Looking ahead to COVID-19’s third year

What might we expect from the COVID-19 pandemic’s third year?

Yes, that’s where we are now in this December 2021, running out of the virus’ second year while all indicators are blinking GO! for a third.  Technically, the third COVID year should start in March 2022, since WHO declared the pandemic in March 2020. In fact, Chinese doctors first diagnosed a case of the virus two years ago last week, so we’re in year three of the creature’s overall career nestling within and successfully leaping between human bodies.

In fall 2020 – which feels like a decade ago – I blogged about what a Pandemic Year Three might look like, inspired by Josh Kim. * In this post I’ll update that vision, based on what we’ve learned and experienced since.  In the next I’ll turn to implication for higher education.

To begin with, imagining how the virus spreads and acts through 2022 is difficult.  Many nations, including the United States, gather and share data badly, so our understanding of where COVID stands now is flawed. Worse, we have just detected the Omicron variant. It will take at least a week for us to get an early sense of how it interacts with bodies and vaccines, due to how long it takes to culture samples etc., so there isn’t much we can reasonably speculate upon.  Omicron could outcompete Delta and dominate the (epidemiological) world, or it won’t.  It might spread more rapidly than its priors, or not. It could be more lethal than the rest of COVID strains, or less.

We could see the pandemic rage through 2022 at 2021 levels.  The virus will keep mutating, so we might see some mutations bestride the world: variants Pi, Rho, and so on, each with distinct characteristics and dangers.  Or it could decline in infection rates, dropping out of pandemic status into being merely endemic.  One popular endgame that I and others have imagined is COVID becoming like the seasonal flu. It kills and sickens people at levels we deem low enough to be acceptable. We take updated shots to reduce our risks.

In short, a huge asterisk hangs over any attempt to forecast about the virus per se.

What we can do with somewhat more confidence is examine what the virus has done to us so far, then study human reactions.  From these we can identify trends, which sketch out one cloudy, contingent vision of 2022.

To begin with, where do things stand now, to the best of our shaky knowledge?

coronavirus world dashboard JHU 2021 Dec 7

There have been 266,944,804 COVID cases worldwide, according to the Johns Hopkins dashboard (above). JHU also counts 5,268,667 killed by the virus.  The World Health Organization’s numbers are similar: 265,194,191 cases and 5,254,116 deaths.  In the United States alone the Centers for Disease Control numbers 49,198,746 infections (about 15% of the whole national population) and 787,064 deaths.  In Britain, COVID became the leading cause of death this year.

I can find no reliable numbers of those suffering from Long COVID, partly because of disagreements on definition and diagnosis. If 1% of infected people suffer from that chronic condition, that yields nearly 3 million people suffering for months or years, worldwide.

Again, these numbers are not great right now.  It’s obvious that there are reporting undercounts, thanks to national, local, and cultural reasons. When some researchers compare these stats against pre-COVID death rates, it looks like the real numbers may be 10-20% higher.

To sum up: the pandemic has been a horrendous human catastrophe, killing upwards of 5 million people and sickening – injuring – a much larger number.

How has humanity reacted?

Extrapolation from trends

Our response has been mixed. On the one hand we’ve developed an amazing vaccine – a vaccine platform, really – in an incredibly short period of time. We’ve also produced vast numbers of the stuff and distributed it to some populations.  Billions of people have also learned and practiced public health measures which have changed over time, from social distancing to masking, hand-washing, etc.  Health care professionals and public health workers have done heroic, largely invisible work with awful costs at times. Shut-downs and quarantines have taken place at huge scale and warped individual lives.

On the other… there is broad and international resistance to the vaccines, for a fascinating range of reasons.  The pre-COVID antivax movement plays a role, as do various religious beliefs, suspicion of medical and author authorities, economic fears, not to mention political concerns and conspiracy thinking. In the United States the Kaiser Family Foundation tracks vaccine uptake and resistance, and you can see quite a variation by race, political party affiliation, age, and education:

coronavirus vaccine yes Kaiser_2020 Dec 7

Beyond the vaccine, a good number of people are evading the other public health measures.  I’m sure readers can share stories of meeting people who semi-mask or just go maskless, or the many cases where social distancing is nonexistent. I experience this myself when I trek across blue counties to Georgetown University (where I teach) and back.

A new Axios poll adds some data to those stories, showing majorities of Americans not bothering with most measures:

coronavirus attitude towards Omicron Axios 2021 Dec 7Our social and commercial desires win out, it seems.

So there are two opposing trends. One of extensive and intensive research, medical, and public health engagement against another which disengages from these efforts and institutions to varying degrees.  Both sides are dug in with many people passionate about their views and actions. Looking ahead we should expect these two forces to persist and collide, grinding against each other as people try to navigate the pandemic’s third year.  The shifting nature of culture and politics (think about the Q-Anon ferment) means that friction could drive more cultural and political mutation. Taken together, it means humanity will continue to provide some fertile grounds for the virus to till.

A hybrid form of life has emerged, and not only in the sense of those two major attitudinal forces often located together within individual communities.  The pandemic hauled a chunk of the human experience online, deepening digital immersion and drawing some energies away from the in-person realm. It’s not enough to say “we’re more online than ever,” although that is true, even while tech criticism is mainstream and growing.  It’s not only that online and offline worlds are increasingly intertwined. It’s that we’ve normalized that hybridity.

Think of in-person restaurants. Some have QR codes for menus or augmented reality layers attached for local color, while others have shifted their business out of dining rooms and into delivery (typically organized by digital delivery services). Or think of homes, where digital entertainment occurs in social rooms, and digitally-ordered Amazon boxes thunk on doorsteps. An Uber driver, hailed by mobile app, navigates traffic with eyes, hands, feet, and Google Maps while her passenger Facetimes a friend.  A group of people on a bus or train, masked and (maybe) distanced, avoids conversation in favor of smartphone interactions.

Ohne Titel 2022, by Michi SchwaigerThis hybridity isn’t new. It began in a quiet way with the networked digital world in the 1970s and took off with mobile devices in the 1990s.  It describes a digital layer laminated onto the analog world. COVID accelerated its adoption, deepened its uses, and made it mainstream.  From now on we should expect any in-person meeting to be just one visible component of a two-level engagement. On our devices we’ll expect to be able to peer out into other locations and engage with them. Increasingly when we describe a physical space we have to account for its digital layer, with the two ever more intertwined.

Those physical spaces may change as well through 2022.  Since 2020 I’ve been expecting changes to the built environment: more windows and doors, bigger windows and doors, fewer interior rooms without outside exposure, and so on. Architecture can strive to help us combat the virus. I’m not sure to what extent this has been realized so far.

Our interior spaces have also been theaters of combat, and the mental toll exacted has been intense.  Think back to the numbers cited earlier.  The millions dead mean millions more hit by those deaths.  Some of those hundreds of millions infected suffer mentally as well as physically from the encounter; hundreds of millions more had to grapple with that. The economic whirlwinds of 2020 gave many more people fierce stresses of unemployment and financial survival.  The many perceived errors of public health sapped some public faith in the process, yielding uncertainty and fear on top of the overarching dread such a widespread disease inspires.

Years of pandemic psychological stress will yield several effects over the next year.  We should expect more people to be burned out, either on the disease’s front lines or otherwise. Some will turn inwards, away from people, perhaps increasing the proportion of people scoring as introverts.  Demand for mental health services should boom.

This doesn’t describe everyone, of course.  Some folks batten on crisis. Some viewed themselves as too healthy and virtuous to be negatively impact (my wife can tell stories from her public health work, oh yes). On a related note, others took comfort in culture, religion, or politics and weathered the storm. Some just didn’t get hurt.  And the conservative dislike of psychotherapy, as old as Freud, persists.

To repeat: these are trends from recent history and the present. In the preceding I described them as persisting through the next year on a basic, largely unmodified level.  This is just a starting sketch, since it is likely each development will behave in at least a slightly different way, given the fierce creativity of billions of human beings interacting on a civilizational scale.

What 2020 thought of 2022

As a futurist I routinely examine my older forecasts. This isn’t navel-gazing, but the opposite. It’s a way of checking my work, looking for strengths to maintain and errors to correct.  It should be a professional mandate.

So what did my September 2020 post think of 2022?  Let’s pull out some points.

  1. People moving out of crowded cities into the country, or just aiming for less populated spaces. It seems like this was overstated and that urban areas remain powerful social magnets overall.
  2. Intergenerational relations becoming more intense. This, too, might be overstated, appearing only in the form of younger folks refusing vaccines etc. because they are very unlikely to be sickened. (Never mind the greater danger of spreading an infectious disease!)
  3. Older folks becoming more segregated for safety’s sake.  I am not away of good studies on this.  Anecdotally I can confirm that I had to pass through more hoops this year than in 2019 to see my 90-year-old father in assisted living or rehab.
  4. Will the American character change?  I brooded: “I’m not sure if decreased face-to-face contact will confirm Americans in our individualism through isolation or, conversely, stoke our longing for norms, belonging, and conformity.” This seems very hard to quantify or otherwise measure.  I do know it’s popular in the progressive world to criticize individualism. Did COVID boost this line of thought?
  5. Americans becoming more religious.  I haven’t seen good evidence for this in terms of established faiths yet. But I was right to assess marginal faiths as taking off and getting creative.  I wish I’d anticipated “pastel Q.”
  6. Some businesses suffering, others booming.  Check.
  7. Labor market in recession: I clearly missed this one.
  8. Supply chains in flux: got it.
  9. Left-wing populism rising: I’m not sure about this one.  On the one hand, the Democratic party looks likely to keep up the Biden balancing act between the party’s left, right, and center. On the other, the “great resignation” and talk of strikes suggests some kind of leftward current.
  10. Punishment being meted out to those perceived as guilty of pandemic mistakes and crimes: so far this hasn’t really happened.  It was sexual harassment which cost New York’s governor his job, not his COVID mistakes and the coverup thereof. Trump remains a free, if Twitter-less, man. I haven’t seen any vigilante justice.
  11. More surveillance and policing: generally yes. Yet I didn’t anticipate that “defund the police” would be as popular as it was in 2020.
  12. US-China Cold War deepening: yep.
  13. A cultural boom: that seems to be under way. TV continues to be enjoying a renaissance.  Movies are trying to recover. People are reading.  Analog and digital games flourish.
  14. Automation expanding: yes.
  15. The techlash (popular criticism of Silicon Valley etc.) persisting: check.
  16. The climate crisis building: oh yes.

That’s an uneven forecast.  It looks like I was stronger on technology, culture, some economics, and geopolitics than on justice, labor, and generations.  Duly noted for my future work.

Putting all of these strands together yields a richer sketch, from economics to psychology and pop culture.

Yet it leaves out novelty. What new developments should we anticipate?  This, I invite readers to consider and share.

(“Ohne Titel 2022,” by Michi Schwaiger)

*Link fixed.  Thanks, Cogdog!

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10 Responses to Looking ahead to COVID-19’s third year

  1. Alan Levine says:

    Dr Future, are you here or are you unevenly distributed?!

    The only sure thing is prolonged uncertainty, for which there ought to be some long German word like schadenverlängertunsicherheit.

    That Joshua Kim article is here https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/learning-innovation/academic-planning-worst-case-long-term-covid-19-scenario (your hyperlink seemed to be doubled on the web address)

  2. Joe says:

    Look beyond COVID-19 for a moment. The worrying prospect for me out of this will be the next pandemic, perhaps a new disease that has COVID-19’s transmissibility plus greater lethality.

    It’s a terrifying prospect: a pandemic calls for draconian, non-negotiable measures to slow the spread: imagine the crap-show globally (stupid is not just an American problem) when anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, and libertarians run up against something that would carry off a couple billion of us?

    That’s not an inconceivable idea. Nature bats last, and we’ve been batting nature around a while.

    • Glen McGhee says:

      It’s not just — not only — the epidemic that comes next, as Cory Doctorow points out — it’s the arrogance of Northern Hemisphere vaccinations over the Southern Hemisphere having that many fewer.
      Would Omicron have emerged in a fully-vaccinated South Africa? Not likely.
      So why does the North persist in the delusion that Covid is only a local affair? It’s the whole globe that needs vaccines. As a way to prevent more dangerous variants.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Joe, I’ve been thinking about this a lot (occupational requirement).
      On the positive side I note that some nations which experienced recent public health crises (think SARS and MERS) were shocked into doing better this time. So hopefully more of humanity will be better prepared for the next pandemic.

      On the other… we did so many things the wrong way that I don’t have enough time to categorize them. I hit some in this post. Politicizing science is a key takeaway. Sluggish international cooperation is another.
      In the US, I think a combination of our individualism and religiosity renders our culture unusually bad at responding to a public health crisis. We don’t see the social connections which transmissible diseases work through, and when we imagine links, we view them morally.

  3. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Bryan, it was difficult to imagine how stupid tens of millions of Americans would be during the Covid pandemic–to be given the chance to vaccinate–and choosing against it. As I mentioned to Glen McGhee, the issues we face today are not just about covid. Like a low tide, it just revealed the sh*t that was already there brought on by waves of neoliberalism and neonationalism. Moving forward, enough Americans will continue to be stupid as technofascism prevails. In 2022, it’s very likely that Trumpists will retake the House and perhaps the Senate. In 2024, Trump or a Trump surrogate could win. And, of course, there is the enrollment cliff: t-minus four years and counting. Imagine that: in 4 years we many look at 2021 as the “good old days.” That said, I hope I’m dead wrong.


  4. Glen McGhee says:

    I’m not seeing any discussion of Covid-induced hysteresis, especially in regard to unemployment hysteresis and even student loan repayment hysteresis.
    And even, higher ed hysteresis in the classroom.
    Wanna talk about a grinding, bloody war between the generations? You got it — $2 trillion dollars and growing.
    Provost Dan Reed gets into it here: https://www.hpcdan.org/reeds_ruminations/2020/04/on-catastrophes-and-rebooting-the-planet.html
    The idea is this: If you follow the cusp catastrophe model, the March 2020 disruption (suspended classes, social distancing, online pivot, shortened classes) forcefully REMOVED students from classrooms.
    Getting them back into classrooms is the problem — that’s where Covid-hysteresis kicks in. Same issue for restarting student loan repayments.
    Same reason why unemployment is so stuck, stubbornly stuck. Hysteresis.
    Covid hysteresis has 900,000 hits at google. Covid hysteresis and the future of work, 686K
    Here’s a paper on higher education hysteresis:
    “The COVID-19 crisis has forced school closures in 188 countries, heavily disrupting the learning process of more than 1.7 billion children, youth, and their families. During this time, distance-learning solutions were implemented to ensure education continuity, and much of the current debate focuses on how much students have learnt during school closures. However, while this potential learning loss may only be temporary, other elements that happen in the absence of traditional schooling, such as the curbing of educational aspirations or the disengagement from the school system, will have a long-term impact on students’ outcomes. This “hysteresis” effect in education requires specific attention, and this paper outlines a dual strategy to bring disengaged students back to school, and mitigate effectively student disengagement in case of future lockdowns.”
    “The hysteresis induced by school closures may be more prevalent among students from less privileged backgrounds.”

  5. Glen McGhee says:

    Hysteresis during disruption is featured in the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu.
    “Hysteresis occurs where habitus falls out of alignment with the field in which it operates, experienced as lag or disconnect amid changing circumstances, where taken-for-granted assumptions seem less relevant (Bourdieu, 1990). It feels like living in a different time, carrying risks and opportunities (Bourdieu, 2015; Fowler, 2020).”

    This short article is loaded with insights; my only concern is that sociological hysteresis too closely resembles what we usually refer to as “cultural lag”. On the face of it, cultural lags are associated with a delta-factor — a lag-time ‘t’ — where ‘t’ is quite ordinary, pedestrian and linear.
    Hysteresis is anything but linear — in fact, linear paths (how we got here) are its special vulnerability because ‘how we got here’ is NOT the reverse of ‘how we get out of where we are now’. In fact, Aristotle had it right — it’s all about Anagnorisis.
    Happily, the complexity of Bourdieu’s concepts avoids this linearity — but educationists persist in it to an annoying degree.

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