This is the sixth of what has become a series of articles about thinking about our personal and collective futures. As I write this in May 2020, the world is still in the middle of the Covid-19 epidemic. There aren’t yet any clear pathways forward or answers on how this will end. It doesn’t mean that we can’t forge some for ourselves.
How does this end? This is an essential question, and one that everyone is asking, even as parts of the country open up. For all that we are doing, there is still a lot we don’t know about Covid-19. We don’t know its spread in the community, the nature of immune reactions or the percentage of the population that has antibodies. We don’t know its mortality rate, although we know it is higher than anyone would like. We don’t know when the next wave of infections will come—or how severe they will be. And we fear that we still won’t be fully prepared.
What follows are four different scenarios of how this might unfold. They are designed to be plausible. They are all grounded in facts we know and actions being taken (or not). They paint out consequences that may be appealing, or may be frightening. Most importantly, they illustrate causes, consequences and choices.
An Orderly Re-entry
Julia Stanton stepped on the escalator into the subway for her morning commute for the first time in nine months. It was almost Christmas of 2020; it felt like both yesterday and forever ago that it had been Christmas of 2019. So much had changed since then. And yet she had managed to fit into the clothes of a year ago, and was on her way to the same job that she had worked at for the last five years. The walk to the subway felt familiar, and like a memory, all at the same time.
Descending to the platform, she was cautious, but not uncomfortable. She wore a mask, but everyone did. The station wasn’t massively crowded, and everyone respected distancing. The anxiety and stress of being in proximity to others had receded.
The government had done much to make that possible. Capacity of the system had been built up, and they were honest about the potential for future waves of infection and outbreak. But the system was ready; they had worked through many uncertainties over the past few months, not least of which was learning more about causes and perfecting treatment.
Julia’s company had done a lot to manage the impact of re-entry as well. In the early spring, there were numerous decisions made about alternative approaches. That had involved a lot of strategic thinking about what kind of an organization they wanted to be, and what that meant for how they structured themselves. Much of the work force permanently worked from home now; Julia was moving to a modified week, with two days in the office, but that had been her choice. No one forced her, and she chose the timeline and the days. It fit well with childcare obligations, and being able to get more direct interaction with her development team.
It was a marvel that so much of the changes were possible because we live in an age where internet is cheap, fast and reliable. Even better, the crisis of the last few months had helped to illustrate just how important social and community supports are. Nationally, the country had long prided itself on its health care system, but the global reach of the crisis had illustrated even more effective models elsewhere. The government was exploring how to adopt some of their fundamental principles, and in particular reinvesting in early childhood education.
What was making reentry most possible, though, was the honest conversations that had occurred. Everyone knew quarantine couldn’t be sustained forever. Accepting uncertainty and risk was hard, particularly raising a young family. Reinforcement of the small actions that everyone could take, investing in testing and publicly reporting testing results went a long way to getting comfort. Julia’s hand checked once again for the phone in her purse; it was the gateway to current statistics, and also supported the contact tracing regime the government had established. An app on her phone—private, secure and under her control—could play a meaningful role in alerting her if she came into contact with someone who tested positive, or help to save others if she became infected. She was proud of the role her team had played in its development.
While so much was now different, she enjoyed the familiarity of the commute, and the surprising speed and lack of crowding as she travelled to the office. No longer stressed about the disease, she could finally turn her mind to the coming holidays, and the shopping she needed to do on her way home.
Somebody Else’s Problem
It was just past dawn when Carlos Ignatiez locked the door of his apartment and descended the four flights of stairs to the street. Work started just past seven at the warehouse. With overtime, he would see twelve hours of pay today. A quick calculation said that he was on track for another 70 hour week.
The buses were running, but down there they were too crowded to feel safe. Carlos walked instead, picking up the pace for warmth, and to make sure he had time to stop for a coffee and bagel before work. The small comforts of his routine were all the more important to him.
Since the summer, things had changed. The virus was still out there, but you had to look closely to see adjusted behaviours. Everyone seemed to assume that because they wore a mask, everyone was safe. Stores were crowded, bars and restaurants had opened two months ago and they were talking about opening the clubs as well. The government had done a good job of setting guidelines for reopening. They had also put a lot of trust in citizens to comply with the guidelines. He wondered some days whether that trust was misplaced.
A lot of the justification for reopening was tied to establishing a strong contact tracing program. It didn’t rely on technology; it relied on in-person contact and a lot of what resembled traditional detective work, following up leads and connections. A friend of Carlos had retrained as a contact tracer. He knew about the challenges of technology, and in particular the question of whether there were a sufficient number of app installs to make a meaningful difference. In-person strategies were more effective, although even then there was mistrust by some when they answered the phone.
Testing was a different problem, though. There were so many to be tested, and on such a large scale. Everyone seemed to think that it was everyone else’s problem. Carlos had been tested exactly once, a month into the pandemic… April, he thought. It was December now. He was pretty sure he wasn’t infected; no fever, no chills, no shortness of breath. But it didn’t make him more confident going back to work.
That was the real challenge. Everyone kept on talking about “remote working” as they way of the future. And that was fine, if your job involved sitting behind a desk, driving a computer. Instead, he drove a forklift for $16/hour. It was good pay, but not great, although the overtime certainly helped. But he couldn’t help but feel resentful. There had been so much valorization of essential workers, but that usually meant doctors and nurses. Carlos had been deemed essential from the beginning. He had been working non-stop since this broke out. And while the warehouse where he worked shipped out crates of N95 masks, he had to buy his on Amazon.
The government was at least making noises that they were aware that many organizations had failed to act in protecting their workers, relying on the government to do it instead. Unions, demonized for years as being unnecessary and self-serving, were making a comeback. There was talk of overhauling labour rights, safe-work regulations and safety and privacy legislation. Given how much the warehouse manager ranted about it at last week’s company meeting, that might even be real. Carlos hoped so. His life and livelihood depended on it.
Everyone had seen this coming. The United States, the United Kingdom, even Canada. And yet no one had acted. It was all too little, too late. Jenya Shamdasani threw down her newspaper in disgust. There was so much that hadn’t been done, and so much wishful thinking that it would all just go away. Covid-19 was not going away any time soon.
There was such a bias towards economic recovery as the overarching goal. The economy had to recover; people needed to go back to work; stores and restaurants and golf courses needed to open. There was a complete insensitivity as to who was affected. It was all about narrow, self-serving political interests. What Jenya couldn’t quite figure out was whether this was all simply a failure to act, or whether there was an underlying malevolent intent on not acting.
As a scientist, it frustrated her to no end. Because, as near as she could tell, there was little about science that was actually driving the outcomes being seen. Not that science should be the driver, necessarily, but science can play a significant role. Good science is tied to providing insights. The answers it gives depends on the questions being asked, and those are innately tied to the objectives being addressed. Yet there were no specific objectives discernible in the overt political influence being witnessed.
What resulted was chaos. There had been a haphazard and chaotic approach to managing the acquisition of needed supplies and equipment. For many, there was an underlying presumption that the risk was gone, or never existed. Behaviours had been normalized, and with that became a relaxing of habits and discipline. She remembered an article last week that explicitly questioned the political calculus of who is affected; while there was bias in it, it wasn’t necessarily wrong.
Failing to address necessary precautions was putting the public in harm’s way. Air travel was a whole new frontier of confrontation and hostility, with passengers taking it upon themselves to protect themselves and the space around them. That wasn’t surprising, really. With neither government nor organizations making responsible decisions, there was no one left to rely on. You had to look after yourself.
That didn’t stop the demands, though. According to one study, the shift to working at home during the pandemic resulted in an increase of three hours per worker per day. And now that the economy was reopening, there was no allowing for backsliding. The expectations was that the performance should continue, with no supports in place to actually make it happen.
It all felt so desperate. It didn’t need to feel this way, but it did. Her hospital had to take on its own procurement efforts to supply essential personal protective equipment for its staff. They were nearly outbid by the government for the same shipment, and even then there were questions about whether the shipment would arrive safely. No one was considering the consequences. It felt like it was about to get a lot worse.
In Chaos, There Is Opportunity
Sam Moskin waited in a long, snaking line that extended back through the airport as he waited to clear inspections and make it to the baggage area. He wished he hadn’t had to make this trip, but his board had made the decision to reopen the satellite office and it was important that a member of the executive team be there to welcome everyone, thank them for their service during the pandemic and provide leadership and reassurance in reinforcing that the organization had their backs. Being there for our staff is ingrained in our culture, Sam acknowledged. But there is a very real price to pay for that.
There was such an effort by the government to be seen to be doing something, while accomplishing nothing. Or at least nothing meaningful. It was all “containment theatre.” It felt a lot like the security theatre post 9-11; intensely screening every passenger, while all the while knowing that the next real threat would come in through the back door.
So much of what was being done was wishful thinking, Sam reflected. After six months of quarantine and distancing, the government had wasted its opportunity. They had failed to build up any meaningful capacity to deal with the expected coming waves. Everything was driven by political goals to open up the economy. Rather than using the time bought by social distancing to create a coherent reentry strategy, the action that did occur was calibrated to distract from the real problems, while narrow political interests were pursued.
Sam was proud of what his organization had accomplished to compensate. Very real thought went into what kind of company was needed going forward, and what that looked like in terms of staff, structure and support. New opportunities were explored and whole business models were reinvented to find a way forward. More importantly for Sam, this had been accompanied with an intent and purpose of ensuring that employees didn’t only feel safe, but also proud of the work that they did and the company that they served.
Where the government wasn’t acting, the organization was. Coherent strategies had been put in place to respond and manage in the face of chaos. While the government was relying on the disease riding itself out, Sam’s organization had chosen to act. Even better, they had using it as an opportunity to build and grow; there were several strategic hires that he would meet today that he had been trying to make happen for years. He just needed to get out of this airport first.
These are four different scenarios, that paint four different—but realistic—pictures of what might happen as we open up our economy, and the drivers behind them. They are not full scenarios; they are vignettes. But they illustrate the power of what scenarios can do in outlining and bringing to life the uncertainty we are navigating. They show us how actions play out and explore the consequences of the choices that we do—or don’t—take. The facts in all of them are supported by current headlines. There are dimensions of each of them—and examples to be found—throughout our society and our world. We might find some futures appealing, and others abhorrent. But each one has the possibility to play out. The real question is what we want our future to look like, and what we are prepared to do to realize it.