Living in a Post-COVID World
Updated: May 25
“Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted”
--Aldous Huxley, Brave New World.
In mid-February, as I do every year, I attended the Savannah Book Festival. I heard John Grisham talk about his latest novel, which is set in Savannah, with 1500 other people in the audience. Afterward, my wife and I went to dinner together to celebrate Valentine’s Day. We ran into some old friends there and hugged them without hesitation. The woman, who I actually barely know, kissed me on the cheek—because that’s the sort of thing most people do when they see each other, especially in the South. We’re social animals. We hug each other and kiss folks we barely know. We share food and swap stories. We congregate at church, eat dinner with friends, go to ball games and have cookouts in the back yard with our neighbors.
Only now, we don’t.
The COVID 19 pandemic has changed a lot of things. I wear a mask all day. My temperature is checked at the entrance of every building I enter. I have not eaten in a restaurant in over two months. I’m a gastroenterologist, so I’m used to hand-washing, but this pandemic has taken that behavior to a whole new level. I’m truly obsessive about cleanliness now. I wear scrubs to work, shower immediately when I get home each day, and disinfect every surface I come into contact with.
“It’s the new normal,” people say. I’ve heard that a thousand times if I’ve heard it once.
But what does that really mean?
There are a few things that I think COVID 19 has likely changed forever, or at least for the near future. The whole experience has been a sobering reminder of the little everyday things we all have taken for granted for so long, including some things we will miss terribly simply because they aren’t there anymore.
The handshake is dead.
Human beings have been using the handshake for millennia (a limestone dais, carved in the mid-ninth century B.C., depicting the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III hand in hand with a Babylonian ally). It’s a custom that has sealed deals, ended wars and built empires—but for all intents and purposes, it’s over. Writer Micah Houser, in The New Yorker earlier this month, quipped that the handshake “died earlier this month, in quarantine.” Dr. Gregory Poland, an infectious disease expert at the Mayo Clinic, was recently quoted as saying “When you extend your hand, you’re extending a bioweapon.” But the replacements have been awkward. The elbow bump, the foot tap, hands over the heart and the bow all seem forced and unnatural to us. The handshake evolved to establish a friendly communication between two people by touch. Nowadays, however, most folks aren’t comfortable shaking hands at all. After all, who wants to greet someone warmly and then immediately bust out the hand sanitizer? That just detracts from the whole intimate meaning of the gesture.
Personally, I think we’ve moved on from it—and I don’t see it coming back.
Masks are going to become fashion accessories.
I saw a sign of things to come this week: A patient wearing a bejeweled Louis Vuitton facemask.
“If I’m going to have to wear a facemask, I’m doing it my way,” the patient said.
Makeup expert Melina Basnight, who produces makeup tutorials on a YouTube channel called Makeup Menaree, has started providing pointers on how to apply makeup around a facemask. She tries to accentuate the eyes because, with the lower half of the face covered, many of the nonverbal cues we are used to reading are gone.
These are simply more adaptations to the post COVID 19 world. Many people in Asian countries have been wearing masks in public for a while, a habit which began after the 2003 SARS outbreak. And there are compelling data which show that mask-wearing, as a public health measure, can be effective. If an unmasked person infected with COVID 19 enters a room in close proximity to an unmasked uninfected individual and spends 15 minutes with him, the odds of the uninfected person contracting the virus are ~90%. If both are wearing masks, those odds drop to 1.5%. And there are numerous studies that show that if 80% of people wear a mask in public, SARS CoV-2 transmission could be halted (https://theconversation.com/masks-help-stop-the-spread-of-coronavirus-the-science-is-simple-and-im-one-of-100-experts-urging-governors-to-require-public-mask-wearing-138507).
Still, it’s not always easy to wear a mask. Superheroes wear masks to conceal their identity. Darth Vader’s black mask made him more terrifying. The overriding fact is simply this: Masks are dehumanizing. We’ve all been conditioned to read peoples’ emotions by looking at their faces. In my business, a smile can go a long way towards reassuring anxious patients. Now, half of our faces are often covered, taking those nonverbal cues away from us.
It’s been estimated that we may be months away from an effective SARS CoV-2 vaccine. Even after that vaccine is finally developed, I think many people will still be wearing masks out in public—at least during cold and flu season. Because you never know what’s really out there.
Travel will be different.
Entire business sectors have been built around the travel industry, from airlines and car rental places to the hotel industry and VRBOs. But the airlines are taking huge losses right now. Hertz, the nation’s leading auto rental company, just filed for bankruptcy. Going forward, there will be increased attention paid to cleanliness. Automated robotic cleaning devices are already being developed which will disinfect check-in kiosks. Self-check-in will become far more commonplace. Social distancing will become a bigger priority. Those measures, in turn, will make travel a bit less efficient, more time-consuming—and, likely, more expensive. In the near future, expect to see touchless travel—less physical handling of documents (passports, tickets, etc.) and more use of things such as facial recognition software. Thermal scanning of passengers who are boarding flights will be universal. The development of digital health passports, with detailed medical information about passengers, is in the works—but in the interim, travelers may need to show some digital confirmation that they are healthy prior to travelling especially when moving between countries.
Oh, and those masks we talked about earlier? Everybody will be wearing them, on every public transport device such as planes, trains, boats or automobiles. They will be mandatory. If you won’t wear one, you’re likely not going anywhere.
More virtual workers—and more space in the workplace.
The internet era has facilitated opportunities for many people to telecommute, working from home so that they don’t have to drive in to the workplace. The COVID 19 pandemic has only accelerated that process. Many businesses have found that lots of their workers can do things just as efficiently if they are not physically in an office. Things like Zoom meetings have become the norm—and will be used on an even more frequent basis in the future. Interestingly, that may make more people move from the cities to the suburbs—because if you work from home, the commute becomes less of an issue when choosing a place to live. I have a very productive employee who now lives in Michigan, and another who lived in Montana for a while before going to law school. That sort of thing will only accelerate in the coming years.
When people are forced to work in the same space, there will be measures enacted to decrease personal exposure. Sneeze guards are already being installed where there are places of interaction with the public. Hand sanitizer dispensers, used for years in doctors’ offices, will be ubiquitous. Work stations will be further apart. Office ventilation systems will be improved—and will increasingly involve sophisticated air filtration systems.
And get ready, at least in the short term, to wear a mask all day at work—particularly if you work in a job where public interaction is unavoidable.
Entertainment? Look homeward.
We cannot be certain how long this pandemic will last, but in all likelihood, it will take the widespread use of an effective vaccine to allow herd immunity to develop. Until then, you can expect large gatherings to be limited—and to emphasize disinfection and social distancing. More weddings and other gatherings of that sort will be outdoors. Sporting events will emphasize cleanliness. There will be limits on crowd size, scheduled entry and exit by sections, socially-distant seating and the use of prepackaged food. Concerts and Broadway shows, which are big-ticket items requiring a live audience, likely will not return until after a vaccine is developed—and when they do, they will look different, with less-packed venues and an increased attention to sanitization. And a lot of folks will simply choose to stay home for a while, increasing a trend which has become increasingly significant as high-speed streaming video has taken hold of the visual entertainment industry.
Interestingly, even before the pandemic, movie theaters have found a way to make a profit at levels of 30% occupancy. Still, things will change there, too. Masks will likely be mandatory. Temperature checks will be utilized in some fashion. Tickets will require advance purchase so that seating will be able to be assigned, and seats will be spaced out in the theater (it is estimated that theaters will only allow about 50% of their current capacity). There will be more time between shows, to allow for more extensive cleaning. Concessions will be pre-packaged and the use of cash will be discouraged, as touchless concessions will become the norm.
The COVID 19 pandemic has changed a great deal about the way we go about our lives. Some of those changes will be permanent, while others may be short-lived. Nevertheless, humans have in the past shown themselves to be supremely adaptive. It’s the hallmark of our species. So while the world may seem a tad unfamiliar for a short while, we’ll eventually figure it out. That is what we do. There will be a day when we’ll look at old videos of people shaking hands and not wearing masks and wonder “What the heck were they thinking?”
Because that’s our future in a post-COVID world.