Forecasting The Long-Term Effects Of The Coronavirus On American Society
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
There are now only two groups of Americans. That is what Ed Yong writes in The Atlantic this week. He says Group A includes everyone involved in the medical response. Group B includes everyone else, and their job is to buy Group A more time. That is Yong's summary of what American life looks like in the near term. But he also spends time thinking about the long-term effects the coronavirus may have on American society. Ed Yong joins me now.
ED YONG: Hi. Thanks for having me.
CHANG: So, you know, in this piece, you bring up two very interesting historical comparisons to COVID-19. You talk about the AIDS epidemic and you talk about Sept. 11. Could you just explain a little bit about how each of those two events transformed American life in a way that you find relevant right now? Let's start with AIDS.
YONG: Sure. I think AIDS changed a lot of the ways we think about sexual health. So it really mainstreamed condom usage and talk about STIs and testing for STIs in a way that we hadn't seen before. And I wonder now if this pandemic will do the same for certain health behaviors like washing our hands. You know, I...
CHANG: For 20 seconds.
YONG: For 20 seconds, right. We all have these routines now. And, you know, handwashing was something that - it was even hard for some hospitals to get staff to do. So maybe this is just going to be one of the many changes that will be a lingering part of our lives after.
CHANG: And what about Sept. 11? What sort of common threads do you see between then and now?
YONG: I think Sept. 11 was a huge catastrophe that really shook the American psyche and set priorities for the entire country going forward. Counterterrorism really became a focus for America in the wake of Sept. 11 And I think that maybe public health might become a similar focus in the wake of COVID-19. And that would actually be a positive, I think, because efforts to prepare the country for pandemics have long been underfunded. And I think having more attention to this will help us in the long run.
CHANG: Something very interesting that you put your finger on in this piece is that American individualism and exceptionalism, you know, this idea that Americans don't like to be told what to do...
CHANG: ...That that idea made it harder to fight the coronavirus at first. But I'm curious, you know, as this pandemic becomes more and more serious, do you think that new values could take the place of those old values that you pinpoint?
YONG: Yeah, I really hope so. I think that, at a time when we're being asked to very rightly and reasonably to distance ourselves physically from each other, I hope that communities will find new and more creative ways to come together. And we need to do that at lots of different scales - at, like, neighborhood scales, at state scales and at international scales. And I'm hoping that that sense of helping your neighbors out in a time of crisis becomes like a normalized ethic in the wake of all this.
CHANG: Well, perhaps we're seeing a small sign of that, politically speaking. I mean, just in the past few weeks in the U.S., we've seen both sides of the aisle be a little more receptive to expanding social safety net programs. We've seen it in the package of bills that Congress has been working on. Do you think this political shift could last beyond this pandemic, or is it just more politically palatable now to be receptive to those ideas because these times feel so urgent?
YONG: Well, I think that voters will realize how quickly societal shift can happen when there is a need for it. And I think, you know, once you institute things like fair sick pay, you know, better labor policies, I don't think you get to take that away from people without them realizing what's happened. But also, I feel this crisis is unusual. Our lives are all being uprooted right now. And even people in positions of power and privilege, including people who are members of Congress, who might be shielded from the effects of their policies on more marginalized and vulnerable communities are now themselves vulnerable. And I think that might be another thing that allows us to break from this cycle of panic and then neglect when the crisis subsides.
CHANG: I want to talk a little bit about social distancing because right now, people do seem to be accepting that social distancing is vital. So they're doing it, at least in the short term. But long term, do you see there being more lasting effects caused by this period of social distancing we're all in right now?
YONG: Yeah. So there are certainly mental health effects to watch out for. I think people with existing mental health issues like OCD and anxiety are really going to struggle. And there are already signs that in Wuhan, for example, which experience some of the most severe quarantine measures, some people have developed things like agoraphobia, fear of the outdoors, or post-traumatic stress disorder. I think a lot of people are going to be quite resilient in the face of this. It might change a lot of the ways we communicate with each other.
You know, I don't think that people are going to stop going to offices anytime soon, but there may be more allowances for working from home. It's become abundantly clear how quickly we can all shift and pivot when the need arises. And, you know, that may, in turn, have consequences for things like energy consumption or traffic congestion.
CHANG: So there could be ripple effects in the positive direction.
YONG: There could be, absolutely. I think that an event such as this that shakes up society so much brings with it a huge amount of potential, both for harm - physical, mental, economic - but also for rebuilding a world that is better and more equitable than the one we currently live in. I think the next few months will be pivotal for laying the seeds of that possible future.
CHANG: Finally, I want to talk a little bit about xenophobia. I mean, in this piece, you lay out two very, very different possibilities for how this might change the way America interacts with its neighbors around the world. Tell me about those two different directions this could take.
YONG: One lesson that Americans could take from this is that other countries are the source of dangerous diseases and are a potential threat. So Trump is already trying to cast China as the villain here. People are talking about the need to hold them accountable for this. We could learn that the isolationism that has already gripped global politics for the last few years is the way forward, and America could draw further inward into itself. But I think, to me, the better lesson to draw is that the world is vulnerable because of globalization.
And the only way to solve that is to cooperate more with each other. America first is not a policy that is going to protect America from viruses which know no borders or walls. And I think if we have a better ethic of global cooperation, we'll be stronger and safer. And maybe if people learn that lesson, we will end up reaching outwards. We will rebuild the international and global alliances that have been weakened during this administration. And I think that is a kind of social shift that will make us much more able to deal with the next inevitable pandemic.
CHANG: Ed Yong is a science writer at The Atlantic magazine. His article is entitled "How The Pandemic Will End."
Thank you very much for joining us.
YONG: Thank you so much for having me. Be safe.
CHANG: You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.