A little over 50 years ago, American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan sang "The Times They Are a-Changing," an X-ray of what America and the world in general was going through: a shift in its way of life. Now, when the world is facing a situation that we have never faced before, these verses become more relevant than ever.
Times are changing and our lifestyle as we knew it will never be the same again. This is the view of Gideon Lichfield, editor of the Technology Review, which is linked to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): "We all want to get back to normal as soon as possible. But it seems that most of us are still not aware that anything will return to normal," writes the expert.
Lichfield draws on a study published by Imperial College London, where researchers advocate imposing more extreme social distancing measures as the number of patients in intensive care units (ICUs) grows, and "softening" those measures when the number of such patients drops.
What is Imperial College relying on to make this prediction? The institute used a prediction of the monthly ICU occupancy peaks so far this year for patients with COVID-19. "Based on the model, the researchers conclude that social distancing should occur approximately two-thirds of the time, i.e., every other month, until a vaccine is available, which is not expected for at least 18 months," explains the Technology Review's editor.
This would be equivalent to reducing contact outside the home, in schools or at work by up to 75 per cent. "This doesn't mean just going out with friends once a week instead of four, but that everyone will do their best to minimize social contact," says Lichfield.
Other experts, such as Zajar Leikin, medical director of the pharmaceutical company NovaMedika, stressed for Reuters the importance of complying with the isolation regime until a vaccine is developed, and predicts that this social distancing could last a year or even longer. The analyst clarified that this is not a temporary change in our daily routine, but that this pandemic, which has now confined more than half of the world's population, will bring about a totally different way of life.
The consequences are already being felt. Beyond the reclusion in our homes, many businesses that depend on social contact, to bring people together in closed places, such as bars, restaurants, cinemas, museums, will see these large numbers of people and directly reduce the amount of their income. It will also affect parents, who will have to educate their children at home and combine it, if they are lucky, with teleworking. Because another key point in this change is the large number of jobs that will be affected.
The figures are there: in the last two weeks, almost ten million Americans have applied for unemployment benefit and in Spain the coronavirus crisis has caused the loss of 900,000 jobs since the start of the state of alert. However, as Lichfield points out, there will be businesses that will adapt to the new reality, so there will be "an explosion of new services in what has already been called the 'confined economy'".
It also seems clear that, in order to have more control over the virus, citizens will see their freedoms reduced. The eternal dilemma between security and freedom will lead governments to opt for "intrusive surveillance" where they will monitor infected people and thus prevent the spread of the disease, according to the analyst. "For example, when taking a flight, the passenger might have to register with a service that tracks his or her movements through the phone and detect whether he or she has been near infected people or disease hot spots. Some governments, like Israel's, using the technology it used to fight terrorism; or Singapore's, with a sophisticated contact-tracking program that tracks the virus from one person to the next via mobile phones, have begun to do so to reduce the contagion curve.
Lichfield argues that "we will adapt and accept those measures," where "intrusive surveillance will be seen as a small price to pay for the basic freedom to be with other people.
And who will suffer most from the consequences of this pandemic? "As usual, it will be borne by the poorest and weakest," says the editor. Staying at home in many places means being confined to facilities with unsanitary conditions, and where the houses are overcrowded, as is the case in Rio de Janeiro with the favelas or in the poorest neighbourhoods of India. In addition, not everyone has access to a public health system, making it a serious problem to detect a case of infection. Immigrants, refugees, undocumented migrants, people with large families earning less than 30,000 euros a year, etc., will undoubtedly be the most affected.
"We will all have to adapt to a new way of living, working and relating. But as with any change, there will be some who will lose more than most, and they will probably be those who have already lost too much," says Lichfield, who hopes that this will "force countries, particularly the United States, to correct the enormous social inequalities.
"There is a battle outside and it is raging," follows Dylan's song. That battle, against the coronavirus, will bring about consequences we were not prepared for and changes in our ways of relating to each other that we will have to adapt to. But it has also highlighted the need for collaboration and the possibility of building a more humane system that will leave us more resilient in the face of future pandemics.