Mar 7, 2020 - Health

How the coronavirus will shape the future

Illustration of arm in a hazmat suit holding a briefcase.

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

If the growing novel coronavirus outbreak becomes a lasting pandemic, it could accelerate fundamental changes in the economy, politics and the workplace.

The big picture: A truly global infectious disease event like COVID-19 can be every bit as transformative for the future as a global war or economic depression.

The impacts of major pandemics can be felt well beyond the sheer death toll.

  • The Black Death, which killed as much as a third of Europe's population during the 14th century, led to severe labor scarcity. The resulting higher wages helped erode feudalism and encouraged the innovation of labor-saving technologies.
  • More recently the 2003 SARS outbreak helped jumpstart China's nascent e-commerce sector.

What to watch: How lasting the changes created by COVID-19 will be depends on the extent of the virus's spread and its ultimate severity, neither of which can be known yet. But the longer the outbreak endures, the more likely it is that coping responses will remain with us.

1. Going remote: Videoconferencing and remote work have exploded as the virus has spread.

  • According to Kentik, a global provider of network analytics, videoconferencing traffic in North America and Asia has doubled since the outbreak began.
  • Led by tech firms like Twitter and Facebook, companies are encouraging and even requiring their employees to work from home, both to slow the spread of the disease now and prepare for the worst should offices be closed in a quarantine.
  • Many experts believe business leaders will come to see that central offices and face-to-face meetings are less vital than they thought. "We're going to see that work can be tied to productivity anywhere rather than putting time in an office," said Peter Jackson, CEO of the digital collaboration company Bluescape.

2. The big decoupling: After the travel industry, the companies that have suffered most from COVID-19 are those with just-in-time supply chains highly dependent on China.

  • As a result, the coronavirus has already "prompted a re-examination of the world's central reliance on China as ground zero for manufacturing," as Peter Goodman wrote in the New York Times.
  • If the outbreak worsens, "we'll definitely see accelerated decoupling of manufacturing out of China," said Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group. "Changes that may have been delayed until the next recession will happen right now."

3. Nastier politics: The ideal reaction to a global outbreak would be a globally unified response. Don't bet on it.

  • Far-right leaders in countries like France, Italy and Spain have already taken advantage of the outbreak to call for tightening borders. As a result, wrote Pawell Zerka of the European Council on Foreign Relations, "populism could flourish as the coronavirus spreads."
  • COVID-19 has already become politicized in the U.S. According to one online survey, nearly 70% of Republicans believe the nation is prepared for the outbreak, compared to just 35% of Democrats.
  • While China badly mismanaged the start of the outbreak, more recently the country has tried to spin its apparent success in containing the virus as a triumph of its autocratic system. Expect that argument to gain force if the U.S. bungles its response.

4. Faster science: While governments have struggled to respond to COVID-19, scientists are making the most of new tools to track and potentially counter the virus.

  • Rapid analyses of the genetic makeup of the virus in Washington state indicated the outbreak there was likely underway well before the first official cases were confirmed in late January.
  • Scientists at Stanford University developed a diagnostic test for the novel coronavirus that can deliver tests in as little as 12 hours, much faster than current models.

The bottom line: The year is less than three months old, but we have every reason to believe that COVID-19 will be one of the most significant events of the decade — if not beyond.

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