I presented these short scenarios to an online event in March, and would like to share them here.
They are based on two different models for how the COVID-19 pandemic could play out over the next year, drawing on my virus scenarios (Hubei for the first, waves and long plague for the second).
To be clear: I do not endorse any of the outcomes sketched out in what follows. They represent a range of options based on certain drivers. As always, these scenarios are part of my work in trying to describe possible futures, rather than to prescribe certain paths forward. Readers, on the other hand, are quite free to apply them as they see fit.
For Olaf Stapledon
Take 1: It’s April 2021.
People are celebrating one year since the Great Pandemic. We share stories about the huge shock, the months of agony, the recession, the colossal reboot, getting the vaccine over winter. There are TikTok festivals, songs, augmented reality exhibits, alternate reality games, documentaries from Disney and Netflix, and ostentatious, live action social distancing reenactments. Some wear last year’s masks.
Allied health professionals celebrate more somberly. They paid a heavy price to contain the contagion and are still recovering. They keep after everyone else to please, please get your COVID-19 shots already!
People have gotten used to face to face lives again, after an initial phase of delight, awkwardness, and rediscovery. Colleges and universities are back to their face to face ways, although enrollment is lower and their finances aren’t good. More people have more respect for science than they did a year ago.
The economy struggles back from recession. President Biden is enjoying the White House. He makes few public appearances, like many senior citizens now; vice president Harris is increasingly the face of the administration. Multiple lawsuits have been filed against Donald Trump and various members of his administration. Trump himself runs a new and generously funded cable tv channel.
Take 2: It’s April 2021.
COVID-19 has been raging for a year, coming and going in waves and more virulent mutations. 35% of the human population has now been infected. The death toll approaches one million, at least according to WHO. Multiple vaccines are in trials worldwide, but none have truly succeeded.
Intergenerational culture has splintered. Some increasingly revere senior citizens as precious elders, at times connecting with traditional societies’ practices. In contrast others celebrate the Boomer Remover for political and cultural reasons. These two populations loathe each other deeply.
The medical profession has been churned up badly. A majority have been infected and deaths amount to 20% of allied health staff. Students, volunteers, and others have been pressed into medical service to various degrees of efficacy. Civilians regard most medical workers with deep respect or reverence. A growing body of stories (film, tv, books, games, XR) feature heroic and often martyred medical staff.
Education is entirely online. A broad range of technologies are in use, from the older and simpler (email, texting, mailed DVDs, TV broadcasts) to the more ambitious (virtual reality, AI bots). There are fewer schools, colleges, and universities, as their physical requirements are no longer viable and their finances have been badly hit. Some have been taken over or retaken by nonprofits, businesses, churches, and governments. Institutional education has shifted its curriculum towards a deeper focus on allied health and economic reconstruction. Older faculty and staff are less active and visible than they used to be; a significant number have died of the virus.
A number of faculty teach independently, the most prominent supporting themselves through YouTube ads, podcast sponsorships, and crowdfunding. The rest do what they can.
Most national economies are a shambles. Globally economic growth has ceased. Unemployment statistics are unreliable, but about 25% seems to be close. Some number of people have exited the formal economy and either retire or work informally. Digital businesses and allied health care are the main industries that thrive. Books about the 1930s are widely read.
Politically, the world alternates between conservatism and instability. In the United States Donald Trump is still president, after last November’s election was marked by low participation, dubious tallying, and acrimony. Elsewhere, some nations experience governance failures while others are in open civil war. Various forms of authoritarianism are in place from localities to nations. Face-to-face protests are rare, driven by desperation or arrogance. Online unrest is continuous, driving targeted offline protests and other actions. Individual acts of violence occur worldwide.
Culturally, science is very controversial, as some associated it either with the pandemic or the failure to stop it. There is a steady trickle of protests, property damage, and acts of violence against scientists and scientific enterprises; the FBI debates classifying them as hate crimes. Multiple religions are growing worldwide, from ancient ones enjoying rebirths to new movements. Snake oil sellers are a smaller industry, dominated by Alex Jones and Gwynneth Paltrow. On the other hand, a good number of people quietly blame religions for aiding COVID-19’s spread and dun believers for not supporting mitigation efforts.
Coming up next: higher education scenarios.