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Shawn Vestal: Will anything ever be the same again? Pondering life after coronavirus

Every year at this time, Mike Carey and his grad students spend a week cloistered with the monks from Valyermo.

They fly down to the Los Angeles area. They stay at the St. Andrews Abbey in the Mojave Desert. They attend the vigils and the lauds, interview monks and study the way leadership works within the community, as part of Gonzaga University’s organizational leadership program.

Carey, an associate professor and department chairman, has been taking students there for 15 years.

This year – digitally cloistered – they Zoomed it.

“The ideal would have been that we were all there at the monastery,” Carey said. “But this was pretty good.”

The coronavirus pandemic and efforts to thwart it have brought changes large and small, many of which are coming so fast we can’t yet understand them. People are sick and dying, the economic ramifications of social distancing are brutal, and we’re being challenged to act selflessly in ways that test our independence and patience.

But it will end at some point – and what then? As the pandemic wrenches our lives out of the ordinary, what long-lasting effects might there be?

Answering requires a large dose of educated guesswork. So we reached out to some educated observers to ask. Most agreed the pandemic may well bring lasting, fundamental changes, especially if the crisis persists. But most also said the current disruption is without precedent in so many ways that foreseeing the long-term effects is difficult. There is simply no real comparison in our experience.

“We have to have some humility here – we don’t fully know what the effects are going to be,” said Philip Watson, an associate professor of applied economics at the University of Idaho. “We do know there will be negative consequences … and we should also understand the short-run effects can have serious, very long-run effects.”

First things first: The pandemic has and will continue to bring death to some and a wave of grief to those connected to those who perish from the virus, grief that will not vanish because the curve flattens.

Beyond that, these shut-in days have the potential to bring about sweeping changes. Work life is certain to evolve for many – jobs lost, businesses closed, remote employment and unforeseen shifts of the nature of employment itself. The gig economy, and the questions of fairness to those workers, seems likely to keep expanding.

A lot of trends already underway are expected to speed up. Digital everything will continue to grow. Online shopping and delivery services will put pressure on brick-and-mortar retail. Many expect to see a continuing shift of workplace communication to video chat platforms and a decline in physical offices.

Homelessness is expected to worsen as the near-poor take a hit, and many more people will need help in ways that could lead to fundamental changes in the social safety net. And yet that push will come even as government budgets are being blasted. Our politics – so divided now, even over the basic facts of the pandemic – will likely be filled with virus-related arguments in the campaign season to come. A persistent, devastating shutdown, as opposed to a shorter, best-case scenario, has the potential to reshape political alignments for good.

Meanwhile, at the center of the experience that Carey and his students had, Zooming with the monks, there is a common thread rippling through our lives in still-to-be unraveled ways: As we isolate, we connect more online. Much more. As we connect more online, many of us are finding a deepening appreciation for our loved ones, a growing empathy for others and a renewed commitment to look carefully at our lives and how we live them, Carey said.

“In a time where we’re very isolated, properly, to save lives, this has been like water in the desert,” he said.

He finds hope in that – hope our social isolation will produce more meaningful connection, and that this will inform the ways we live going forward.

“Maybe the long-lasting effect is more people recognize the value of our relationships – whether it’s our family, our neighbors, our city, our state, our nation or our world – rather than taking them for granted,” he said.

Gray zone

Trying to look ahead toward Christmas, say, or next year, is particularly difficult given we are still in the midst of the cataclysm. That’s part of why this is such an anxious time. The scope of the uncertainty competes with the scope of the problem.

Kari Nixon, an assistant professor of English at Whitworth University who teaches medical humanities and Victorian literature, is an expert on another such “gray zone” in history: the late 1880s when germ theory became established.

It became widely understood, even among the literate lay population, that diseases are caused and spread by microorganisms – bacteria, fungi, viruses – and not by poisonous or infectious air, as the previously prevailing idea had held.

And yet, this advance in knowledge came paired with a gap in knowledge. Diseases such as tuberculosis and syphilis had no cure.

Their weapons were antiseptics and hand-washing.

“What’s really, really interesting is that’s the exact moment we’re in right now,” said Nixon, whose book, “Kept From All Contagion: Germ Theory, Disease, and the Dilemma of Human Contact,” will be published this fall.

“We know what’s causing the disease, we know people around us who have it, and what we have is hand sanitizer and hand-washing.”

Such vulnerability pressures social relationships and social values; it tests assumptions and reveals biases.

The coronavirus may challenge notions that have seemed bedrock before. There may be a rethinking of relationship between the individual and government on matters of health care; we may, as many suggest, renew our important social connections, regain our appreciation for our loved ones and our neighbors that we had taken for granted; we might refocus our energies on whatever it is that matters most to us, and away from the demands of daily life that aren’t; we might regain some unity out of shared sacrifice.

We also might not, of course. Dale Soden, a history professor at Whitworth, said if the viral curve flattens and the economy recovers relatively quickly, it may be life resumes with relatively little difference.

With the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, he said, not much seemed to change in large, fundamental ways, though it was devastating in terms of lives lost and social disruption. The Depression, on the other hand, produced deep changes in social patterns that persisted, and led to government action in the form of the New Deal that remains embedded in our very notions of the social contract.

If we end up living with social distancing and an economic crisis for a long time, something similar could arise out of the uncertainty.

“Do we still have confidence in flying in planes?” he asked. “Do we have confidence in going to school? Do we have confidence in attending sporting events?”

Soden’s sense is that we will. But the duration of the pandemic and the social-distancing measures will be the deciding factor in how much things might change.

Ripple effect

Kirk Besmer noticed something at his grocery store in January: It added a couple of parking spots dedicated to customers who had ordered online and were just picking them up.

Not long after, the number of spots doubled, said Besmer, a philosophy professor at GU. Last week, there was a line of cars.

It was an example of a trend that may accelerate thanks to shut-in economics, and part of a series of such trends that have the potential to bring wholesale changes in retail activity. The way we buy things was already moving toward online sources, toward delivery, toward automation, and this is likely to speed that up.

Watson, the UI economics professor, said a lot of trends likely will be accelerated by the economic crisis, and they’re likely to be trends that eliminate jobs. He noted that during the recession following the financial collapse of 2008, fast-food enterprises and other businesses adopted kiosk ordering or other automated technologies like self-checkout. Those tech options already existed, but when companies were faced with financial pressure, they moved to adopt them more rapidly.

Many observers predict changes in the nature of office work now that businesses have been forced to discover that remote frameworks often work just fine. How many cost-conscious bosses are asking themselves if it makes sense to keep leasing office space rather than stick with Slack and Zoom?

Every such change ripples through the economy and affects people’s lives, Watson said. The massive number of people losing their jobs could well be looking for work in a radically changed economy, one in which old skills may not match new opportunities.

But even if in some bright-sky scenario most of those who lost their jobs got them back in a few months, the experience of losing work has long-term consequences, Watson said.

Research shows job loss disrupts people’s lives in far-reaching ways. Losing a job is associated with losing a later job, with an overall decline in earnings beyond unemployment and a decline in job quality. It is correlated with worse health and family disruption and appears to affect the achievement and well-being of children, as well.

For many, it’s a long-lasting injury to health and welfare. More than 10 million Americans just experienced it, and more almost certainly will. Some forecasters predict unemployment rates exceeding 30%.

In the months to come, Watson’s worried about two groups most: small business owners, many of whom can’t absorb the impact as well as larger companies and may not recover, and workers in retail, service, light manufacturing and construction – who are vulnerable to long-lasting changes.

There will likely be new opportunities, as well, though they are hard to envision right now. And there will be clear winners from the upheaval.

“Amazon,” Watson said, “is going to come out great.”

Together online

Mere weeks ago, social media – despite its ubiquity – was popularly regarded as an almost entirely negative force. Parents presumed “screen time” as only detrimental for children. Our hyper-connectedness sometimes seemed to be treated as a technological plague.

Suddenly, social media and online interaction is about all we have, and it’s forcing us to reassess these tools in a more sober, nuanced way, according to Tim Clancy, a Jesuit and associate professor of philosophy at GU.

“Our connotations about life online are going to mature,” he said.

Clancy and Besmer collaborate on a course in philosophy of technology. Clancy believes that the online revolution is transformative on the same scale as the printing press. It’s changing everything.

The forced isolation of the moment is resulting in people using the tech to sustain meaningful relationships – which is forcing us to re-examine our presumptions and prejudices about the medium and may result in us thinking about how to employ it more wisely.

This is different for their students, who are digital natives for whom social media is the “mother tongue,” than it is for older people. If there is a revolution in attitudes about online connections that might outlast this moment, it’s likely to occur largely among those older people – among people who never before used video-communication platforms, for example, and recognize it might have benefits.

Besmer noted that, while video does not replace being together in person, it is a “much richer experience” than talking on the phone or texting. When the shut-in eases, it seems likely many of us who never gave such tools a second thought will use them in new ways.

Of course, months with social media as our only lifeline will surely result in a desperate hunger for actual human connection, too. And a heavy reliance on workplace technology oriented chiefly toward saving companies money may not be so great for workers.

Nixon, an English professor at Whitworth, said she hopes that, given how much of our lives are already digital, a push toward efficiency or corporate profits doesn’t result in a work life “where we never see a human face.”

The way we learn

With schools and universities closed, many presume online education will take over to a much larger degree. It’s already been an area that colleges have expanded – and one that has been pushed aggressively by some private schools in ways that place profit over education – but now every class is online.

Professors and teachers who were resistant to digital learning now have been forced into it, and many have found it isn’t so bad, Carey said.

Larry Cebula, a professor of history at Eastern Washington University, said it’s been an adjustment for many on campus, but that there have been positive uses of online tech that could last usefully beyond the crisis. The EWU provost, David May, has a daily report and Q-and-A session over Zoom, in which anyone on campus can ask questions or hear answers – something that would be impractical in real life.

“I can’t tell you what a good influence that’s had on campus,” he said.

There are concerns that pushing more education online will result in worse education, and that financial considerations built into the affordability of the programs will be a higher priority than the quality of education.

But several professors said they don’t expect the in-person, campus experience to disappear or erode significantly. Instead, they foresee more hybrid courses that capitalize on the best of both forms of teaching – a shift that could occur in K-12 education as well.

Carey, the head of the GU organizational leadership program, is a fan of online learning for many of the older students who enter his program. But he doesn’t see it as a model to replace the undergraduate, on-campus experience.

Next year, he’s not planning to Zoom with the monks. They’ll go back to the abbey in the desert, in person.

Hardship and help

Rob McCann, the head of Catholic Charities, has been involved in sheltering homeless people in Spokane for many years. He’s frequently made the point that in this city and region there are many, many people who are just barely not homeless.

Now, following a year in which local politics were dominated by the issue, he foresees that many more of our neighbors are likely to tumble into homelessness. With a system that was already straining under the demands of the problem, this will call for a more active response.

“We know it,” he said. “We’ve seen this movie before, after the recession when some of our donors became our clients.”

McCann, who has long talked about homelessness as a solvable problem, said that as the government moves to provide stimulus to corporations and workers, it could also seize this moment to adopt an ambitious national program to build housing and offer services.

Others also see the moment as a chance to mend the safety net in other ways. As millions lose their jobs, they are also losing health-care coverage – which is likely to put more wind in the sails of proposals such as “Medicare For All,” said Cebula, the EWU history professor.

He said the hardship may also put a renewed emphasis on progressive proposals to reduce inequality and protect workers – but also emphasized that it’s also quite possible that a short burst of energy to make change can wane. He pointed to Reconstruction after the Civil War as an example.

“For a few years, it looked like we were going to accomplish something close to racial equality in a single generation,” he wrote in an email message. “Then it all came crashing down as the old Southern elites inflamed race prejudice and embraced extra-legal violence to reclaim power, and citizens in the North allowed them to do so.”

Even among small-government conservatives, resistance to large-scale government action in a time of crisis softens, many observers say. As the government puts money into the hands of individuals and businesses via stimulus bills, attitudes about that kind of spending may evolve as well.

“You can see that $1,200 gift (in the recent stimulus package) as a kind of experiment with universal basic income,” said Clancy, the GU professor of philosophy.

The need for assistance programs and government interventions, however, will be running straight into a budget-revenue crisis.

David Schumacher, the governor’s budget director, said it’s too soon to define how bad things will get for the economy and the state budget, “but we all assume it’s going to be pretty bad.”

Schumacher was speaking Friday as Gov. Jay Inslee was vetoing portions of the state supplemental budget to save more than $400 million in the next four years. The state has a budget reserve of roughly $3 billion, as well – but forecasts on the optimistic side call for losses of $4 billion to $5 billion in the next four years, he said.

This is going to play out at every level, from cities to counties to states to the federal government, in cycles that last beyond the immediate crisis.

“Everybody’s going to have some real tough budgets for a while,” he said.

Political change

Our political world has been deeply and unproductively divided for decades, and the divisions remain glaringly apparent with regard to the virus. It’s shown starkly in the different responses between blue-state and red-state governors to the public-health experts’ call for social-distancing measures.

In a survey published last week, “Partisanship, Health Behavior, and Policy Attitudes in the Early Stages of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” researchers polled Americans on a wide variety of attitudes related to the crisis and found that Republicans were less likely than Democrats to have engaged in the social distancing, hand-washing and other behaviors recommended by health experts; Democrats were more concerned about the virus and predicted a higher death toll; Republicans were much more likely to support travel limitations and border closings as a response, while Democrats backed measures to cancel events and limit social interaction.

Researchers noted one underlying dynamic beyond partisanship is the rural-urban divide: More Democrats live in cities where the virus has taken a more serious toll so far.

It’s hard to say how the virus and shutdown will affect those attitudes going forward, and how politics will in turn affect government and society at large, said Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University.

Clayton agrees with many observers who say that the future impact of the crisis depends entirely upon its depth and duration. If we’re back to a relative normalcy by next year, he said, the potential for deep changes in government and society are not so strong.

However, he said history shows widespread shocks that last longer “can be the catalyst for major transformation and realignment of our political institutions.”

“Events like the Civil War or the Great Depression not only realigned party coalitions but also fundamentally altered the way Americans understood democracy and rights, the role of government and its relationship to the economy, as well as the collective sense of national identity,” Clayton wrote in a Facebook post.

At a time of uniquely deep partisan schism, the virus and economic crisis have the ability to create a political realignment that may reduce partisanship.

“It’s hard to see that we will remain so closely divided as an electorate on the other side of this crisis,” he wrote. “Inevitably, one party will eventually be seen as responsible for the crisis (or at least for a failed response to it), while the other comes to be seen as the party that saved us and moved us beyond the crisis.”

The work of hope

Where, amid all this disruption, might a person find hope? And what, exactly, in the midst of a moment such as this, is hope?

For Yolanda Gallardo, hope is active and intentional. It’s focused more on others than the self. It’s not impulsive or superficial. It is not a wish.

“It’s hard,” she said. “It takes work.”

She believes that we’re in a time that provides an opportunity for widespread hopefulness, because it is making each of us think more about the lives of others and consider the suffering of those across the planet or right here at home.

“I think we’re in a moment of critical awareness about each other in a way that we really haven’t been before,” said Gallardo, dean of the Gonzaga School of Education.

In that awareness, young people especially can begin asking challenging questions about our society: “Who is being served here? Who isn’t? Whose voices are being heard? Whose aren’t being heard?”

Hope, Gallardo said, arises from asking those kinds of questions and acting on the answers.

“How is the social structure set up to help us help one another?” she asked. “And if it’s not, what kinds of questions do we need to be asking, and what kind of actions do we need to be taking?”