What will the post-COVID-19 New Normal Be?

This is a follow-up “WHAT IF?” post to my COVID-19 epidemic Process Triage analysis.

The COVID-19 Virus pandemic may be a generational calamity if the morbidity forecasts prove true. It will pivot our national narrative to a new normal. Again — IF the morbidity forecasts prove true over the next few months.

If so — and we see 480,000 deaths in three to seven months, it will impact this generation, with comparisons to WWII in the 1940’s, the 9/11 attack and responses, and the investment derivatives-driven financial collapse in 2008. It will leave a very long shadow if it takes three to six months to work its way through the population, as Mr. Trump admitted (agreeing with Dr. Michael Osterholm’s “COVID-19 Winter” analogy.

Alfred Eisenstaedt and Gretta Zimmer Friedman’s V-J Day Kiss, August 14, 1945

We will pivot. Do not doubt it. Again, IF these dire forecasts materialize. The entire nation has paused a suspended animation of social distancing, made necessary by the virus’s nasty pathology, where the non-symptomatic are contagious. We have neither immunity nor vaccine. The only way to slow the contagion is stay away from each other enough to traumatize our economy if it lasts too long. The longer it drags on, the more catastrophic it will be. Hourly workers in our heavily service economy will be slaughtered absent direct replacement cash payments by some yet to be designed method. If we do not suppress this virus by eventual public immunity or vaccination, it will reset how we work and live as groups — if we can live as groups. (So we must establish an immunity from it).

The pandemic presents us with a rare, generational, finest-hour opportunity if we will seize it. The history of this, when written, will mimic the pattern of previously heroic or tragic (both conclusions are possible) narratives:

A few farsighted but powerless experts try to warn the powerful, as Dr. Osterholm forecast in 2017 in Deadliest Enemy. He described a coronavirus spreading from a Chinese wet market precisely as COVID-19 launched.

The required national-level response will be a stumbling, bumbling, fog-of-war ramp up with many and often appalling oversights, missteps and mistakes. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. The public square, both physical and virtual will be rife with rumor (this is a Chinese bioweapon), mob hysterias and overreactions (toilet paper hording). A heroically entrepreneurial optimism (Mr. Trump’s default settig) will drag well-reasoned skepticism (the mainstream media’s hyena howling) across the finish line kicking and screaming if our American Character has its way.

As the learning curve settles in, the incompetent will be replaced as meritocracy enforces its will, such as the unflappable Colonel (Ret.) Dr. Deborah Birx (please run for President!), the administrations COVID-19 Response Coordinator. In WWII, the US Army’s hapless North Africa Campaign exposed incompetence at every level until Major General George Patton, a maniacal tank warfare enthusiast demonstrated the style of fighting the war would require. His tactics and attitude set the new normal for what would characterize the fight. We have never been prepared for a new war and figuring out how to fight it always stumbles through a life-squandering learning curve. Fortunately, our geographical distance from nations infected before us accelerates our learning curve. But we’re only at the beginning of this contagion at this post’s date.

The charismatic solution implementers will become the public face of leadership as the less articulate step aside (yes, expect to see less Mr. Trump and more of the point team members) . Partisan politics will give lip service to cooperation while the long-game politicians will lay the foundations for the post-epidemic opportunities (such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi inserting language into an emergency spending bill to eviscerate the Hyde Amendment).

New products and services will launch along with businesses to monetize them. Homeland Security and TSA was the new normal after 9/11. COVID-19 drive-up testing may be the new normal now. They may become a permanent fixture on the landscape like TSA airport screening (because this virus may not go away and a vaccine is years away).

Will these disruptive changes and adjustments to daily life be normalized? A think a complete reset to the pre-epidemic status quo will not happen unless our most optimistic scenarios prevail. The frightening question will be the long-term impact of large gathering events and the business models of industries that depend upon such venues. Will we become more physically isolated and segregated as work-from-home becomes more necessary? Will the impact to commercial property be catastrophic until such spaces are repurposed? Will this scenario be a seismic shift in the economy for white collar work? Will the travel and tourism industry ever completely recover?

While we hope for the best, that being a non-disruptive level of deaths, the more likely outcome will be a generational reset on the way we live and work.

Will our better angels prevail? Will we bind together and find the best new normal?

At the date of this writing, the President is leading a private-public charge at flank speed. Let’s hope for the best.

I wish us all God’s speed.

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