What will our society look like as a result of COVID-19? What will remain when the pandemic ultimately fades into the background? That was what I asked more than 400 people in the communications field for this third and final article in the “Pandemic Hangover” series.
Responses included technology, several kinds of hygiene — and even our sartorial choices as one executive noted that neckties will now only appear for special occasions — but everyone agreed there will definitely be enduring impacts from our collective experience with COVID-19.
One of the most positive and pragmatic was raised by Kevin Nealer, Principal, The Scowcroft Group, who said: “Among the biggest post-COVID resource shifts may be a genuine effort to fund global early warning health systems and a rapid vaccine response capability. Worldwide, nearly five million lives later, the phrase ‘That’s too expensive’ will not protect any politician.” From his mouth…
The definition of hygiene ranged among those who responded. Ecolab Science Certified surveys from earlier in 2021 found that “81% of consumers are concerned about a future pandemic, and 95% want to see as much or more cleaning and sanitizing, even after the vaccine is widely available,” according to Nigel Glennie, VP Global Communications, Ecolab. “The current generation of kids will also grow up washing their hands properly and will carry that knowledge forward.”
Clarkson Hine, SVP, Corporate Communications & Public Affairs, Beam Suntory, pointed out what I believe to be a universal truth, saying: “Hand sanitizer is here to stay. I rarely pass by a dispenser without sticking my hands under it.”
But other kinds of hygiene grew in relevance during this time, too. Tucker Eskew, Partner, Vianovo, vowed to “practice better information hygiene. To sanitize before I share. I’m more careful than ever about media sources, potential biases, and the prospect of emotions overcoming facts. Especially surrounding medicine, vaccines, public health and the all-too-prevalent politics that create their own kind of ‘virus.’”
Monica Talan, Communications and Transformation, AT&T Consumer, took a different approach focusing on what I am calling social hygiene, saying: “For social gatherings, we are having debates on asking if folks are vaccinated. Once people know someone attending is not vaccinated, the dynamics change with that/those individuals. Having said that, I prefer to know. Will this have a long term impact on social events? I think so.”
Technology-enabled socializing does not seem to be waning much, at least not for the short- to mid-term future. Pattie Kushner, Chief Public Affairs Officer, Mayo Clinic, put it this way: “COVID forced our hands, and even traditional technophobes embraced video to connect with the people they love. Video game nights, social hours, birthday parties, and more emerged in full force. Even as we can travel a little more freely, I still see video calls happening among distant family and friends. It’s good to keep people from feeling isolated.”
One executive went further saying that there has been a “major paradigm shift whereby interactive entertainment became the entertainment medium of choice for society, reflected in both sales and mass consumer engagement.”
Matt Anchin, Head of Communications, Vimeo, is a great example: “I now have all my groceries delivered directly into my garage a few times a week. That said, [there is] far less product discovery from wandering up and down aisles to muzak.” That last point is an interesting one, and something to be aware of moving forward — as professionals and consumers.
Other people pointed to changing attitudes around technology’s impact on the more mundane aspects of life as a result of the pandemic. Chris Chiames, Chief Communications Officer, Carnival Cruise Line, said: “I look at major retailers who don’t accept Apple or Google pay like they are dinosaurs.” Chris Brathwaite, SVP, Chief Communications Officer, Tenneco, thinks “hard copy menus could be a continued casualty…the QR code and the ability to update menus almost real-time will make e-Menus a reality moving forward.”
“Society is experiencing the consequences of a shortage of empathy. A shortage of systems meant to enable people to care for themselves and their communities first,” said Michael Slaby, Author, For All the People. “People crave the opportunity to spend their efforts in service of a calling, to embrace the flow of being in a zone of purpose, creativity, and realization.”
Lisa Borders, Co-Founder & CEO, Golden Glow Media, pointed to The Great Resignation, calling it “a piercing inflection point for American workers [signaling] a clear desire to pursue passions rather than presume practicality. There is new courage to find the dream that delights and embrace the compassion that elevates.”
These comments encompass much of what we heard in the Part 1 of the series when we looked at a post-COVID-19 workplace.
Our Collective Future
So — what have we learned and what’s ahead?
“I keep asking myself and others, what does public adversity, like a pandemic, reveal about us and the society we want?” asked Steve Burgay, Senior Vice President/External Affairs, Boston University. “Will the pandemic create attitudes and behaviors that make us want something more cohesive, or will it reinforce the drift toward the extreme version of ‘personal freedom’ that we saw even before the disease hit?”
Amy Fry, Senior Communications Consultant, said that she hoped that “the newly realized value we have placed on the simple joy of relationships and being with people continues to lead our decisions, actions and consciousness; that we hold onto more quiet moments, more games with family, simple vacations and adventures, and the mental and physical value of slowing ourselves; that the work to reduce disparities of care, trust in the system and access not only continues but accelerates — and that we learn from what works.”
She also wondered about what will no doubt be a significant effect on the younger generations. Long-term it’s not clear, but right now we know there is a major mental health crisis impacting Gen Z, and we need to address it immediately.
Bob Feldman, Founder, Feldman & Partners, summed up the best case scenario in his thoughts: “The behavioral changes influenced by our shared COVID experience will primarily be for the positive: more flexibility in our jobs; more empathy for one another; modified actions to protect our health; and an enhanced appreciation for the positive impact science can have on our lives.”
As time passes it becomes harder and harder to remember the “before” world, and as predicted, we are adjusting to the new normal. Whether it’s flexible working hours, ongoing masking, or more money and talent directed towards finding solutions to global health problems before they become crises, analyses and dissertations will continue for decades to come. But try as they might, they will never truly capture the reality of how COVID-19 changed all of our lives indelibly.