Our remodeled future

After the pandemic, more women are likely to be in positions of authority given their proven expertise in handling COVID-19 and modeling leadership at all levels

SAXTONS RIVER — What will it be like, I wonder, when this terrible pandemic ends?

Sure, we will never take toilet paper, pasta, or flour for granted again. We may feel less guilty about binge watching TV. Maybe we'll even say “I love you” more often.

But how will we be changed personally, professionally, culturally? What lifestyle changes will we choose to make? What will “community” look like? Where will we work, and how will we play?

No one knows for sure how we will be irrevocably altered by what has happened, but sociologists, psychologists, writers, and homespun “experts” are beginning to suggest answers to those questions, and to speculate on, or idealize, a remodeled future. Some of these people were invited to weigh in on a “new normal” in a recent article in Politico.

Communications professor Deborah Tannen thinks that having been so vulnerable to calamity will change us forever, such that we will become compulsive hand washers who distance ourselves from others.

Some analysts counter with the idea that we'll be drawn together in real and virtual communities that we may not have considered joining or building before we experienced the loneliness of isolation.

I agree with their assessment. I think we'll become closer to family and friends, some of whom we've already reconnected with as a result of the pandemic.

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Peter Coleman, a psychology professor, suggests that the shock of COVID-19 could put an end to the “escalating political and cultural polarization we have been trapped in, and [could] help us to change course toward greater national solidarity and functionality.”

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg adds that market-based models for social organization will fail.

“When this ends,” he posits, “we will reorient our politics and make substantial new investments in public goods - for health, especially - public services.” Given the blatant flaws in our health care system that have been exposed during the current crisis, Americans will surely demand urgently needed health care reform, whether we call it “Medicare for all” or “universal health care.”

The digital lifestyle will likely take on new meaning and new tasks, as Sherry Turkle of MIT says. Whether it's watching a performance, taking yoga or meditation classes, communicating with legislators, staying connected to long-distance friends and family, or telecommuting to work, there are measurable benefits (and some drawbacks) that accompany such a change.

One of the benefits is a cleaner environment, as demonstrated by the unpolluted air over cities like Beijing and São Paulo, Venetian canals no longer smelling like sewers, rivers running clean again, and the Earth's surface quieting down, which all attest to the benefits of living less frenetic lives and appreciating nature's healing gifts.

Two things that will make a comeback in the new normal are a renewed respect for science, and the realization that good governance along with ethical institutions are essential to a functioning democracy, writer Michiko Kakutani suggests.

Applying lessons learned from the Trump administration's failures, Kakutani believes people will realize that government institutions need to be staffed with experts (not political loyalists)” and “decisions need to be made through a reasoned policy process and predicated on evidence-based science and geopolitical knowledge.”

“We need to remember that public trust is crucial to governance - and that trust depends on telling the truth,” she writes.

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Consistent with the urgency of good governance in this country is the recognition that we live in a globalized world. Participation in international organizations, cooperation with other nations, and empathy for multitudes of people who live in conditions we cannot imagine, whether in shantytowns, refugee camps, detention centers, or on the streets, has become essential. We can no longer avert our eyes when it comes to human frailty and suffering.

In the U.S., we also can no longer live with the stark divide between an insanely wealthy 1-percent world while the 99 percent struggle to survive. As one pundit put it, change is inevitable and social justice actions will make the Occupy Wall Street movement look like child's play.

There is another change that hasn't received sufficient attention: More women are likely to be in positions of authority given their proven expertise in handling the pandemic and modeling leadership at all levels.

Whether mayors, governors, community organizers, or prime ministers, women have proven their political and practical skills.

For example, New Zealand's prime minister Jacinda Ardern's early actions, including shutting down tourism and imposing an immediate month-long lockdown, limited the spread of COVID-19 and the death toll dramatically.

So did the actions of Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan's president, who ordered all planes arriving from Wuhan to be inspected as soon as the outbreak there was identified. She also opened an epidemic command center and ramped up production of personal protective equipment, resulting in a stunningly low number of COVID-19 cases and deaths. These two examples help illustrate that women have proven their decision-making and managerial skills, especially in a crisis.

Julio Vincent Gambuto, writing for WBUR's Cognoscenti, noted that this is “our chance to define a new version of normal,” a chance “to only bring back what works for us, what makes our lives richer, what makes us truly proud.

We can do it locally in our communities, in what organizations we support, what truths we tell, and what events we attend,” Gambuto continues. “And we can do it nationally in our government, in which leaders we vote in and to whom we give power.

We need only look to New Zealand and Taiwan for models.

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