[More added: now 182]
WHILE THE HUGE harms of coronavirus are well-known – death, illness, lockdowns, unemployment, recession, etc. – less attention has understandably been paid to the benefits.
Even clouds this dark have silver linings. Crises produce opportunities, innovation, and long-overdue reforms. 2020 will contain an extra year’s worth of mortality – but also a decade’s worth of progress, a leap into the future.
This post lists many benefits that could arise, so readers can consider how to maximize them, not just minimize harms. They cover a wide range of consequences. For example, lockdown has made many people (even drug gangsters) reassess their lives. Working from home has suddenly become normal, with less commuting, less cost, and more time for leisure and sleep. So people may move from cities to cheaper, more pleasant areas, or indeed countries.
Above all, coronavirus is a wake-up call - it could have been far worse. Better preparation for the next pandemic will reduce existential risk, potentially saving billions, or even trillions, of future lives.
Experiment & evolve
Lockdowns have created an experiment, making people and organisations re-think how - and why - they do things. Some activities become impossible and are abandoned, e.g. travel. For others, alternatives are tried, e.g. video calls for meetings and doctor’s appointments; or innovations, such as businesses sharing employees. This experimentation will continue well beyond lockdown, as the new reality emerges.
Many of these changes will turn out to be improvements, and will stick. Others, e.g. government-funded furloughing and virtual horse races, are temporary fixes which will go - as will changes that didn’t work. And things that were dropped as unnecessary, e.g. pointless meetings and regulations, will stay dropped.
All of this involves prioritizing: deciding what outcomes matter, and which solutions now work best. Many things will modernize, simplify, and become more efficient. Cost-effectiveness is key, as incomes will shrink for a while.
Finally, lessons will be learned from what went badly in the pandemic, and steps taken to improve resilience and prepare for future crises.
We can also view the situation in terms of evolution. The world has been struck by a metaphorical meteor, threatening not just lives, but ways of life. Those organisations, jobs, and activities that are fittest for the new environment, or can adapt, will survive. Others that are no longer useful will die out, often replaced by innovations, to produce a new normal.
The list below contains all the potential long-term benefits of the pandemic that I could find or think of. No doubt it is somewhat focused on rich countries, though this is not the aim. Please suggest additions or changes in the comments.
Some benefits have started under lockdown, such as more volunteering. Others may come later, such as de-urbanization.
Some are mixed blessings, causing substantial harm as well; e.g. failures of non-viable businesses, charities and educational institutions. With some items it’s unclear, or a matter of opinion, whether it is a benefit or not, e.g. political changes. While many potential benefits are speculative, some are especially so - more hopes than predictions; e.g. better international cooperation, in reaction to the protectionism of the pandemic. So I’ve qualified some entries accordingly:
- ± Benefit with substantial harm, or unclear whether it’s a benefit at all
- ? Very speculative
- Preparation for future pandemics
- ?Planning for existential risks: if coronavirus prompts even a small improvement in this, it would vastly outweigh all of the pandemic's harms*
Businesses & other organisations:
- Continuity planning
- Better contractual arrangements, e.g. force majeure clauses
- More robust supply chains, e.g. less just-in-time manufacturing
Spare capacity & redundancy:
- Essential services: e.g. healthcare, supermarkets
- Critical infrastructure
- Stockpiling essential supplies: e.g. food, fuel, medicines, vaccines, PPE
- ±Increased safety net for healthcare, unemployment, etc.
- ±Calls for Universal Basic Income: due to government-funded furloughing in some countries during lockdowns
Digitization & modernization:
- Faster processing of benefit applications
- Remote operation & streamlining of courts
- Remote operation of parliaments
- Electronic & postal voting
Trust in government in some countries: due to effective pandemic control, job retention schemes, etc.
Change of government/leader in some countries: if they did not handle pandemic well
Less avoidance of tax and regulations, as a result of re-shoring
Cost-saving efficiencies due to higher debt & lower tax revenue
?Transparency of government
?More constructive national politics
?Improved international cooperation, e.g.:
- World Health Organisation
- Trade in essentials, e.g. food, energy, medical supplies
- Disaster preparedness (see above)
- Healthcare aid
- Suspend debts
- ±Cancel debts
?Ceasefires during pandemic in conflict zones, perhaps continuing afterwards
?Wellbeing/happiness economics take-up, as the pandemic highlights dilemmas between lives, livelihoods, and quality of life
Health & science
Public healthcare funding:
- For spare capacity (see Disaster preparedness)
- ?Policies to promote health, diet & exercise, particularly to groups which had disproportionate coronavirus mortality
- ?Care home funding
International collaboration on health research
Faster health research processes:
- Disease research
- Vaccine & drug development
- Journal publishing
Advances in virology, epidemiology, sociology etc. from coronavirus research
Infectious disease reduction, due to long-term hygiene improvements (e.g. handwashing, ?face masks):
- Common diseases, e.g. colds, flu, food poisoning
- Rarer, more serious diseases, e.g. some cancers
- Diseases not previously known to be infectious
- Future pandemics
- Symptom checking apps
- Video consultations
- Online prescribing
- Treatments sent by post
- Online treatment & therapy
- Online self-help & automated therapy, e.g. for mental health
- Remote monitoring
- More efficient, e.g. the UK's NHS still relies on paper records
- Enables research on the data
- Physical health: e.g. diet, exercise, alcohol; highlighted by increased coronavirus mortality
- Mental health: highlighted by lockdowns and anxiety about health & jobs
- More cycling & walking: to avoid infection risk on public transport
- Sleep: improved by less commuting or shorter work hours (see Work)
- Personal health trackers: more usage & features, e.g. measuring temperature
Trust in science and medicine
Remote work (usually office jobs):
- From home; cafes, shared workspaces etc. nearby; or while travelling elsewhere
- Move home to better/cheaper area or country (see Relocation & transport)
- Saves office cost, commuting time & cost
- Digital transformation of organisations, increasing efficiency
- More international employment & collaboration
- More work for disabled people
- Less 'presenteeism' (unnecessary attendance at work)
- Better rural Internet access
- ?Less office politics: as harder to do remotely
Change in work hours to suit worker (e.g. after reflection during lockdown), as cost/job-saving measure by employer, or to enable social distancing in workplaces/transport:
- ±Shorter hours / part-time work
- Remote workers paid for actions & results, not hours: as hours harder to track
Change of job/career:
- After reflection during lockdown
- ±Forced by unemployment
±Bullshit jobs cut
±Automation of jobs: as cost-saving measure, or to reduce risk of worker absence in future lockdowns/crises
Fewer, more efficient meetings: as video conferences, or due to simplifications under lockdown
?Better worker terms/rights:
- Essential workers' pay
- Casual workers
- Minimum wage
- Sick leave
Innovation to deal with new circumstances, compete for reduced demand, or cut costs, e.g.:
- Extended supermarket hours, or dedicated hours for vulnerable groups, to reduce crowding (even long-term, if further pandemic waves are expected)
- Sharing employees between different businesses, in response to changes of demand
- Drive-in cinemas for social distancing
- Use of technology
- ±More online groceries, Amazon, Alibaba, Deliveroo, etc.
- Automated warehouses and delivery (see Relocation & transport) to fulfill increased online orders
- More self-checkout in physical stores, to avoid infection risk
- Checkout-less stores, e.g. Amazon Go
- High Street/Main Street switch from products to services: due to competition from online retail
±Business failures - especially if barely viable even before the pandemic, or have crowded spaces, e.g.:
- Restaurants, cafes, bars, pubs, hotels
- Cinemas, theatres
- Department stores
- Airlines, cruise ships
Relocation & transport
De-urbanization due to remote work (see Work):
- Lower urban property/real estate prices
- Lower commercial property/real estate prices, due to less office usage
- Lower inequalities between regions of countries
Remote workers moving country:
- To cheaper or more desirable locations
- ?Better governance, tax breaks, etc. to attract such workers
- ?Lower inequalities between countries
±Re-shoring (see Disaster preparedness)
- ±Less international freight: due to deglobalization
- Less work travel: due to less commuting, fewer in-person meetings & conferences, re-shoring (see Work)
- ±Less public transport: due to infection risk and restrictions on international travel (even long-term, if further pandemic waves expected)
- Hence more cycling & walking
- Less driving to stores: due to online shopping, infection risk in malls
- Less pollution (see Environment & nature)
- ±Lower fuel prices
- ±Staycations: replacing foreign travel
- ?Fewer road deaths - though train/bus passengers may switch to cars
?Delivery drones, self-driving vehicles, etc. to fulfill increased online orders
Environment & nature
- Less CO2 and air pollution
- ?Awareness of noise pollution: after urban silence & birdsong under lockdown
- ?Increased climate change concern
- Reduction/banning of wild animal capture & sale
- Better conditions in live animal markets
- ?Better animal farming conditions
- Happier & healthier pets, as get more attention from home workers
Outdoor activities as social distancing measure (even long-term, if further pandemic waves are expected):
- Visiting parks, gardens, playgrounds, countryside
- Camping, hiking, fishing, boating, cycling, etc.
- Outdoor sports, swimming pools, gyms
- Open-air bars, restaurants, cafes
- Open-air concerts, cinemas, theatres
- ±Part-time: to enable social distancing in schools (even long-term, if further pandemic waves are expected)
- Better parental understanding of children's education, due to home schooling during lockdown
- To support home schooling
- Online university courses
- ?Online exams
Re-assessment of education & educational institutions, including:
- ?What they are for
- In-person vs distance learning
- ?Private school & university fees
±Bankruptcies of some educational institutions
?±More continuous assessment following exam cancellations in e.g. UK
Adult education started under lockdown, e.g. learning an instrument or language
More leisure time if stop commuting, or work shorter hours (see Work)
Entertainment tried/increased under lockdown, e.g.:
- Arts & culture: music, reading, podcasts, painting, etc.
- ±TV & video streaming: e.g. replacing cinema
- Games, puzzles & quizzes
- Web surfing
- ±Social media
Other pursuits & hobbies tried/increased under lockdown, e.g.
- Takeaways / Deliveroo: e.g. replacing restaurants
- DIY / home improvement
- Spring cleaning / decluttering
- Knitting & sewing
- Adult education (see Education)
- Self-improvement / personal development
- ±Prayer / worship
More online entertainment, e.g. live events, reaching wider audiences
Relationships improved/renewed by lockdown:
- With partner
- With children
- With other family members, e.g. via video call
- Friendships via video call, social media, etc.
New online friendships/relationships under lockdown
More time with partner, family & friends if stop commuting, or work shorter hours (see Work)
±Divorce / break-up, brought to a head by lockdown
Charity & community
Volunteering, e.g. started under lockdown
?More charitable donations / philanthropy
Cost-saving efficiencies if donations fall due to lower incomes
Innovation to deal with new circumstances or cut costs
Support for local community & businesses: e.g. due to home workers spending more time where they live
±Charity closures - hopefully counterproductive or low effectiveness ones
Re-evaluation of life, including:
- Meaning, purpose & values
- Priorities & inessentials
- Likes & dislikes
- Own strengths & weaknesses
- Opportunities & concerns
- Health: physical & mental
- Work, and work-life balance
- Essential services and key workers, e.g. in healthcare, social care, supermarkets, teaching, technology, mail & deliveries, transport, police
- Role and importance of government, science, media, business and charities
- Volunteers and helpful people
- The elderly
- Activities missed during lockdown, e.g. social contact, culture, sports, nature & the outdoors, tourism, cafes, bars, restaurants, religious worship
- Simple pleasures
- Kindness, consideration
- Public spirit, less individualism
- ±Less materialism / consumerism
- Acceptance of mortality
- Acceptance of uncertainty
- ?±Short-termism, living in the present
- ?Less concern about own appearance
- ?Less attention to celebrities
- ?Solidarity with other countries
- ?±Beneficial if the world is overpopulated; or if humans, or those who died, are generally harmful or their lives not worthwhile; according to some (controversial) ethical theories
- ±Redistribution of wealth to younger generations
?End of physical cash due to infection risk:
- Traceability reduces crime & tax evasion
- Simplifies government emergency handouts
?Less crime, as criminals reassess their lives
?Better bank treatment of borrowers as continuation of special terms under lockdown
?Better rights for renters after evictions suspended during lockdown (e.g. in UK)
?More fact-checking on social media
This list includes harmful consequences of coronavirus (as well as various of the above benefits).
In-depth discussion of some points is in a Politico article and FT series (paywall).
*Toby Ord's new book The Precipice estimates that the human race will only last another 600 years or so before it is wiped out, or permanently crippled, by a pandemic (probably a bioweapon) or other existential risk.
If coronavirus makes the world prepare slightly better for such disasters, thereby reducing the risk by say 1%, it would extend the human race by 600 years × 1% = 6 years. The world population is forecast to reach about 11 billion, so this would save 6 years × 11 billion = 66 billion years of life.
If coronavirus kills 10 million people worldwide, each losing 10 years of life on average, 100 million years of life will be lost. This is a minute fraction of the benefit from improved disaster preparedness.
Some weeks ago I stumbled across this collaborative Google doc where people brainstorm second and third order effects of the pandemic. I didn‘t think it was especially careful, but it contains a lot of ideas and areas and might offer some further relevant effects. https://docs.google.com/document/d/17YkH4kc63t7JI7JJZR6i3-iebJd7kfRAzAK_ssl8bt4/edit
I've just been through it all. A great resource - with harms too. Glad to see I had thought of almost all the long-term benefits (!), but have added a few more from it here, and thought of several further points too.
Great, thanks, I'll check it out.
I'm curious to see what happens here. I know a lot of people who are saying "I'm paying $50,000 a year to watch the same lecture I could have watched on YouTube for free?" Of course, that was also true before quarantine, but somehow quarantine has made it more salient.
I'm not sure whether this salience will last and cause a switch towards nontraditional learning.
Indeed I think it will accelerate this issue, though maybe not resolve it.
In the UK, and no doubt elsewhere, universities have cancelled courses for the rest of the year, or are making them online-only, but refusing to refund students; which will make students acutely aware of what value for money they're getting, or not.
That said I did read somewhere the observation that as degrees are as much about status & signalling as actual learning, it may make little difference. People will still prefer the prestige of an Ivy League or Oxbridge education if they can get it. That said, that prestige is rather bound up with physical attendance in grand surroundings, surrounded by top-notch professors etc.
Yeah, even if it just leads to acceptance that higher education is about signaling, that seems like a step in the right direction to me. It at least lays the groundwork for future innovators who can optimize for signaling as opposed to "education."
Thanks for this thorough list! Regarding:
Do you have a sense for how well correlated public opinion and government performance is? At least in the US, my impression is that Trump's approval ratings got a slight bump but are now back to normal levels, and public opinion mostly tracks party allegiance rather than any government policy.
Indeed, I looked at Trump's approval rating over time and it's been about average for US presidents with little pandemic effect. Possibly the US is a bit of an outlier in this regard though, or it's a bit early for an assessment.
Because the ultimate Covid death toll will be a stark, objective measure of performance relative to other countries, I suspect later in the year it will be harder for voters anywhere to maintain illusions about how well or badly their country has handled the pandemic. (That said, much is not really down to the leaders, as no-one can really be expected to have known how best to handle it, given the limited information early on and the variety of strategies that have been tried. I have little doubt though that Trump's decision-making has been particularly poor.)