I’d like to explore what 2023 might look like if it’s year three of the pandemic.

I: Intro

I’m inspired by two sources. Joshua Kim provocatively asked us to thinking through the possibility that a coronavirus vaccine doesn’t become widely available until 2025. (I stepped that back a couple of years.) And also this tweet:

For this post I’d like to imagine some possibilities. I hope these thoughts inspire you all to add your own visions.

Caveats:

  1. These are possibilities, not predictions.
  2. These notes do not necessarily reflect what I’d like to see. They cover a wide range of developments, both positive and negative.

When this post’s idea grabbed hold of my brain, I asked people to help me think about it. The responses were fun. For example,

It is a hard vision to pursue. But that won’t stop us today, since it is possible. To explain…

II: How might this happen?

How could such a 2023 occur? Several things will have to not happen:

  1. Right now there’s a lot of discussion about a coronavirus vaccine. While one doesn’t exist, many hope or expect one over this winter. However, the vaccine will take time. To begin with, it’s a hard problem. Nobody has ever built a coronavirus vaccine before. It’ll have to be tested and trialled for human safety — and it will have to actually be effective. Then it needs to be produced at enormous scale, hundreds of millions of doses. Then distributed worldwide. This assumes people only need one dose; given recent reinfection stories, we might need doses every year, or more frequently still, which amplifies production and distribution challenges. On top of that, this rosy view assumes enough people will actually take the vaccine. Given the persistent antivax movement, the politicization of science in many nations, and some popular skepticism of medical authorities… it could take a while for an as yet uninvented vaccine to actually do its job. Months or years.
  2. COVID-19 will have to not mutate into less virulent forms. Viruses mutate, like all life forms, and it’s possible that this awful thing could develop into something less terrible.
  3. An effective treatment for infected people would have to not appear. Over 2020 better therapies have been developed, but the infection experience is still terrible.
  4. Some call for herd immunity as a solution to COVID’s ravages. I’d like to discuss just what a horror that would be in another post. For now let’s imagine the death toll, should America truly attain herd immunity. There are roughly 328.2 million people in this country. Let’s posit 80% of them need to get infected for immunity to work, or about 262.5 million. Then let’s assume a fairly reasonable-to-low case fatality rate of 0.6%. The result: around one million, five hundred thousand dead. Which is an astonishing, terrible figure to contemplate. For the purposes of forecasting, it’s also a problem in that it would take some time to attain. In six months about 6 million Americans have been infected. At that rate sufficient infection will take something like 20 years. Even if infection rates take off, through accidental or deliberate means, it will take some time for herd immunity to be attained.

For the sake of futuring one possible path I’d like to posit that none of those things take place before 2023. No herd immunity arrives any time soon. Hundreds of millions of people are not taking our COVID vaccine. No benign mutation has appeared. Medical professionals have not developed a splendid treatment. If none of those occur, then we have one path forward for COVID-19 to keep ravaging the United States for at least several years.

III: Different swathes of human life

We can divide up our view of 2023 by different aspects of human life.

Let’s start with the social world.

In other social frames, by 2023 we interact less in person and more online. Face to face experience is fraught with well-honed tensions, from dread of infection to expectation of political statements. To avoid the latter, some, especially the wealthy, may leave cities for rural and suburban areas, although this can be overstated. Many share a desire for more open spaces, from parks and yards to plazas.

Intergenerational relations may change by 2023. If the virus continues to primarily maim and kill older people, Robert McGuire argues that these connections between olds and kids will become tense, as young people sacrifice their experiences to protect their elders:

Along these lines we may also see a greater spatial and social isolation of the elderly. Nursing homes, assisted living facilities, memory centers, etc. may become more like fortresses than residences, redesigned to protect their more vulnerable inhabitants. Seniors living on their own might take steps to ward off the infected: installing Amazon Doors, using a porch or deck as a kind of airlock, setting up fences or walls. Families living with elders may take similar steps to keep them safe. Overall, senior citizens could become less visible, less connected with the world.

We should also expect some psychological changes if COVID drags on for three years. For one, I’m not sure if decreased face-to-face contact will confirm Americans in our individualism through isolation or, conversely, stoke our longing for norms, belonging, and conformity.

For another, we might experience three pandemic years as a kind of retreat and call for individual reexamination:

In terms of religion, perhaps we should expect greater participation in established religions. We should also expect the expansion or appearance of new religious movements. There is historical precedent for both of these in prior pandemics. Non-affiliated seekers can touch on many of these, motivated by the pandemic’s horrors. Allied developments may also occur, like the interesting intersection of Q-anon with some evangelicals.

America has only lived with the virus for six months. In three years there’s plenty of room for religious creativity and transformations.

Economics — after three years of virus some results must be clear. Some business and sectors will grow, and others will receded. Towards the end of 2021 we’ve seen digital, remote, delivery firms triumph, and that could well extend to 2023: Zoom, Doordash, Netflix, Google, Microsoft, Apple, etc. Similarly, and for equally obvious reasons, the full spectrum of health care as an industry will surely expand: pharmaceuticals, nursing, psychotherapy, hospitals, clinics, health insurance, electronic medical records, etc. Other sectors are hit badly or collapse by 2023: air travel, tourism, in-person services that PPE hobbles. The combined effect is the accelerated digitization of the economy.

In labor markets three years of pandemic should mean a strengthening of remote work practices and expectations. Jobs that can’t be done remotely will be more uncertain, dangerous, and precarious. At the same time, individual and family income and wealth inequality rise according to every forecast I’ve seen. I fear a steady economic recession, combined with the continuous stress of pandemic measures, injuries, and deaths, will drive more diseases and deaths of despair.

As COVID devours or retreats from individual nations, transnational supply chains will be reconfigured. Will this mean onshoring jobs, or more automation, or both? Companies will shape those supply chains with a pandemic eye.

It seems plausible that 2023 will be the third year of an overall slowdown in global economic production and growth.

In the political realm… this is tricky to forecast, given America’s domestic chaos, but we can look to some trends, starting with calls for reform or more drastic change. Debates over health care insurance (Obamacare, Medicare for All, whatever status quo the GOP turns to) have given way to calls for a new public health architecture in the United States and elsewhere. As Laurie Garrett has argued, too many nations have let public health slide. This global pandemic has revealed the costs of that kind of policy.

If economic inequality rises, as we noted above, that’s more fuel for left-wing populism as well as the right-wing form. We could then see the possible organization and/or mobilization of badly paid, badly treated “essential workers.”

If the pandemic keeps roaring through 2023, some people will want to find responsible parties to punish. We should expect growing interest in punishing those perceived as guilty for bungling the ongoing crisis. That could take the form of can take the form of , governmental inquiries or internet and real world shaming. We could see targeted electoral campaigns aimed at unseating guilty parties (“throw the COVID bums out!”). I can imagine people suffering from the pandemic, having lost businesses or family, deciding to run for office to make a difference. In the litigation-loving United States lawsuits will surely fly thick and fast. We might also see vigilante actions of all kinds, from punching out government officials caught in public to more organized, deadly violence.

Along these lines faith in governments, from local to national levels, could drop as the crisis persists. This could drive some governments to collapse or being taken over by others: nationalizing localities, for example, as an emergency measure. It also means more dissent and oppositional organizing, which can elicit crackdowns. So more events occur in 2023 like the 2020 Byelorussian or American election debacles. Some might call 2020–2023 a sustained planetary COVID Spring, if they approve of such unrest.

The flip side of that insurgent coin is more surveillance and policing. This occurs in many nations and to different degrees. For one vision,

Countries may also use IT to monitor the movement of citizens through tracking software in mobile phones or chips embedded in driving licences and photo ID cards. Police may be given limited access to citizens’ financial, employment and criminal records at the click of a button on their mobile instruments. Any outcry for privacy will be outweighed by considerations of security and health. Human rights defenders will be worried about the power this could give to authoritarian governments for silencing opposition and blackmailing them into submission. In established democracies, there would be legislation to define the limits and mandates of authorised government agencies, which will have the power to monitor citizens’ movements under law, and a mechanism will be available to citizens to challenge misuse through courts. With the passage of time, the location of every individual will be traceable through satellite…

Global politics could swing in a few contradictory directions. By 2023 we could see nationalism as the world’s leading political ideology, driven by the forces we know now: fear of immigration, protecting the privileges of certain ethnic or religious groups, resentment of various forms of globalization. As Syed Sharfuddin put it, “globalisation cannot be eliminated, [but] it will take a back seat, as countries will vie to care for the well-being of their citizens first before helping others.”

On the other hand, other drivers can yield a more transnational or global 2023. Large companies continue to cross mere national boundaries, albeit gingerly around COVID outbreaks. Viruses don’t actually notice those borders, and hence the case for public health to be a global enterprise, especially as modern infrastructure is so good at rapidly circulating diseases, vectors, and people. Alliances between nationalists could spur parallel assemblages in opposition. Plus climate change organization tends to be planetary. Ultimately I’m not sure of this point by 2023, and should probably punt for a mixture of neonationalism and globalism.

On another geopolitical front, year three of the Great Pandemic appears likely to contain a global Cold War led by the US and China. The desire for such a conflict is fairly bipartisan in the US as of 2020, as the Biden campaign returns to the Obama administration’s anti-China stance, intensified by some Chinese actions over the past 8 years (increasing authoritarianism, Uighur oppression, pressure on Hong Kong, Belt and Road Initiative growth), while the Trump administration continues its semicoherent anti-Beijing stance.

Accordingly, Chinese influence over developing countries may increase, given the former’s ambition and capacity with the latter’s needs. developing nations may suffer double whammy of rising expenses, due to pandemic, and decreased foreign investment, when capital has other priorities, such as rescuing developed nations. Is there political capacity for setting up a post-COVID international reconstruction effort independent of Chinese leadership, as Sharan Burrow calls for?

Meanwhile, what has change in culture as the pandemic reaches towards its fourth year? Some cultural fields and industries have shrunk drastically, given pandemic constraints on production: theater, movies, tv. In contrast computer gaming is the world’s leading art form.

At the same time creativity has driven all kinds of formal experiments, like Host (2020), a movie taking place entirely through a Zoom session and where each actor is alone or in a safe “pod.” Preexisting art forms that don’t require lots of in-person work have seen more use: one-person shows, monologues, animation above all. Some people will sidestep current art in favor of plunging into archives. That has meant a renaissance of watching classic film and tv. Following along those lines, new video and movies appear based entirely on remixed archival content, inspired by the pathbreaking work of Adam Curtis.

Architecture, cities, and the overall human-built environment have changed somewhat by 2023. Insofar as renovations and new construction occurs, buildings have bigger openings to the outside through wider windows and doors, more galleries and porches, all aimed at facilitating social distancing or externally circulating air. Inside buildings there are larger hallways and fewer, yet larger, rooms. Rooftops are more widely used. Fast food restaurants have more drive-throughs and fewer dining rooms — they are, in effect, for pickup only.

More events occur outside, under tents during rain, especially in regions without fierce winters. Spaces are designed to separate people safely, like this plan for a distance park:

By 2023 a COVID design style is identifiable, and much debated.

Also by that time the technology sector has enjoyed a sustained boom. Social media and videoconferencing firms have become central to the global economy. Virtual and extended reality have become fairly popular as home entertainment and communication services, offering immersive experiences especially sought after by those who rarely venture forth. Augmented reality is also doing well in public spaces, as who wouldn’t want an app alerting pedestrians to dangers ahead?

Automation has developed and expanded. Robots are somewhat visible in 2023 in various walks of life, thanks to our well trained fear of other people, not to mention companies’ desire to replace costly humans. AI has grown in tandem with physical automation, partly to help wrangle immense amounts of health care data, not to mention public health, macroeconomic, and governmental data. Years of living with COVID means more personal data gathering and analysis than people endured in 2020.

The 20-teens techlash persists in 2013, buoyed by a nearly continuous stream of stories about entities misusing or actively abusing health data. Cybercrime has grown every year, taking advantage of the pandemic since it first set in. However, anti-screen sentiment seems to have collapsed due to COVID necessities. Instead, there is grudging acceptance, a studied cultivation of physical artifacts, and elaborate, shifting games of staging one’s space for video/VR appearance while carefully scrutinizing and critiquing what others choose to reveal (for example).

​On a much grander scale, the climate emergency continues to develop in 2023, with glaciers decreasing, desertification incrementally progressing, and ever higher temperatures recorded. Climate change action has been difficult to achieve, thanks to a mix of energetic nationalism, persistent climate denial, and a general focus on short-term thinking. Activists are organized at a higher level than ever before, but still lack the power to achieve serious results. Quarantine-driven economic lockdowns demonstrated that we can voluntarily throttle back carbon production, but also in a way that wrecks economies. (I will have much more to say about the COVID-climate change intersection in forthcoming blog posts.)

Let’s go further still by circling back to Joshua Kim’s provocation. What happens to colleges and universities if we go for years without a COVID vaccine?

We’ll explore that in a following post.

For now, what else would you envision for such a 2023?

(with help from the Center for the Future of Museums, Kevin Scully, the International Money Fund; 2023 image from Wikipedia; thank to those who responded to my Twitter and Facebook queries)

Futurist, speaker, writer, consultant, educator. Author of the FTTE report and ACADEMIA NEXT. Creator of The Future Trends Forum.