13 views on how the pandemic will shape the future
One year after COVID hit, taking stock of the ‘new normal’
IT WAS A YEAR AGO this week that it became clear how completely our world would be turned upside down. After mounting global concern about a deadly new respiratory illness originating in China, the novel coronavirus, as we initially referred to it, established a firm foothold in the US and the country was soon in a nearly complete lockdown. On March 10, Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency in Massachusetts. A year later, more than 500,000 lives have been lost in the US, more than 2.5 million people have died worldwide.
With an all-out vaccination effort now underway, we are hoping the worst is behind us. As much as we long for a return to life as we knew it, the pandemic seems destined to have a lasting effect on many aspects of our daily world, changes that will endure long after we have corralled the virus itself.
CommonWealth asked a range of leading thinkers and doers in various fields to offer their best take, one year after the pandemic outbreak, on how the experience will reshape our world going forward.
Nonie K. Lesaux is academic dean and a professor of education and society at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Over the past year, the essential – and fragile – nature of the child care system has been exposed in Massachusetts and across the nation: to families, who have faced drastic changes in caregiving responsibilities at home while managing daily work; to early educators, who have seen their child care programs close, some permanently, and their work transformed through a shift to new types of remote or physically distanced instruction; through to much of the public, who have witnessed the everyday impacts when employees in a range of industries, from manufacturing to health care, have had to choose between caring for their children and going to work.
Access to high-quality, reliable child care is particularly essential to women’s lives – just as women’s contributions are essential to the economy and broader society. The pandemic, and a persistent lack of child care in many places, has led to an exodus of women (and especially women of color) from the workforce; without swift intervention, this is a major threat and setback to the economy and broader society.
Looking ahead, there is an opportunity to create a system of child care that better serves working families in the context of post-pandemic life. In the short run, Congress appears poised to pass a stimulus bill that will infuse the child care industry with an historic amount of stabilizing funds, crucial given today’s volatility. This critical investment at the federal level is key, especially as states face looming budget challenges, and because it is overdue to treat child care as the public good and the critical piece of societal and economic infrastructure that it is.
Beyond new investments, we need new and innovative approaches that support post-pandemic work and family life, including a shift toward more flexible, non-traditional hours and a need for unprecedented levels of career changing – and upskilling – due to workforce and economic shifts. Tackling these realities through “outside-the-box” thinking that builds upon the child care system’s strengths will support the Commonwealth to emerge from this crisis ever the stronger.
Health care delivery in the US has been traditionally fragmented and siloed, organized around modalities and particular providers. I believe the COVID pandemic will lead to new models of integrated, omni-channel health care delivery, which will better serve both patients and doctors.
Medical practices typically have made patients come into the office for everything (because they only get paid for in-person visits), and because of this there have emerged a number of new entrants trying to meet demands from patients for interacting in different ways, such as chat companies allowing you to text a clinician (or an AI interface acting as one), and telemedicine companies offering phone and video encounters only. Typically, none of these clinicians have any relationship with your regular physicians and have no records about your history or preferences.
While the pandemic has hastened the rise of all these other provider modalities, we are finally seeing traditional medical practices start to more rapidly embrace these other ways of interacting themselves.
Now that patients have tried these other modalities, they love them — but would prefer to do text, call, and video chat with their doctor and team who knows them and their prior medical history and preferences. The pandemic has caused many misguided regulatory barriers to be lifted, and payers to be more creative with how they pay for care. As long as we take lessons we have learned during the pandemic (i.e., that these old restrictions and payment models were misguided, and changing them didn’t lead to any harm), then this trend towards omni channel care delivery will continue — for the benefit of both patients and those that take care of them.
Ed Glaeser is a professor of economics at Harvard University. He’s the author of “Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier.”
Will the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to the urban renaissance that cities, like Boston, have experienced since the 1970s? Since the plague of Athens in 430 BC, contagious diseases have damaged cities, either by spreading quickly in dense confines or by inducing urbanites to shun the interpersonal contact that is the ultimate purpose of high density living. Our current pandemic has created the added risk that millions of workers may stick with telecommuting and never return to their downtown offices.
If pandemic becomes a permanent feature of our world, either because this virus’s variants defeat the vaccines or because new pandemics emerge quickly, then the future for the cities is extremely bleak. That dire scenario is also catastrophic for the enormous face-to-face service sectors of retail trade, leisure, and hospitality, which employed one-fifth of America’s workers pre-COVID. Our national governments must invest in a robust public health infrastructure to make sure that this does not happen again.
If our cities do become safe from contagion, then city life will come back, even though each individual city will be vulnerable. Cities and offices will return because humanity is a social species that craves the company of others. Just think of the thousands of young people who went out immediately to bars and restaurants when the restrictions were lifted in Florida and Texas in June. For millions, the excitement of human contact outweighed the risk of COVID-19. Working at a comfortable home office may seem pleasant to a 53-year-old professor, but working in a dark crowded apartment is pretty awful for many 23-year-old graduate students.
Many jobs can be done from home, but work is about learning new things as much as performing old tasks. The work of economists Natalia Emanuel and Emma Harrington finds that when call-center workers go remote, they handle calls more quickly but they are less likely to be promoted, possibly because they haven’t learned the skills to handle the more difficult calls. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom reported a similar finding for Chinese call center workers long before COVID-19. While programmers seem to be as productive at home, Burning Glass openings for programmers have dropped dramatically, possibly because it is harder to bring new people on-board remotely.
Both the office and the city will survive COVID-19, but no individual city is guaranteed success. Moving your start-up to somewhere cheaper than Kendall Square has never been easier. We are at a progressive moment in urban politics, both because of historical inequities and because of the unequal impact of COVID-19 on rich and poor. In May of 2020, over two thirds of Americans with advanced degrees were telecommuting but fewer than 15 percent of Americans with only a high school degree were working remotely. Yet that understandable progressive urge must recognize that the rise of remote work reduces the costs for businesses and the rich of exiting to a Sunbelt state with low taxes.
The key is to find policies that help the poor without harming the city’s economic dynamism. Faster permitting of small businesses, perhaps through one-stop permitting entities like the Devens Enterprise Commission, should empower ordinary entrepreneurs and allow new restaurants and shops to replace the ones that failed during the pandemic. Improving the educational outcomes for the poorest urbanites should always be at the top of the agenda. Cities and city policies must become smarter to thrive during the years ahead.
Neema Avashia is a civics teacher at the McCormack Middle School in Boston.
If September 2021 in our schools looks the way that September 2019 did, we will have failed. Failed to listen to, and to incorporate, the learnings that educators and young people have built together during this pandemic.
In truth, we are already failing. Because when I talk to my students about what they want to happen first when they re-enter school buildings, they talk about the need for healing. More than 500,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. Those are our students’ family members and friends. Our first job should be helping young people to feel whole again. To grieve and heal and feel connected.
Instead, our state leadership prioritizes assessment and remediation in their plans for the return to buildings, completely avoiding the very real Maslowian fact that when we don’t prioritize healing, our assessments aren’t measuring knowledge, they are measuring trauma.
Furthermore, the two driving principles in too many schools pre-pandemic were compliance and coverage. Learning was predicated on obedience. “More” was prioritized over “deeper” or “well.”
The pandemic has shown us the profound fallacy of both principles. When students are learning from home, eating when they want to eat, wearing what they want to wear, listening to music when they want to listen to it, and still demonstrating mastery of concepts, it is patently clear that compliance doesn’t drive learning: relationships do. Relevant and engaging curriculum does. When we slow down, focus on the most essential concepts, and give kids multiple opportunities to grapple with complex ideas, their end learning is infinitely stronger than when we keep pushing forward to cover more standards because we are frightened that we will not get to all of the material covered on MCAS, and will be punished both as a school community, and as individual students, as a result.
Our schools post-pandemic should be designed and staffed to support these three principles: Healing, relationships, and deep learning. Otherwise, we will have failed to learn the lessons of this pandemic.
Michael Horn is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. He is the coauthor of “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns” and “Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools.”
Plenty of college students are disenchanted with the online experience forced by pandemic. According to a national survey of students by Third Way, 55 percent of students agree that “higher education is not good quality now that it has moved partially or entirely online.” Enrollment in colleges and universities has crashed—freshman enrollment fell 13 percent and overall enrollment was down 4.4 percent.
At the same time the disruptive innovators in higher education are doing well. Enrollment at large online institutions—those that do online learning well—has skyrocketed. Southern New Hampshire University’s enrollment soared 18 percent. Western Governors University’s is up 7 percent.
So what will happen next?
In Massachusetts, institutions like Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, and Amherst College might be able to return to normal. But they might choose not to, as all of them are innovating with online education and altering how they deliver courses and services.
For others—from already struggling smaller private colleges with relatively undifferentiated value propositions to the state public higher education system—the pandemic amplified a message the market had been sending for a number of years: Business as usual may not be sustainable.
Simmons University may be a harbinger for what institutions will need to do to stay afloat and relevant. The institution’s partnership with ed-tech company 2U is now helping them offer a fully online undergraduate degree.
Among public colleges, Massachusetts so far stands apart from its neighbors like New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, and Connecticut—all of which have undergone or are exploring vast mergers of their institutions. But with the dramatic decline in community college enrollment this past fall on the heels of several years of declines, watch whether demand rebounds in the fall.
UMass Online’s partnership with Brandman University, which offers a robust online experience for working adults, will be critical if the public system is to thrive. Although college has been synonymous in people’s minds with 18-year-olds, working adults seeking to upskill is where the opportunity for higher education to grow lies.
When it comes to the long-term impact of the pandemic on higher education, the rich institutions will be fine, the poor are even further threatened, and the innovators who have been calling for change will have some added wind at their backs.
Rich Bane is the chairman of Bane Care Management, which operates 11 nursing homes and two assisted living facilities in Massachusetts.
The COVID-19 pandemic was more than a wakeup call for the skilled nursing sector. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. For over a decade, after a prolonged period of Medicaid reimbursements that were not keeping up with the costs of providing care, the Massachusetts nursing home industry had been advocating for the need to make proper investments in the sector. Massachusetts was fourth worst in the country in underfunding nursing home care, so when the pandemic hit, facilities were already frail and on the brink of financial and operating disaster. No wonder that early on, the impact of COVID in nursing homes was so severe.
In the last 10 months, a partial awakening has developed, as state officials have moved to buttress nursing homes with desperately needed additional financial assistance. That support, combined with collaboratively designed programing to support our workforce, increase access to PPE, provide testing, and strengthen infection control, became a national model and demonstrated the positive outcomes that can be achieved when nursing facility care is more adequately funded.
Certainly, while no one wants to be in a nursing home, the fact is that there will always be a need to provide skilled nursing care for the most socially and medically disadvantaged. In the coming years, when the silver tsunami of baby boomers that require the long-term care that cannot be provided in the community comes knocking on the doors, well-funded, high quality Massachusetts nursing homes must be there to provide for them.
The pandemic has underscored the necessity and critical importance of government and the nursing facility sector working together to develop and implement policies and actions that protect and support the Commonwealth’s nursing home residents and their caregivers.
POLITICS, CAMPAIGNS, AND CIVIC LIFE
Wilnelia Rivera is president of Rivera Consulting, a Boston-based political strategy and consulting firm. Jon Hillman is a senior consultant and researcher at the firm.
One year into this pandemic, we are simultaneously living in the reality of today’s world while shaping and forging a new normal for the future. This is especially true in the case of our civic life, politics, and electoral campaigns. The pandemic has forced logistical changes such as mail-in voting and digital strategies that have addressed immediate concerns related to the loss of in-person engagement, while increasing voter turnout and civic participation. In response, a troubling, systematic effort to combat that democratic growth has taken root.
Activists, volunteers, and paid professionals across the ideological, religious, and political spectrum have had to reimagine their role in the engagement space. Popular voter access reforms driven by these actors, such as universal mail in-voting, same-day registration, curb-side pick-up, and expanded early in-person voting, should become permanent as quickly as possible. Any delay based in nefarious claims about voter fraud should be seen as a distraction from making our democracy more just.
As for the practice of campaigns, the pandemic provided mainstream constituencies—whether political parties or the media—an opportunity to witness and learn from the power of relational and digital organizing and engagement. It became understood that the social connections that drive value-aligned movements can be activated through digital means regardless of geography or physical restrictions.
Whether you attended a political event via Zoom, sent hundreds of hand-signed letters, or participated in an audio room in Clubhouse, this past year has shown us once again that campaigns have much to learn from the grassroots. The confluence of these strategies led to the largest presidential voter turnout in American history.
This past year has reminded us of the power of expanding and protecting our democratic institutions despite unprecedented attacks. Yet Trump and his brand of Republican nationalism will not simply go away. State by state, new voter suppression laws are being promoted to roll back progress achieved during this emergency. The pandemic has made clear that the battle for our civic life and institutions in the years ahead is between those who strive for expanded participation in our democracy and those that will seek to restrict it at any cost.
Adam Hinds is a state senator from Pittsfield and chairman of Special Massachusetts State Senate Committee on Reimagining Massachusetts: Post Pandemic Resiliency.
COVID-19 fundamentally changed how state government functioned. Workforce management, service delivery, ballot access, and policy development were all altered. The Baker administration’s announcement that 20,000 state employees would shift to a permanent “hybrid” remote work model is only the beginning. Many alterations could be here to stay.
Government, like other sectors, experienced an acceleration towards the digitization of work and services. Virtual courts, telework, and agile regulation became government realities this year. With ease of access and financial incentives for taxpayers, consumers, and the government, they could be a welcome evolution.
Government has also been as visible as it has ever been. We watch daily briefings for critical decisions that control our lives and the lives of our family. Investment decisions impact our livelihoods. Greater expectations of transparency have resulted. COVID has had a democratizing effect on access via online hearings and meetings, possibly forcing virtual access to institutions permanently. The Legislature’s rules related to remote sessions and hearings have been extended and could become central for accessing policy makers without traveling the state or losing time at work.
The public display of data has been used to assess government effectiveness, internally and externally, like never before. Regular COVID-19 reports by the Department of Public Health are bookmarked to our computer browsers. Why not demand increased reliance on data collection to assess policy outcomes in every government intervention? Government messaging also changed. Traditionally constituents were told what government was doing. Now real time feedback is needed and wanted on all sides.
Returning to the pre-pandemic status quo would leave people exposed in the event of another shock to the system. Disparities in the impact COVID-19 has had on health and economic outcomes by race and income have exposed unacceptable failures in governance. There is an opportunity to leap forward in governance and resilience. We should embrace it.
RACE AND RACIAL JUSTICE
Atyia Martin is a member of the Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition.
People of color in Massachusetts are not looking for handouts, but a return on their investment in this state.
We are witnessing anti-Asian violence based on misplaced frustration and anger. COVID-19 has pried many eyes open to the disproportionate burdens Black and Latinx people have been bearing because of racism and the brokenness of the institutions and systems we all depend on.
COVID-19 has destroyed many Black and Latinx families’ hopes and dreams. The pain, suffering, and death that many of these families are feeling makes our hearts sink and causes many to want to turn away. It is overwhelming. However, we cannot run or hide from the seemingly hopeless situation: We can still take a proactive stance to prevent the devastation from continuing for generations.
The behavior that reinforces racism quietly travels along the well-worn paths of self-centered thinking; deficit-based approaches that amount to symptom chasing; deciding for us without us; lack of deploying best practices; and extracting from instead of investing in communities.
However, communities of color are tapping into the power of collective care and action. Let’s turn to these grassroots organizations leading the way on blazing a new trail to model. Unique partnerships within communities and with institutions like health care have filled the gap in resources (think the Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition, Black Springfield COVID-19 Coalition, Vaccine Equity Now! Coalition, La Colaborativa, Mutual Aid Eastie, and many more).
We have a distinct opportunity to reimagine and deliver on a racially equitable COVID-19 recovery that catalyzes a transformation of health care, workforce development, contracting, education, youth development, and more. Every person and organization has a shared struggle and opportunity to learn so we can be better and do better to embed racial equity and social justice. Those of us across all races who understand our interconnectedness can lead the way towards a more resilient Commonwealth, one in which we all get a return on our investment from health care as well as all of our policies, programs, and workplaces.
Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett is the House chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation.
Transportation will see its share of pandemic-related changes in all modes. I believe that the changes will occur in two broad ways: first, we will see new travel patterns by the public, that is, where and when are people traveling; and then, second, as a result, we will see changes in how the transportation system operates, whether by private cars or public transit provided by trains, subways, buses, and ferries. Air travel changes are their own separate issue.
As to travel patterns, we know that pre-COVID congestion is down in the Boston metro area, particularly during what people think of as the rush hour window. But one of the things I’ve learned from Mass Highway data is, at least with cars and trucks, the overall vehicle volume is back to almost 80 to 90 percent of what it was. That volume, however, is occurring in places all around the state outside of Route 128.
For example, in contrast to the increased traffic volumes around the state, volume on the Massachusetts Turnpike volume within Route 128 remains down 40 percent. I would say at this point that people are driving around much as they were pre-COVID; they’re just not doing it in the same patterns as before. The area that is coming back the slowest is actually in the immediate Boston area. So the cars that bunched into the city within Route 128 pre-COVID are moving around, but they’re moving around in different places – so gas is being consumed, impact on roads and bridges is occurring, just in different ways.
If this travel change continues, and is also reflective of commuting changes on public transit post-COVID, the capital, scheduling, and design needs for transportation in Massachusetts will need to change as well.
WORLD OF WORK
Brad Harrington is the executive director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family and a research professor in the Carroll School of Management.
One year after the coronavirus pandemic struck, virtually every organization, regardless of the market it serves or the products it provides, has been profoundly impacted. Unlucky sectors like travel and hospitality have been devastated by this shutdown. Many others, including pharmaceuticals, technology, financial, and professional services and consulting, have sustained themselves effectively but are now working in ways that were unheard of, or at least unsupported, before the pandemic. Even organizations that once severely restricted flexibility have completely flipped their ways of working. The positive result has been that employers have learned that employees working flexibly were highly productive, even while many were juggling work with full-time caregiving and home schooling.
What will be the result of this 12-month global pilot study? Different organizational leaders have differing views of what the future will hold, often depending on their personal preferences. Some want everyone back into the office as soon as possible while others are questioning why employees must return and why they need to invest in so much expensive corporate real estate. While neither of these extreme positions are likely to dominate, given the adaptations that have already been made, there is little doubt that employees, thrilled to be rid of their two-plus hour commutes each day, will be angling for significantly more flexible and virtual work. The smart money would suggest that the world of work is far more likely to lean in that direction.
But succeeding with this new way of working will require a number of important strategies. Organizations will need to think through their flexible and remote working policies. They will need to provide and support the technology and office furnishings that will allow their employees to be productive and safe. And they will need to alter a wide range of workforce management processes that will inevitably be different. This will include challenges like on-boarding, cultural assimilation, job training, employee engagement, team collaboration, inclusion, mentoring, and performance management. All of these are likely to change whether organizations adopt a primarily hybrid model of working or continue to promote remote work.
When it comes to employee retention and development, one group that needs special attention is women. For women with children, the past year has been overwhelming as they inherited the vast majority of caregiving and homeschooling responsibilities. The result has seen women dropping out of the workplace or falling out of the management pipeline in very significant numbers as they made the necessary adjustments to meet their dramatically increased family obligations. Leaders need to ask what can be done to bring women back into the workforce or to help them restart their careers. Husbands/partners will also play a critical role in righting the ship. Investments in women’s advancement and supporting working fathers to be shared caregivers will do much to make future workplaces more welcoming and more inclusive for all.
ARTS & CULTURE
Michael Bobbitt is the executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
Every decade, some major devastation forces the closures of many cultural institutions. Together we must work to diminish the impacts of this sad reality. The cultural sector generates huge economic impact ($877 billion in US economic impact and $2.3 billion in the Commonwealth). Once we’re through the pandemic, I predict we’ll see robust government funding and support for arts and culture. Maybe we’ll see new legislatively sponsored programs and projects, like FDR’s Federal Theatre Project, government-sponsored international touring artists, investments in municipal creative placemaking, or a deeper investment in early exposure to the arts/arts education to assure great artists and arts supporters in the future.
The cultural sector must work collectively with other sectors that benefit from arts consumption, such as restaurants, travel companies, hotels, tourism, and transportation, to find resources to innovate.
I suspect that we may see new seating arrangements that reduce the capacity of venues. We’ll see more creative placemaking, where art and culture is consumed in outdoor areas like waterfronts, street fairs, parks, and nooks and crannies all over. (We’ll have to engineer comfort during the cold months.) We must fully embrace the possibilities that the digital world offers, the creativity that can come from those moments where digital and live worlds meet.
The sporting industry saw a massive increase in consumption when games started streaming into people’s homes. The unique in-home viewing heightens the experience, with instant replays, data scrolls, close ups, slow-motion, player bios, and colorful commentators scribbling on the screen. Viewing parties and tailgating are now a pastime, but don’t deter people from still going to live games on occasion at stadiums and arenas. In fact, because the games stream, the sporting industry saw a massive uptick in attendance, sponsorship from major brands, salary increases for players, and made it more accessible for marginalized, oppressed, and targeted communities.
In the future, we’ll see most cultural organizations producing their own streaming platforms and using techniques from other industries, like sports. Imagine experiencing a museum tour, dance performance, or musical event like this. If we can embrace these innovations, I think we’ll see more diverse and younger audiences consuming art and culture. Speaking of which, I wonder if we may even start seeing cellphone-allowed performances (because of the free marketing) and “quiet car”-type performances for those who want a different experience.
LOSS AND GRIEF
Alex Goldstein, CEO of 90 West, a Boston-based communications and strategy firm, is founder of the Faces of COVID project, a Twitter-based effort to honor and remember the lives lost to coronavirus.
One of my biggest fears is that in our rush to move on, reopen, and restart our lives we are going to fail to process the grief and loss that is weighing on countless families across this country. So many of them continue to be unable to properly mourn and say goodbye because of the restrictions and limitations of doing so safely in a pandemic. Funerals had only a few attendees. Wakes and shivas were cancelled. Memorial services were deferred to a date to be determined in the future.
And failing to adequately process and grieve the losses to our families, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and broader community has deeper consequences than just the mental trauma that so many people are quietly carrying right now. Failing to say the names and tell the stories of those we’ve lost, and mourn through a collective grieving process also puts us at risk of making the same mistakes when the next crisis arrives at our door.
The history of this pandemic is being written right now, and the stories of those we’ve lost, and those who are still battling this horrible virus are vital to how we remember this era and what lessons we ultimately learn from it when it comes to policymaking. Our policy decisions have consequences — both the policy decisions we made in the decades leading up to the outbreak that made Black and Brown communities more vulnerable to the pandemic than others, and the policy failures we made during the pandemic that has left 525,000 people dead.I keep coming back to the same question when I read the stories of those we’ve lost. What kind of country do we want to live in? One in which we have a responsibility to look after our neighbors who we may never meet, because that’s what it means to be a part of a community? Or a country that lurches from crisis to crisis led by a phony belief in a “rugged individualism” that we use an excuse to not care about anyone but ourselves? I know what kind of country I want to live in.