It’s now approaching six months since Covid-19 turned our world upside down, although China and other Asian countries have been tackling the novel coronavirus since late last year. Prediction and speculation are the stock-in-trade of fools but I think we’ve all been tempted to dust down our crystal ball and ponder what the future holds. With a degree of educated guesswork and a smattering of temerity, here are my thoughts on the future course of the disease that’s claimed more than 580,000 lives so far and what life will look like in a post-Covid world.
When will it all end?
This is my four year old daughter’s most frequently asked question these days, especially when she wants to visit her friends or use the swings in the playground. We’re all eager to get back to normality so when will we see the back of Covid-19?
Perhaps the most overlooked expert in the field of infectious disease is the Victorian era epidemiologist, William Farr. Farr is regarded as the founder of modern medical statistics and, in 1840 and subsequent years, he developed what would become known as Farr’s Law of Epidemics. Essentially, Farr’s Law predicts that, during an epidemic, instances of a given disease rise and fall in a bell-shaped curve or, as our mathematics-minded friends might say, cases approximate a ‘Normal Distribution’. In other words, once the number of cases of the disease hits a peak, case numbers will roughly decline at the same rate as they arose. While the official line from the Chinese authorities claims Covid-19 emerged last December, anecdotal evidence suggests it emerged earlier, possibly as early as September. Assuming Covid-19 dates from September 2019 and a worldwide peak was reached at the end of April this year, per the available data, that would imply the disease will have largely fizzled out by the end of December 2020.
Don’t start planning your 2021 holidays just yet, though. As well as knowing when the disease began to emerge, making accurate predictions based on Farr’s Law requires that we’re certain when we reached a peak. To further complicate matters, case data is likely inaccurate to some degree as testing has been patchy in various parts of the world and some people may never report for testing if they’re asymptomatic. We’re also unsure of the impact of lockdowns on that bell-shaped curve as, ironically, they may have served to artificially prolong the disease, something current data suggests if we accept Farr’s predictions.
Another way to predict the diseases’ demise is to look at similar historical pandemics and their respective durations. We’ve had several pandemics in the past, some of them caused by bacteria such as Bubonic Plague or Cholera while others were caused by viruses such as the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic and the HiV pandemic, at its height between 2005 and 2012. Examining pandemics caused by a virus with a similar mode of transmission to Covid-19 should provide an estimate for the duration of the present pandemic, excluding pandemics caused by bacteria or viruses with a different mode of transmission such as HIV. Of course this is a complicated business. It’s not always clear when a pandemic begins and ends, especially when it comes in waves such as the 1918 ‘Spanish flu’ with its final wave in 1920. We can only make use of the best data available. Looking solely at the worst pandemics in recent history with a similar mode of transmission (the 1968 flu, 1957-1958 Asian flu, 1918-1920 flu and the 1889-1890 flu pandemics), their average duration was approximately 16 months.
Based on Farr’s Law and similar historical pandemics we may be stuck with Covid-19 until sometime between the end of December 2020 until March 2021, at which point it will have largely fizzled out. In other words, community transmission will no longer occur and the disease may only exist in isolated pockets.
Another factor determining the duration of a pandemic is the availability of an effective vaccine. We may never develop and rollout a vaccine for Covid-19. Developing a vaccine is a lengthy process. By the time it takes to research and manufacture a vaccine in sufficient quantities the disease may have largely disappeared or we may have discovered an effective treatment.
How will our lives change?
What will life look like when there’s no longer community transmission of the disease and Covid-19 exists only in isolated pockets? Major global events tend to accelerate change already under way. The First World War had major societal ramifications, not least the emergence of women into the workforce, the demise of domestic service and increased social mobility. Many pundits predict similar seismic shifts, even predicting a halt to globalisation as nations rush to tighten borders and corporations move to secure supply chains closer to home. They’re also predicting the demise of the office as workers seek better work life balance working from home, now that we’ve seen it’s a viable option with modern technology. The analysts are also predicting an end to unfettered cheap global travel, with airlines reducing seat capacity to allow for social distancing. Is this just fantasy?
Perhaps the biggest substantive change we’ll see is actually an acceleration of globalisation. Now that business leaders have had a chance to see what can be achieved when teams work remotely, will we see the rise in business outsourcing, a trend already underway? As well as outsourcing customer facing teams, will businesses decide to scrap in-house software development teams in favour of cheaper labour in India and other developing countries? What about the accounting or even sales teams? What impact will this have on the wages of heretofore-protected high wage earners in the western world and what does it mean for our standard of living? Perhaps the major shift post-Covid will mean fewer opportunities for high skilled workers in the developed world and more opportunities and a higher standard of living in the developing world. The speed and extent to which businesses embrace outsourcing may be tempered by the practical constraints, not least the degree to which high skilled workers are readily available in the developing world and other concerns such as language and cultural barriers. Only time will tell.
Talk of the demise of the traditional office is likely premature. More and more businesses will embrace work from home policies and find it harder to justify the rental cost on city centre offices but, with the disease gone and the memory of its impact fading, people will return to the office in their droves. Technology will never replace the efficiency of in-person communication with all it’s subtitles and nuances and, when the novelty of working from home fades, people will return to the office to escape the difficulties inherent in working and minding children simultaneously or the pressures of working in cramped rented accommodation.
What about the world of travel? With the disease no longer a concern, airlines will return to their pre-Covid capacity as the economic realities of the aviation industry kick-in. It will no longer be possible to justify social distancing and the increased cost of flying when customers vote with their feet, favouring airlines who take that first leap of faith back to unfettered cheap travel. Masks may become a staple of the flight experience, with a similar degree of mask wearing in retail outlets but they’ll soon fade into obscurity, perhaps remaining in pockets as an archaic reminder of darker times.
Human nature is an odd business. We’re inclined to collective short-sightedness, confusing temporary realities with long lasting outcomes. We’ve been hearing a lot about the so-called ‘new normal’ but my prediction is that the new normal will look very like the ‘old normal’. The disease will come and go and human, economic and political realities will see life returning to something largely resembling a pre-Covid world. When the dust settles, sometime in the next nine to ten months, life will resume. It can and it must.