Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

COVID-19: Here's how one pandemic will change our lives, forever

The coronavirus will leave an enormous impact on how we consume, how we learn, how we work, and how we socialize and communicate.

With COVID-19 cases rising sharply in the western hemisphere, I asked my friend and colleague, Dr. Bobby Huen, to comment on how society might feel long-term effects on overall social interaction, business and the economy, and its use of technology. 


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All concerts are canceled. So are sporting events, major conferences, and conventions for every vertical industry imaginable. Restaurants, bars, and movie theaters have been ordered closed by city officials. Theme parks have shut down, and the fate of the summer Olympic Games in Tokyo is up in the air. Entire countries are being placed under quarantine, and people are hoarding supplies. 
 
Welcome to the brave new world of COVID-19
 
While it is too early to assess the damage caused by this global pandemic, there are signs that it will permanently change the way society functions. From its impact on the global economy to our daily lives, COVID-19 will leave an enormous impact on how we consume, how we learn, how we work, and how we socialize and communicate. 

Streaming becomes the new way forward for content consumption

 
Streaming content online has become massively popular over the past decade. As movie theatres close and live events get canceled left and right in the face of a global pandemic, streaming will become an even more critical and dominant way to deliver content to the consumer. From concerts to sporting events, what was once considered prime events for large in-person audiences will be forced to stream them to homebound fans instead. 
 
Although live events will eventually return after the current crisis, I predict that more fans and consumers will instead stay in the comfort of their own homes and watch events that are streamed or broadcasted live instead of paying for expensive tickets, lodging, and even more costly concessions to attend events in person. Streaming movies at home, already a popular option, will surge in popularity, with companies like Netflix and Disney reaping the benefits. At the same time, the live entertainment industry and theatre business will suffer. 

Social media as savior or societal destroyer

 
Society runs on information and connections, and we live in an age where both are immediately accessible, anytime, anywhere from a multitude of devices. With platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, users can share information with only a simple click. 
 
However, as good as social media (and the internet at large) is for sharing information, it is also terrible at filtering the right information to share. Since its outbreak several weeks ago, social media platforms are rife with misinformation. From quacks peddling "cures" that do nothing to prevent contracting the virus, to racist and xenophobic posts blaming entire nationalities and their diet as the source of the pandemic, social media has struggled to deliver the correct information and prevent incorrect ones from trending. 
 
In the interest of preventing social media from becoming a cesspool of wrong "facts" and fake news, platforms must strengthen their moderation policies and actively censor content that is false, defamatory, and outright fabrications. Only through the right information can the public understand what is going on and increase their chances of survival. 

The spread of telecommuting and online learning

 
As a strategy to contain potentially infected people and prevent the virus from spreading further, businesses and schools will heavily rely on the internet to keep business running. From online learning to telecommuting, many aspects of our daily lives that used to involve face to face contact will be moved to cyberspace.  This shift to internet-based work presents both advantages, challenges, and potentially a detriment to the education and business communities. 
 
For some businesses, telecommuting can be a boon for their bottom line. Imagine a company that can run its entire operation staffed by workers who work from home. No need to lease large office spaces. No need for long commutes. Flexible hours and working in your pajamas (or anything you want to wear). With telecommuting, you can hire a  geographically diverse group of employees without worrying about where to house them or relocate them. 
 
In terms of education, online learning also comes with some advantages. For a long time, schools and colleges have resisted online instruction, and institutions that do have been regarded as inferior. However, with a rapidly spreading virus and a campus full of people in close contact, schools have no choice but to turn to online classes as an alternative, albeit temporary, solution. By letting students learn from home, colleges can allow more students to take the same class simultaneously, while students who missed lectures for any reason can make up with video streaming. 
 
On the other hand, not everything can be solved by moving online. Businesses in personal services, retail, and food and beverage businesses will suffer under this crisis, as personal interaction is still an essential part of those industries. Although, I suspect delivery platforms such as Amazon and UberEats are likely to see a boom in business as people are confined to their homes. 

Meanwhile, although some classes can be successfully taught online, specific disciplines are impossible to instruct through the internet. From lab work for chemistry to the arts, these classes must be conducted in person. The closing of campuses would also negatively impact students, who paid thousands of dollars to colleges for room and board. Worse, for many international scholars, campus closures might mean they have nowhere to go.

A social species learning to communicate without personal interaction

 
Communication is more than just words. While many of us text, email, and speak on the phone on a daily basis, a large part of human interaction is based on observing non-verbal indicators, such as body language and facial expression. Without them, we are unable to detect specific nuances such as sarcasm, anger, or humor. This might become a challenge as many people are confined to their homes with only phones and computers as our only ways to connect with each other. 
 
On the one hand, there are tools on hand to eliminate the gap. Most phones have cameras now, and Facetime and video conferencing can improve the quality of remote communications and alleviate misunderstandings. However, the use of video would largely depend on your connectivity and connection speed, which leads to my final point:

The reality of a woefully inadequate internet infrastructure

 
When confronting a fast-spreading pandemic, isolation and self-quarantine can be an answer to prevent its spread. For preserving human connections, the internet is an essential tool. Thanks to it, online learning, streaming, and telecommuting are all technologies available to us. Unfortunately, for all these methods to be appropriately deployed, we must have a network that can sustain such bandwidth, and for many Americans (and beyond), the infrastructure is severely lacking. 
 
While many of us who live in cities have Wi-Fi and high-speed internet available, people who live in rural areas do not, leading to a potential gap of information in times of crisis. Furthermore, older adults whose survival depends on adequate information are unskilled in navigating online, leaving them vulnerable to hucksters and false information. 

Those who are poor and less educated are also likely to be less well connected, leaving them less informed and more vulnerable. Poor students might find themselves unable to participate in online courses, and some workers might find themselves unable to afford the connections necessary to telecommute. To repair this information gap, the government and private enterprises would have to spend billions on extending home network coverage to millions of people at an affordable cost, but is there a political will to do so?
 
COVID-19 virus disease is serious. It is officially a global pandemic, and it has already disrupted many facets of our lives, encompassing work, school, and entertainment. While it is too early to determine the long term impact of this crisis, I am confident in saying that this crisis will trigger drastic changes in our lifestyles going forward. 

Some industries will prosper during the crisis, while others will suffer significant losses. Some workers might benefit from telecommuting, while others might lose their jobs due to declining business in their sector. Thanks to our information network, many of us will continue to connect despite our isolation, while those who lack access to the internet will fall behind. Regardless of the duration and severity of COVID-19, it will have a lasting impact on our society. 


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About the author: Bobby Huen has a doctorate in conflict resolution and is an expert on online activism and crisis communication. He is the founder of BH Conflict Resolution, a consulting and communications firm in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He can be reached at bobby.mediates@bhcrs.com