No work, no travel and no social interactions. These are just some of the changes thrust on populations across the world by the upheaval of the coronavirus pandemic.
While the partial easing of restrictions in countries such as the Netherlands and the UAE has sparked optimism that the world could be gradually returning to “normal,” scientists have warned it is too early to welcome the beginning of the end for coronavirus. A vaccine is still a long way off, while hopes that humans will develop natural immunity to the virus once enough people have caught it are still unproven.
And even if the world does manage to achieve mass immunity to the virus, the impact of the pandemic has been so severe that some things may never return to how they were before.
Here are five areas of life that COVID-19 may have changed forever.
Cancelled flights, closed borders and social distancing measures - now is certainly not an appealing time to set off on a trip. But when the coronavirus pandemic subsides, will people be reaching for their suitcases again?
Those who want to travel might find that there won’t be many flights to catch. Up to 85 percent of airline carriers could face insolvency by the end of the year, warned two of the Middle East’s biggest airlines, Emirates and Etihad.
And even if flights are available, airlines might not be able to fill them. A recent survey of travelers conducted by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) found that 60 percent would return to travelling within one to two months after the containment of COVID-19, but 40 percent may wait for six months or longer. The global economic downturn and mass unemployment may be a barrier to travel returning to normal - 69 percent of respondents said they may not be able to travel until their personal finances stabilize.
So for the few who are flying, what will that be like? IATA has come out against recommendations to leave middle seats empty to ensure social distancing is maintained, meaning flights could be one of the places where people are forced to come into close contact. Cofounder and CEO at Travelperk Avi Meir predicted increased queues at immigration, medical certificates needed for travel, increased use of trains and airlines advertising their in-flight air quality.
Over 72 percent of the world’s student population have been affected by nationwide closures of schools and universities. Many soon-to-be school leavers have had their exams cancelled or moved online, university students can’t access libraries and parents have become homeschoolers overnight.
“Suddenly we’ve been thrown into this experimental period, so it will be really interesting to see what comes out of this that has proper educational benefit,” said Chris Rolph, director of Nottingham Institute of Education
For many institutions, classes have relocated online which has been less successful for younger children as its effectiveness is largely dependent on how much parents can and are willing to help. For older students at college and university level however, this forced shift towards online learning could provide the groundwork for some more long-term educational changes.
“Where a student might go into a university for an hour for a tutorial, it might make more sense for them to do it online,” said Dr Rolph. “You might have a more blended learning with some students on campus and others accessing a class remotely.”
Blended learning would also be a way of maintaining the enrollment of foreign students. Many university systems have large annual intakes of students from abroad. In the US, where there are over a million foreign students, 33.7 percent of which are Chinese, institutions have reported an impact of COVID-19 on their enrollment of new Chinese students and the return of existing students.
“We should be looking at how we can do extended learning so foreign students can study our courses from wherever they may be,” said Rolph.
Since coronavirus hit, global demand for oil has decreased by almost a third. Forecasted for 2020 is the erasure of almost a decade of growth in the oil sector, according to the International Energy Agency. With closures in global oil refiners from India to Europe, will fossil fuel consumption ever return to its pre-pandemic reign?
The crash has coincided with snowballing calls for a shift to renewable energies, and some see this time as an accelerated opportunity to make that transition.
UN secretary general António Guterres last week urged governments not to bail out fossil fuel-based companies, “Where taxpayers’ money is used to rescue businesses, it must be creating green jobs and sustainable and inclusive growth. It must not be bailing out outdated, polluting, carbon-intensive industries.”
However, while appetite for change may be increasing, there is not currently the renewable energy infrastructure to pick up from where fossil fuels would leave off. “In some areas there are currently no viable substitutes for oil, including aviation, maritime, and heavy commercial shipping,” said Lord Browne of Madingley, executive chairman of LetterOne energy. His view is that fossil fuels will continue to play an essential role while companies divest into greener energies.
“You don’t ever shake anybody’s hand, that’s clear,” said Anthony Fauci, head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, in a recent Wall Street Journal podcast.
Handshakes are one of many behaviors that seemed completely normal pre COVID-19, but that may never regain popularity afterwards. Inversely, things like frequent hand washing and wearing face masks out of the house that have become commonplace during the coronavirus pandemic might stick with us long after the risk of infection diminishes.
In Japan, the practice of wearing face masks is a social norm that predates COVID-19, which can be traced back to the 1919 flu pandemic. The masks were originally recommended as a measure to stop the contagion of the Spanish Flu, but the practice of wearing them persisted, albeit not to the same extent as today, beyond the pandemic’s end.
So will new hygiene habits outlast coronavirus? “In the aftermath of past pandemics, people have generally returned to their previous handwashing habits,” wrote anthropologist Gideon Lasco for Sapiens. “But the COVID-19 crisis is different from other outbreaks. Never before have hand sanitizing and social distancing practices been enacted on such a global scale.”
“Many parts of the world rely on highly centralized systems, at the expense of strong local and regional food systems that could provide better buffering capacity when needed,” said Dr Roy Steiner to Nutrition Connect. Food experts worldwide are looking beyond the pandemic and calling for a revaluation of food supply chains to help mitigate future shocks.
“Keeping the global food trade open is critical to keep the food markets functioning,” argued Maximo Torero, assistant director general at the UN’s FAO.
Yet improving local production should be at the forefront of reactions to the pandemic. “This can be done through more effective government support, leveling the playing field for small- and medium-sized enterprises,” said Steiner.
Measures taken in China to expand smallholder farms in city suburbs has increased food supply in urban areas, may outlive the pandemic.
From the consumer’s perspective, food habits that have changed under coronavirus may stick. A survey found that 79 percent of customers in the UAE and 95 percent in Saudi Arabia are spending more online during the outbreak, and many intend to continue: 48 percent of UAE respondents and 69 percent of Saudi respondents said they would maintain their habits beyond the pandemic.