April 10, 2020

It's been nearly four weeks since President Trump called on Americans to practice social distancing to limit the spread of the new coronavirus—and the big question on everyone's mind this week is: When will we get back to "normal"?

Covid-19 weekly update: What health care leaders need to know (global edition)

While federal guidance currently calls for social distancing through April 30, many modeling projections suggest Americans could be sheltering at home through the end of May or longer. And while many Americans are feeling the strain of staying at home and limiting their contact with friends and family, experts say that even after official social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders are lifted, "normal" life may look very different.

Here are four ways life could change in a post-Covid-19 world.

1. Greater surveillance to monitor public health outbreaks

As Axios' Bryan Walsh notes, tracing the contacts of Covid-19 patients is essential to halting the virus' spread, as it allows people at high risk of infection to proactively self-isolate. But "contact tracing is laborious detective work, requiring doctors to locate suspected patients and reconstruct their movements and contacts going back days," Walsh writes. Those efforts can be further exasperated by lags in testing, such as those we've seen in the United States.

Experts say modern technologies, particularly smartphones, can make contact tracing easier by leveraging users' location data. Major companies like Google and Apple already are launching location-tracking initiatives—and in some cases are partnering with state and federal governments to screen patients, STAT News' Casey Ross writes. And Kinsa, a public health company, has been using its FDA-approved smart thermometer to track fevers across the country and create an early warning system, called U.S. Health Weather Map, that provides real-time data on locations with unusual levels of fever to predict outbreaks.

Americans historically have been wary of large-scale data-collection efforts, and privacy watchdogs already are raising concerns about how Big Tech companies may use the data being collected. Still, some experts predict Americans ultimately will come around to trading away some of their privacy for more effective health surveillance.

As an example, experts point to the way Americans allowed increased surveillance operations in the months and years following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Glenn Cohen, a professor of health law policy and bioethics at Harvard University, told Ross, "We tend to accept what we live in as far as what privacy is, and once we're there, the status quo has a lot of power over us."

2. A shift to remote work—and telehealth

In response to the new coronavirus, workplaces across the country were forced to quickly revamp how they approach day-to-day work. Universities and public schools almost overnight leaned on teachers and administrators to launch online lessons, health care providers quickly scaled up their telehealth platforms, and businesses reconfigured workflows to allow for telecommuting.

Once those services are widely used, it may be hard to scale them back—and many businesses may be inclined to keep these new workplace flexibilities in place. As Karen Harris, a managing director at Bain's Macro Trends Group in New York, told Bloomberg's Enda Curran, "Once effective work-from-home policies are established, they are likely to stick."

Even the federal government could conduct more business online, according to Ethan Zuckerman, an associate professor of the practice in media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of the Center for Civic Media. Zuckerman told Politico Magazine, "[T]his is a great time for congresspeople to return to their districts and start the process of virtual legislating—permanently."

3. Fewer in-person interactions (and no handshakes)

Deborah Tannen, an author and professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, told Politico Magazine that the pandemic could make people more aware "that touching things, being with other people, and breathing the air in an enclosed space can be risky," and "[t]he comfort of being in the presence of others might be replaced by a greater comfort with absence, especially with those we don't know intimately."

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, this week said handshakes in particular should be a thing of the past. "We don't need to shake hands. We've got to break that custom because, as a matter of fact, that is really one of the major ways that you can transmit a respiratory-borne illness," Fauci said.

4. A greater sense of community and appreciation for nature

Experts also believe the epidemic could nurture in people a deeper sense of community—and deeper appreciation for the outdoors.

When states first began issuing stay-at-home orders, many residents flocked to local, state, and national parks as a way to interact with others and leave the house. The surge in visitors prompted many state and national parks to close, but when they reopen, the heightened demand could remain.

Alexandra Lange, an architecture critic at Curbed, told Politico Magazine, "Society might come out of the pandemic valuing … big spaces [like public parks] even more, not only as the backdrop to major events and active uses, but as an opportunity to be together visually."

And while the pandemic has brought out the worst in some people, as evidenced by an increase in scams and hacks targeting Americans worried about the new coronavirus, there also are widespread reports of communities coming together to support their elderly neighbors by leaving groceries on doorsteps, to support health care workers by sending food and homemade face masks, and more.

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