What will "normal" be like after coronavirus? Experts imagine a different world.
The coming weeks hold plenty of uncertainty as the world reels from the coronavirus pandemic, but some experts are already thinking about how the current crisis will impact society for years to come.
A report from Deloitte and Salesforce released this month presents four scenarios for the next three to five years — and they all tell a story of a world radically changed by the virus with the intent of helping leaders prepare for a variety of possible futures.
“Even their best-case scenario looks pretty bad,” trends expert and keynote speaker Daniel Levine told USA TODAY.
Rather than making specific predictions, the scenarios in "The world remade by COVID-19" report focus on what we don't know at this time, Andrew Blau — managing director of Deloitte Consulting and a leader on the project — told USA TODAY.
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The end result: An intentionally fuzzy picture of several possible futures, varying based on how several unknowns — such as the duration of the pandemic — unfold. Those possible futures highlight trends that may soon define our times.
On one end of the spectrum: A short-lived pandemic that will batter small and medium-sized businesses. It leaves consumers — grateful to once again gather with friends, loved ones and coworkers in person — reevaluating some of their pre-pandemic habits.
On the other end: A prolonged, nearly impossible to contain virus that leaves the world isolated, distrustful and suffering.
Levine, who was not involved with the project, said the report approached the difficult task of looking years into the future the right way. While none of the scenarios described in the report are likely to pan out as authors imagine them today, Levine said the future will likely hold a mix of them.
Here's the authors' four scenarios:
The passing storm
In this possible future, our fight against the virus goes better than expected — but still at great economic cost, especially to the middle class and small businesses.
The pandemic “leaves its mark on society, but doesn’t change everything,” Blau said.
Governments' plans to contain the virus generally work and citizens comply with the measures. The success leads to a greater trust in our institutions, but class tensions simmer as the lower and middle classes bear the brunt of the economic damage.
What might life be like in this future? In many ways, daily life would remain relatively stable, Blau said. Life under lockdown will remind many people about the value of community and companionship. Weeks of increased teleworking and online retail will lead many people to alter some of their behaviors.
Sunrise in the east
Authors note the possibility that China and other East Asian counties will be able to manage the virus more effectively, through what western nations may see as heavy-handed tactics.
Aggressively enforced lockdowns and surveillance technology have shown promise in multiple East Asian countries’ fight against the virus. If western countries' uneven response proves less effective, global power could shift to China and its neighbors, authors speculated.
What might life be like in this future? The political impacts of this are hard to pin down for Blau, although he suspects eastern Asian countries would be looked to as a positive example in how western governments are run. More clear to him: Our relationship with technology could change. For years, many people have held deep privacy concerns and a suspicion of artificial intelligence. If technology proves invaluable in our fight against the virus, those perceptions could evolve.
This scenario imagines a world where many factors — such as the severity of the disease and the economic impacts — are not as bad as they could be, but only because corporations stepped up when governments were ineffective.
It’s an expansion of a trend seen to some extent in the today — public-private partnerships where big corporations step in when governments can’t handle the crisis alone. There’s threads of this in the daily news of today: Tech companies fixing broken ventilators for the government; Apple and Google developing apps to help fight the pandemic.
What might life be like in this future? Corporations would play an even bigger role in our lives than they currently do — and Blau suspects we would come to embrace that, since those companies helped us through the crisis. The report says this future could lead to an era of greater corporate responsibility and trust.
This is the future “no one wants to happen,” Blau said. This scenario could happen if the virus proves impossible to contain and spreads in long-lasting waves around the globe.
"Mounting deaths, social unrest, and economic freefall become prominent,” the report says.
As a result, nations turn inward and limit contact with the outside world in the interest of national security. It’s a future where even allies feel like they cannot trust each other.
What might life be like in this future? Different nations will feel the impacts in different ways, but Blau imagines we’d live in a less connected, less trusting, less prosperous world, focused on survival. It’s a “dark scenario” where technology is used for surveillance and control, nations limit trade with each other and paranoia is common among citizens.
Will any of these scenarios actually happen?
The good news: The future isn’t written yet, and we have a say in how it plays out.
Report authors listed how citizens of nations responded to the crisis as one of their top unknowns. Nations that work together and “think big and act fast” will fare better, they predicted.
The scenarios in the report are meant to confront you with a possible reality that might surprise or unsettle you — and that’s part of the point, Blau said. The goal is to get readers thinking and mentally preparing for a wide variety of possible futures, even ones that don’t seem intuitive.
Instead of believing specific predictions for the future, he suggested embracing the uncertainty we are all living at this moment.
“We’re all imagining the future,” Blau said. “None of us actually know.”