The New World After COVID-19
by Jerry W. Thomas
Since 1800, several factors have increased the risks of worldwide pandemics:
- Increasing human population density. The world population in 1800 was roughly 1 billion people, and that number is approaching 8 billion in 2020, an 8-fold increase in the average number of people per square mile.
- Growing urbanization. In 1800, only 3% or so of the world population lived in urban areas, whereas now about 55% live in urban areas, (an approximate 145-fold increase in the number of people living in densely populated urban areas). Viruses can spread more easily if people are packed together.
- Improving transportation systems. In 1800, almost everything moved at the speed of a walking horse, but soon the arrival of trains and faster ships picked up the pace. The coming of cars and airplanes after 1900 accelerated the speed of travel, so a new disease can now race from remote places to New York or London within 24 hours.
Despite these growing risks, we have been fortunate over the last 200 years because worldwide pandemics have been relatively few (10 to 20, depending on exactly how pandemics are defined), and the related death toll has been “modest” (approximately 1 billion souls, by some estimates). These growing pandemic risks have been mitigated by several offsetting factors:
- Expanding economic output, and related improvements in food supply, water and sewer systems, trash pickup and processing, and sanitation in general.
- Improving healthcare technology, education, systems, medicines, and facilities—and growing public access to healthcare services.
- Developing antibiotics to treat and vaccines to prevent or minimize the spread of communicable diseases. The importance of vaccines to world health over the last 200 years cannot be overstated.
The emergence of COVID-19 is not surprising, given the growing pandemic risks, and we will see many more pandemics over the next 100 years. What is most unique about COVID-19 is its economic impact. Presently, preventing the virus from overwhelming our healthcare systems requires shutting down roughly one-third of all economic activity. COVID-19 will bring about a deep worldwide recession in 2020 and probably cost the world economy something on the order of $20 to $25 trillion dollars. The COVID-19 pandemic, its high death toll, its disruption of social life, and its destruction of the economy will be seared into our collective human memories for a long time to come. A new world awaits—on the other side of the COVID-19 tsunami.
Consumer attitudes and perceptions will be changed forever. Industries, companies, and brands will be forced back to the drawing board to re-learn and re-understand their markets and their customers. Companies will have to reinvent, re-position, and rejuvenate their products, services, marketing, and advertising. No one knows how attitudes and perceptions will mutate and evolve, but any company or brand that fails to re-invest in basic marketing research to understand and stay in touch with their markets and customers is at peril of oblivion.
What might this new world look like? We can only speculate at this point, but here are some possibilities to consider:
- The whole world will have to invest more in healthcare systems and in expanding access to healthcare. One untreated person might be the trigger for the next world pandemic.
- The world will have to invest much more in preventative and pre-emptive medical research, systems, and facilities, so that potential disease threats are identified as early as possible and quickly addressed by rapid development, testing, and deployment of vaccines. If every new pandemic disease will require 18-24 months to develop and deploy a vaccine, the human race’s future looks bleak indeed.
- Economic growth will be diminished over the next decade and beyond by the accumulation of governmental, corporate, and individual debt. COVID-19 did not cause the present worldwide debt debacle, but it will add to and exacerbate the debt problem. Corporations will regret all the money they borrowed to repurchase their own stocks. Governments will regret borrowing money to overspend on popular projects and programs to buy votes. The rest of us will have to tighten our consumer belts as we attempt to pay down our personal debts. We all—governments, corporations, and individuals—have been living beyond our means in recent decades and not paying our debts. The COVID-19 pied piper is playing his haunting melody as our undeserved standard of living follows him across the river and down the road.
- Materials that reduce or eliminate the accumulation and transmission of viruses and bacteria will be in high demand. Wherever people interact with materials (door knobs, handles, table and counter surfaces, handrails, packages, grocery bags, clothing, gloves, fabrics, credit cards, etc.), there will be opportunities for new products and new systems that reduce the risks of disease transmission.
- Mass transit of all types will face an existential crisis. Any means of transportation that forces people to be crowded up against one another will be seen with very different eyes after COVID-19. Who will want to stand in a crowded bus or crammed subway, or sit in a packed airliner for 3 hours jammed up next to someone coughing during the whole flight? Do we need to remove all of the middle seats? Space out the rows? Improve the ventilation systems on airplanes? Have mass screening for infectious diseases before passengers are allowed on subways, buses, or airplanes? Interestingly, the poor old maligned, single-owner car or truck is the most disease-proof means of transportation.
- Social interaction is a deep human need. We are social creatures, and our social skills have allowed us to dominate the animal kingdom. These social needs, however, make us highly vulnerable to the spread of new diseases. People will still want to eat at restaurants, go to church, and attend sporting and entertainment events, but will they do it as often as in the past? Will those social environments need to be modified in some way to reduce the risks of disease transmission? Will everyone need to be screened for fevers before admission? Will restaurant servers and kitchen workers need to wear safety masks and gloves? Will restaurant foods need to be packaged differently for takeout and home-delivery, or even for delivery to the restaurant’s tables?
- Supermarkets (and, in fact all retail) will have to rethink everything to reduce the risks of disease transmission. Traditional retail is already at great risk from online competition, and COVID-19 is only increasing those risks. Again, automated screening of all customers for fevers or other symptoms might be in our future. Providing free masks and gloves to employees and to customers during high-risk episodes might be essential.
- Work-at-home might become more commonplace and more accepted as a backup system in case of pandemic economic meltdowns. Many companies may need to re-think prohibitions on working at home, because employees working at home makes a business more resistant to pandemics. Many jobs cannot be done at home, so work-at-home is only a partial solution.
- Much of the advertising created before February 15, 2020, in the U.S. is now obsolete and perhaps even counterproductive. Social distancing is not evident in the older commercials, nor is sensitivity to behaviors that increase the risk of disease transmission. Consumer perceptions and motives are changing by the day, and marketing plans, strategic positionings, and advertising messages will need to change along with consumers’ evolving perceptions and motives.
We could go on, industry by industry, and speculate about some of the risks and solutions, but it’s only speculation. All companies will have to redo their marketing research homework, listen to their customers and prospects, brainstorm with them about how to jointly create new products and services for a safer world, and work with them to guide creation of the new world after COVID-19.
About the Author
Jerry W. Thomas (firstname.lastname@example.org) is President/CEO of Decision Analyst. He may be reached at 1-817-640-6166.
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