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NEXT: Habits and Behaviors After Coronavirus

David Staley David Staley NEXT: Habits and Behaviors After Coronavirus
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There remain many unanswered questions about life after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, chief among these being the still uncertain long-term health effects. Other questions include how long it will take for the economy to recover. There is historical evidence that suggests that those cities that quarantined early during the 1918 flu pandemic saw their economies bounce back quicker. Perhaps there will be a similar effect this time? But even if the economy recovers relatively quickly, what form will the economy take? Will it be structurally changed? Will there be businesses–even whole industries–that will have been irrevocably upended as people make new choices based on this experience?

I am especially interested in the kinds of behaviors and habits that we will continue to carry forward after the crisis has subsided. Our social interactions are very likely to be altered as a result of the pandemic. How will we greet each other in public? There was a clever meme that suggested we should use Mr. Spock’s Vulcan greeting—the splayed finger “Live Long and Prosper”—since it involves no physical contact. After months of Zoom meetings, where we have greeted each other in ways that do not involve physical contact, will we carry this practice back into the physical world? We might learn and internalize from this trauma that handshakes spread disease, and will thereby abandon this practice.  

One social outcome of the 1918 influenza pandemic was a persistent feeling of loneliness and isolation enforced by the quarantine. Might these feelings be repeated after the coronavirus quarantines? One man reminiscing years later about the 1918 pandemic recalled that “People didn’t seem as friendly as before…They didn’t visit each other, bring food over, have parties all the time. The neighborhood changed. People changed. Everything changed.” Even when bars and restaurants are permitted to re-open, there may be a hesitancy to go out in public and interact with others again.

In the same way the economy—financial capital—has been ravaged by this crisis, social capital—our networks of social relations—has similarly been torn asunder. Before the pandemic, social capital suffered from similar kinds of inequalities as those found in financial capital. Those inequalities in social capital might be exacerbated as a result of sheltering in place. The world’s economic metabolism has most certainly slowed as a result of the pandemic, and perhaps there has been a parallel slowing of our collective “social metabolism.” Even when we are permitted to move about in public again, I wonder if we will continue to social distance, to disengage from others, setting off a “social recession” that mirrors our economic recession. In the same way we will need to institute policies to boost the economy out of economic recession, I wonder if we will need to take steps to boost our society out of its social recession (and to also tackle the problem of inequality in social capital)?    

There is a branch of anthropology called proxemics that studies social space. One result of the legal mandate to maintain six feet of social distancing between us is that the boundaries of our personal space may very well expand. Before, when I would be at an event or a cocktail party, I would maintain a distance of about two-and-a-half feet from the person to whom I was speaking. Anything closer than that would have been considered an invasion of the other person’s personal space. (And these definitions of personal space are culturally determined: for some cultures, the boundaries are much closer.) After the pandemic, we may find that we are practicing a much wider zone of personal space when we return to parties or other social occasions. We may find that three or even four feet becomes the new normal in how we define and enforce our personal space.  

It is also possible that these boundaries of personal space will be formally and institutionally enforced, not just through social convention. Public venues like sports stadiums, cultural institutions and other “third spaces” might find that they are required to enforce and police social distancing among their patrons. Consider the way that some grocery stores today have reconfigured their spaces. Some stores have drawn lines on their floors, a winding path through the store that all customers are required to follow—at six foot intervals. Even if I don’t need dog food, I must still walk through the pet food aisle. Our ability to move in public spaces might be similarly curtailed and regulated; in addition to preparing lattes, Starbucks employees might be called upon to monitor the café to ensure proper social distancing, or to deny entry to an already crowded café.  

Will police be asked to monitor social distancing as a regular part of their enforcement of public order? Are there even enough police to realistically accomplish this? There was a stunt performed recently in Manhattan, where a drone hovered over walkers admonishing them to keep physically distanced from each other, a dystopian scene that frightened many. It needs to be said that no official agency claimed responsibility for the drone, and so I suspect that it was the work of pranksters or a performance artist. But in the same way that red light and speeding cameras enforce traffic laws without the intercession of human police officers, I wonder if we won’t see more of this kind of automated “health surveillance?” Perhaps taking our temperature in public places will become as common as walking through a metal detector and other kinds of screening at a TSA checkpoint. The historian Yuval Noah Harari certainly fears for even more surveillance as a result of the pandemic.

Even if the “police drone” is a joke, we should nevertheless expect to see more robots and automated machines in our public places. Some grocery chains have been employing robots to provide “essential services” during the quarantine, such as stocking shelves and disinfecting floors, even making deliveries. Many people might find themselves more accustomed not only to having more things delivered to their homes, but that those deliveries are carried out by robots. If “being in public” is perceived by many as being dangerous and risky, then robots might come to overpopulate physical, public spaces as humans remain cloistered in their homes. Might some of us suffer from something like collective agoraphobia?  

Many of us await the day when we can return to some semblance of normalcy, where we are no longer confined to our homes. But I wonder if sheltering in place in response to a pandemic might become a semi-regular occurrence? In the same way life is altered during a snow emergency, for example, we might find that if pandemics become more commonplace, sheltering in our homes, ceasing economic activity and practicing extreme physical distancing for a short period—a month, say—becomes a feature of our lives. The “quarantine month” might become a semi-regular occurrence and a routine pause in modern life.  

Does urban densification have a future? Urban planners and smart city advocates before the outbreak were vigorously touting the benefits of increased population densification. If social distancing of some kind becomes the new social norm, how will people feel about living in cities that are “overcrowded” (which becomes their new preferred word rather than “dense”). “Suburban sprawl” might be looked upon more favorably, and would now be termed “suburban spaciousness.”

More of our lives will certainly be conducted online. My son had a doctor’s visit scheduled before the outbreak. The office then called to say that the appointment would still occur, but that we would do so over video. Because it was a well visit and did not require a physical examination, the visit could very easily be carried out on Zoom. 

Telemedicine is hardly new; it has been employed especially in those areas that lack doctors. What might change is the frequency, the ratio of in-person care to tele-care. Indeed, many of us might discover that we conduct more—not all, but more—of our affairs at a digital distance. Rural areas and other “connectivity deserts”—where broadband access is difficult—could possibly suffer as a result. And the trend of delivering more of the physical world to us—which I described as “The New Mobility”—will very likely be accelerated.

The same for schooling, whose move to a fully online environment has long been anticipated, but now seems to be on the brink of realization. The big debate occurring right now in higher education is whether this crisis is the ultimate push toward moving all university instruction into an online form. Online education is, of course, nothing new, but, again, the ratio of online to physical presence will be altered. Online instruction may very likely become the norm, with face-to-face instruction as the occasional option. Will all of our lives be conducted at a distance, over Zoom? Probably not. But we will discover that a greater portion of our lives have moved online.  

There will no doubt be an explosion of face-to-face activity once the quarantines end. Some will be so hungry for physical contact and real social interaction that they will have meetings just for the sake of having meetings. But once that urge has been satisfied, we may find that we have become so accustomed to meetings and other business over Zoom that we will not be returning to the pre-COVID-19 baseline. Conferences and business travel will be significantly reduced—assuming that the airlines even survive the coming pandemic-induced recession. Globalization itself might be under threat: if globalization is defined in part by the ease of movement across international borders, we may find such movement is confined to Zoom conferences, not actual physical travel.  

Psychologists tell us that we require a certain amount of face-to-face interaction else we end up lonely and depressed. In moving so much of our lives online, in avoiding face-to-face interactions, are we facing a potential and wide-scale public mental health crisis?

I note that the website New Chic is now selling hats with protective shields, like the ones that front-line health care workers have been wearing. It is possible that the mask, the veil will become a widely-worn article of clothing, not just a fashion accessory, in the way we might don a hat or put on a scarf. The face shield could become one example of the new “protective fashion” that will symbolize the new habits and behaviors post-COVID-19. 

David Staley is Director of the Humanities Institute and a professor at The Ohio State University. He is host of the “Voices of Excellence” podcast [https://soundcloud.com/voices_arts_sciences

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