Two pandemic scenarios for March 2021

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.

(thanks to the Online Rager, Tom Haymes, and other friends; photo by Shantanu Dutta)

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14 Responses to Two pandemic scenarios for March 2021

  1. Rebecca says:

    You say “Colleges and universities are back to their face to face ways, although enrollment is lower and their finances aren’t good.” Why would that be the case? Historically unemployment and enrollment are strongly correlated (the higher the unemployment the higher the enrollment), and even your ‘better’ scenario talks about still pulling out a recession a year from now. Can you provide some insight as to why you think this time might be different?

    • Glen McGhee, FHEAP says:

      Briefly, that was then, this is now.
      Here’s a dissertation on such a complicated topic.
      https://etd.ohiolink.edu/!etd.send_file?accession=osu1486652007890418&disposition=inline
      How useful was higher ed to the Roosevelt Administration during the Great Depression? It was a cozy relationship, following closely in the tracks pioneered in WW1 . From the diss:
      An investigative committee of the American Association of University
      Professors complained in 1937 about the “assumption that a department
      of the government has a right to utilize for its immediate ends the
      machinery centered at and identified with an educational institution.”

      Now, ask yourself the same question: How useful has higher ed been to the Trump Administration? I suspect the Trump Administration now is quite willing to let (much) of American higher ed ‘twist in the wind.’

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        I agree that the Trump administration’s difference from FDR’s counts for a lot.

        One note from that dissertation:
        “College enrollments during the same two-year period [1932-1934] declined 10 per cent.”

        • Glen McGhee, FHEAP says:

          On the plus side, during the Great Depression, state governments pushed local college construction projects, built dormitories, making college residence cheaper than living at home, and sports arenas.
          But this was almost one hundred years ago.

    • Glen McGhee, FHEAP says:

      According to this Ohio source, enrollments fell during the Great Depression.
      “The budgetary crisis facing many Ohio colleges in the 1930s was, of course, not only the fault of state lawmakers. Enrollment at American colleges had boomed during the generally prosperous 1920s but fell rapidly in the early years of the Depression. Between 1920 and 1930 the number of Americans in college degree programs nearly doubled, from 598,000 to 1.1 million. Between 1932 and 1934, however, enrollment in colleges fell by nearly 100,000 students, a decline of more than 8.5 percent.[12] Ohio colleges were not exempt. State-run Ohio University in Athens saw its student population plummet from 7215 in 1930–1931 to 5218 three years later. Private institutions were sometimes less affected, owing presumably to the wealthier clientele they served, but still sometimes felt the sting of a dwindling student base. Western Reserve University in Cleveland saw a relatively small decline in its full-time student population, but enrollment in its part-time day college was cut by more than half, from a high of 7116 in 1929–1930 to 3006 in 1933–1934.[13]”

      https://historycooperative.org/journal/a-favored-child-of-the-state-federal-student-aid-at-ohio-colleges-and-universities-1934-1943/

  2. Tom Elliot says:

    So it’s obvious the pivot point between those two scenarios is trump. His re-election spells doom, Biden’s election offers hope but also is trying to deal with radical change. I wonder in the first scenario if Biden is even equipped to respond to such a rapidly changing social environment. I’m rather hoping he ditches “malarkey” for “bullshit” myself.

    Curious as to what you think will be happening not only between now and election day but in both scenarios what the far too long handover period will be like. A defeated, angry and petulant baby trump could do a lot of damage in two months and a victorious one could do even more. Bill Barr run amok in a second term is a frightening prospect.

    • The Trump administration has botched this so thoroughly that there’s no reasonable disagreement with you. And yet I can’t help but consider the notion of “vice president Harris” to be scarcely less dystopian. Can we have Abrams instead, please? Or… like anyone else?

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        Steve, Abrams was my first choice for this scenario. I thought Harris instead, though, because I anticipated fears that Abrams’ lack of experience would be a problem. (Assuming people expect Biden to be incapacitated or dead during his first term)

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Tom, the main divide was the pandemic’s length. I was exploring how it could play out politically.

      • Tom Elliot says:

        But then wasn’t the cause of the difference in length the presence or absence of trump and his administration?

  3. Glen McGhee, FHEAP says:
    • Bryan Alexander says:

      It’s possible that that idea might take hold. If it gets truly popular, reduce my enrollment projections further.

      • Glen McGhee, FHEAP says:

        Exactly. Are you familiar with Anthony F. C. Wallace’s “maze-way disintegration” (Human Organization, 1956) ? It nicely rehearses our issues in terms of “disaster syndrome,” leading into his ideas about “mazeway revitalization.”

  4. Debora Ortloff says:

    I think there might be sector differences in higher education and then within those, winners and losers. Those producing high quality online education with flexibility and strong student support are going to do better regardless — but I would also argue that sector wise, community colleges (or at least those with aforementioned high quality online) may be able at least stabilize their enrollment as people pivot in the post-Covid world. Now this may be more true in scenario 1, as scenario 2 is nearly at the point of state failure — that seems dire for just about any sector within higher education.

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