COVID-19 Predictions for 2021 And Beyond

Few would have predicted that a pandemic would upend our daily lives.

Reaching an effective rate of immunity that will allow workplaces and businesses to reopen

For herd immunity, 70% vaccinated is likely the magic number. Given potentially more infectious variants, some pundits have raised that to 80%. Even before we reach herd immunity, transmission will slow down as more people get the vaccine, so we will start a gradual return to normal in the spring and early summer. But to reach pre-COVID “normal” with herd immunity on a national level may take until the fall. Global herd immunity may take until summer 2022.

Everyone’s focused on vaccine availability, but vaccine acceptability is the part that makes me nervous. People continue to be a little guarded about the vaccine because of news about allergic reactions, politics, and hesitancy among communities that runs deep.If my fears about acceptability are unfounded, we can have a good Thanksgiving and Christmas in 2021. If we don’t reach 70%, we’ll be stuck in limbo. There will be some reopening and continued mask-wearing. There may be a future where certain activities will be open only to people who’ve gotten the vaccine.

A fourth wave of infections is to be expected before we can get enough people vaccinated to achieve herd immunity

While we all desperately hope to avoid a fourth wave, it’s unlikely that a sufficiently large proportion of the population will be vaccinated to prevent one. The gains we’ve made could potentially be offset by schools reopening, students returning to college residences, and businesses reopening.

Remote work, automation, and telemedicine could soon become the new normal

The coronavirus pandemic will be remembered as a world-reordering event. It will accelerate social and economic changes that would otherwise have taken years to materialize. However long it will take, we will eventually beat back this virus, and our economies will eventually recover from the punishing recession it will have brought about. But when the dust settles and the masks come off, the pandemic will have permanently reshaped our social and economic behavior.

Here are a few outcomes that seem increasingly likely:

1. Companies that traffic in digital services and e-commerce will make immediate and lasting gains

With people isolated indoors and away from other people, short-term and long-term winners will be those who provide goods and services without needing to come into physical contact with their customers. This is already happening. When the economy does eventually improve, these gains will mostly endure thanks to entrenched shifts in consumers’ buying habits.

2. Remote work will become the default

Employees who are suddenly working from home by necessity are experiencing a change in their work style that spares them the suit and commute and gives many of them greater flexibility with their schedules and demands outside of work. Many will find they prefer working remotely and, when the crisis recedes, it will become hard and expensive for some companies to deny them that option, while others will want to take advantage of this new preference.

Remote work technology will improve, enabling the sort of mingling previously thought to require in-person meetings. This will cause a severe downturn for commercial real estate as companies drastically cut the size of their workspaces. Coupled with stricter travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines for foreigners entering certain countries, this will also put severe strain on industries reliant on business travel.

It will also lead to an exodus of white-collar workers from big cities — once companies’ remote work routines have been smoothed out, their newly remote-capable employees will have the flexibility to move out of dense cities and into lower-cost areas.

3. Many jobs will be automated, and the rest will be made remote-capable

To survive the crisis, firms will need to lay off their least-productive workers, automate what can be automated, and make the rest remote-capable. Those who do this effectively will emerge leaner and more efficient. They will also have no incentive to return to their pre-crisis head count, and many of those whose functions have been automated will lack the skills to compete in the new, post-crisis economy. Labor force participation will suffer.

In the medium and longer term, these companies will also realize that the functions they have made remote-capable can also be performed by highly skilled workers in lower-cost countries. In short, jobs will first move from in-person to remote-domestic, and in time they will go from remoter-domestic to remote-overseas.

4. Telemedicine will become the new normal, signaling an explosion in med-tech innovation

In a matter of weeks, regulatory barriers to telemedicine have largely fallen. Doctors now perform remote visits across the country. Though these measures were announced as temporary, those who have now had firsthand experience with the convenience and cost-effectiveness of telemedicine will not want to forgo it. Once the crisis recedes, health care will begin to be provided remotely by default, not necessity, allowing the best doctors to scale their services to far more patients.

5. The nationwide student debt crisis will finally abate as higher education begins to move online

The worldwide remote learning experiment that is currently underway may demonstrate that higher learning can function effectively at a fraction of in-person costs. If it does, it may lead to a reckoning that transforms the delivery of higher education, particularly for less-selective universities, as students re-weigh the costs and benefits of a four-year residential experience.

Universities will also face pressure to cut costs. Many will eventually adopt hybrid models that limit face-to-face learning to project-based assignments and student working groups. These will dramatically cut costs, while allowing the best instructors to scale their insights to more students. They might also make a compelling case for broadening access to elite universities, whose small cohorts have historically been justified on the basis of physical constraints inherent to classrooms and campuses.

6. Goods and people will move less often and less freely across national and regional borders

Countries will retreat into themselves, borders will become less porous, and international trade will slump. To bolster their ability to survive extended periods of economic self-isolation, governments will push to strengthen domestic manufacturing capacity and step in to inject adequate redundancy in critical supply chains. Even before the pandemic struck, higher wages in China, international trade wars, and the rise of semi-autonomous factories had already prompted firms to reshore manufacturing, bringing it closer to domestic research and development centers. The coronavirus crisis will accelerate this trend: Increasingly, corporations will favor the resiliency of centralized domestic supply chains over the efficiency of globalized ones. Lacking support to protect the shared gains of worldwide economic integration and globalized supply chains, the multilateral institutions of global governance established in the 20th century will, if temporarily, begin to fray.

Governments are already conducting more widespread and more intrusive surveillance and claim broader authority to monitor and respond to viral threats. this is a trend that is here to stay. Checkpoints at national and regional borders will use biometric screening to detect deadly viruses in real time and impose mandatory quarantines on travelers entering from certain countries. This will create significant friction for all kinds of travel. Airlines, hospitality, and tourism will experience a severe slump in demand in and beyond the immediate aftermath of the crisis.

7. After an initial wave of isolationism, multilateral cooperation may flourish

After an initial retreat from globalization, countries might come to recognize that technological and viral threats are existential, and therefore require international cooperation. Adopting a sense of pragmatic internationalism, countries would develop international norms, monitoring and reporting systems, and coordinated response and contingency plans. When the next pandemic strikes, global monitoring and reporting systems would detect it earlier. A coordinated global response would make self-isolation orders effective, shortening the economic shutdown and hopefully sparing lives.

Michel Ouellette JMD

J. Michael Dennis, ll.l., ll.m.  


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