Are we changed forever by the pandemic?

Some impacts, only glimpsed now, could have long-term effects

WHAT IF our lives are never the same again?

It took a blunt cabinet secretary at a dry state budget hearing to voice the fears of millions.

For Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, the issue was, unsurprisingly, transportation. “The COVID pandemic may well have changed travel and transportation forever,” Pollack said at a hearing before the Legislature’s Ways and Means Committees on Wednesday.

Working from home, online shopping, and remote learning, Pollack said, have reshaped the needs of travelers. She said state officials have “begun to plan for a post-COVID world where some of the changes in travel remain long after the pandemic has been vanquished.”

For Pollack, the changes mean a need to reconsider the nitty-gritty of state transportation budgeting. With less traffic, revenue from tolls is expected to drop from $621.7 million in fiscal 2019 to $449.6 in fiscal 2021. The MBTA is now serving 330,000 trips on an average weekday, down from 1.26 million in September 2019, leading to talk about service cuts or service adjustments. As Pollack noted, even with social distancing accommodations, it doesn’t make sense to run near-empty trains.

A slide show Pollack presented envisioned three possible scenarios: a gradual return to pre-COVID conditions with a slight increase in telework; an economic recovery paired with a shift in travel patterns that takes advantage of new e-commerce and remote meeting technology; and lasting economic impacts leading to depressed travel and increased telecommuting.

All the scenarios include, for better or for worse, some impact on residents forever.

And transit is hardly the only area where experts are asking long-term questions. Already, urban planners are questioning whether the coronavirus will lead to the demise of cities.

The Boston Globe recently ran a story headlined “Is pandemic isolation destroying our social skills?” While the story was somewhat facetious, the question is serious: How will a prolonged lack of social interaction affect our personalities?

Experts exploring the issue of women leaving the workforce during the pandemic note that after Hurricane Katrina shut down schools, it took years for women to regain their position in the workforce. And anyone forced to leave the workforce for an extended period of time could see the effects all the way through their retirement, in the form of lower Social Security payments.

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

The Globe recently reported that enrollment in graduate and undergraduate programs is way down. State House News Service reported that enrollment in public colleges, particularly community colleges, is also down. If some of these students forego higher education altogether, what will the impact be on their lifelong wages?

It goes without saying that for some, the impacts of COVID-19 are unquestionably forever. The dead cannot be brought back. Their families have lost a loved one. We don’t yet know how long COVID-19 “long-haulers” will continue to suffer ill health.

But Pollack’s comment resonates. Even for those of us lucky enough to survive the pandemic with our health intact, will there be impacts that last forever?