What will our post-Apocalyptic World look like?
What will our post-Apocalyptic World look like?
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused major disruptions in the entire fabric of modern life. We avoid contact with people (even friends and family) and sequester in our homes. We hoard supplies in preparation for mass shortages. (What is the deal with toilet paper?) Businesses are shut down and millions of people have lost their jobs. Perhaps not the Armageddon portrayed by the media, but certainly approaching an apocalypse.
Much like the trauma of the Great Depression almost a century ago, it is hard to see clear of the immediate problems. The world looks pretty dark if your company has shut down, you are furloughed, , and you are imprisoned at home when neighbors and colleagues are testing positive. This is particularly distressing if you live in a crowded urban area.
What happens when the crisis abates? What does our world look like? How will we have changed and will those changes be permanent. Will it go back to normal, or will we have a “new normal” to contend with?
The legacy may be far more disturbing than we recognize. In fact, most discussions about the future tend to focus on whether we will be prepared for the next virus. Much like the military, that tends to “train to fight the last war,” we will likely learn our lessons, but be unprepared when the next catastrophe unfolds differently that this one. Expect the unexpected!
The real issues for our future revolve around social and economic recovery. Precious little energy seems to be spent trying to understand what happens when we go back to work. Do we really expect things to just jump back into overdrive?. Capital and cash have been depleted. Markets have been lost. Supply chains disrupted. Things will not go back to the “way they were” as soon as we open our country. In fact, they may never go back to anything resembling the past we knew.
I received a commentary from a successful local businessman that is telling. “I have no idea how we are going to survive. Not because of an immediate cash crunch, but because the economy isn’t going to bounce back a month after we reopen. It’s going to take months. So, we shut down for 4 months and then another 4 months of trash sales. I’m going to lose half my payroll best case at this point. And I’m in a very healthy position for a business my size.”
Successful recovery must run in parallel, not series. Suppliers are dependent on manufacturers who are dependent on consumers who are dependent on jobs. One falters, they all fail. We need both the chicken and the egg.
Just as much as finding a vaccine, we need to be figuring out how to rebuild our country’s economy. The $2.2 trillion stimulus package only addresses the immediate pain. The Paycheck Protection Program may help keep employees for a few months; however, once that money stops and the demand for a company’s product has diminished, how would they keep people on the payroll? Unemployment is likely to rise again once the shrinkage in the economy really takes hold. The second wave of unemployment is likely to be more prolonged and harder to re-employ. Will we create a new permanent dependency on government largess?
There are analogue changes, the economy has booms and recessions. However, there are also binary changes, like the Great Depression. There are indications that this crisis will be divergent. The world before and the world after will be very different.
Social distancing will become a new reality. Cleanliness and sanitation will be paramount. Apprehension about the safety of places and things, even our food, will be prevalent. The impact may be significant.
Who will ever want to sit in a center seat on an airplane? Will we go to mass events like concerts and sporting events? Do you want to stand in a crowded bar or restaurant? Is that table or silverware really clean? How do we regain trust with one another and the businesses we use?
Other factors will likely exacerbate this problem. Remote working is now commonplace. While companies have had to scramble to put policies in place to accommodate this, we may find that a many workers simply don’t need a desk at the office. Companies are likely to seek efficiencies after they learn to operate with a smaller staff and work remotely. This, along with restaurant and retail failures, could collapse the commercial real estate market.
People will likely be wary of discretionary spending. This would negatively impact virtually all retail and hospitality businesses. Do I delay purchasing a new car or furniture? Do I want to go on that extended vacation?
We do not yet, and may never, know the answer to many of these questions. It is the uncertainty (along with the risk of death) that has created such fear in the population. Perhaps FDR’s statement rings as true today as it did almost 90 years ago… “the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Ultimately, we must embrace the idea that “this too shall pass.” The lockdown and infection will eventually end. China is already starting to recover, albeit slowly (and with the admission that there were far more deaths than previously reported). I have much greater confidence in Americans’ ability to face adversity and improvise solutions.
Before the crisis is over, there will be further pain and more people will die (some needlessly due to poor policy decisions). Yet, we have also been given the opportunity to remake our future in ways we might never have imagined six months ago.
I believe we will overcome this crisis as we have overcome other monumental challenges. It is what has always made America great.