In spring 1986, as a wet-behind-the-ears research assistant at a Washington, DC, think tank, I spent my first year after college studying the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.

The catastrophe’s consequences were immediate: death, displacement, downwind irradiation for hundreds of miles, and an unprecedented quasi-military cleanup that cost more than $100 billion. I assembled and summarized for my supervisor piles of news reports and research papers, and I knew what the experts said the Chernobyl disaster would mean for the world, one being a huge downshift in commercial nuclear power for a generation.

But no one studying the accident then anticipated that the disaster might serve as the final straw that would break the back of the country’s Communist rule. Yet looking back in April 2006, the final Communist head of state Mikhail Gorbachev wrote, “The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl . . . was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.” The disaster, with its continent-spanning fallout of invisible death-dealing particles, semi-random hotspots and safe zones, and weeks of government cover-ups and minimization, evaporated what little trust Soviet residents still had in their leaders. Gorbachev’s attempts at transparency (glasnost) and reform (perestroika) were doomed. Chernobyl proved to a critical mass of Soviet people that the entire system was a cruel farce.

Three hypotheses

Fast-forward to spring 2020. The coronavirus pandemic is all too obvious in its consequences: death, economic collapse and recession, and an unprecedented global health crisis. But what will be the long-term effects? What consequences are still to come? What will we see when we look back 20 years from now, like when Gorbachev reflected on Chernobyl?

In 1986 no one could foresee the end of Soviet communism. And I do not mean to imply that this pandemic will topple any particular regime, though such outcomes are certainly possible. My point is that the reach of disastrous events is long and unpredictable, both for better and for worse. The bubonic plague, according to historian Barbara Tuchman, hastened the Renaissance. The Great Depression gave birth to both the social safety net in the West and to fascism in Europe.

So we can assume that the pandemic will bring changes—possibly big ones—that we’re probably not thinking about right now. I will hazard some guesses (more hypotheses than predictions) of what’s to come.

Theories proliferate in the absence of data, so there’s danger in this exercise; I may just be projecting my preconceptions onto the future. To guard against that, I’ve challenged myself to think through these questions: How might fear and isolation rewire our brains? What feels safer or less safe than before? Who are the disaster’s heroes and villains? How does this crisis change how we think about ourselves and other people?

My three hypotheses (and my hope) is that the long-term effect of the coronavirus pandemic will be to strengthen the importance (at least in North America) of competence, science, and solidarity.

My three hypotheses (and my hope) is that the long-term effect of the coronavirus pandemic will be to strengthen the importance (at least in North America) of competence, science, and solidarity.

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Darker hypotheses are defensible, too—a dystopia of blame, “othering,” survivalist individualism, bio-surveillance, and ascendant authoritarianism. Rather than reaching out to each other, we may defensively pull inward, which is what happened in some plagues of old. There’s academic support for the notion that infectious diseases bring out the worst in us. Still, my reading of events to date suggests a more-hopeful course.

1: Competence

We are living through a planet-wide live-streamed natural experiment: the same virus is attacking people in every country, and the results are rolling across our screens in a news ticker of unfathomable firsts and mosts—of deaths, job losses, economic collapse, and instability. Beyond the horror of it all, what stands out at this still-early point in the saga is that some places seem to be passing the test while others are not.

What separates success from failure, to the extent that it’s not pure luck, has had little to do with leaders’ ideologies and everything to do with their competence. New Zealand’s liberal leader Jacinda Ardern locked down her country so promptly that the virus had barely begun to spread there. “We must go hard and we must go early,” she declared. Now she and her conservative counterpart in Australia are both well on the way to eliminating the virus from their shores—an accomplishment so unthinkable elsewhere that it sounds like deliverance to the promised land.

Others have taken different paths better suited to their circumstances but still gobsmackingly impressive. Conservative Singapore and liberal South Korea have both taken the crisis in stride in these early months, closing borders, conducting massive testing, and deploying armies of contact tracers. The western US states—both red and blue ones—have excelled while the East Coast has struggled. Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, and neighboring Kentucky’s Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, have both handled the crisis deftly so far.

Citizens have rewarded competence with levels of trust rarely seen in modern politics. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who uses her TV time to explain epidemiology, exudes so much palpable competence that she has won approval of close to 80 percent of Germans on one measure. Australia’s previously unpopular prime minister, Scott Morrison, has increased his approval rating by 25 points with decisive, coordinated action. If the times choose the leaders, these times seem to have little patience for temporizers, demagogues or carnival barkers.

The first instinct that the pandemic may be imprinting on our psyches is that competence can help keep us safe, while incompetence is an imminent threat to our lives and livelihoods. More voters may soon act on this instinct, as they did by overwhelming margins in South Korea last month.

2: Science

Every disaster has its heroes, and their stories often encode the lessons we retain. “Never was so much owed by so many to so few,” Winston Churchill famously said of the Royal Air Force pilots who fended off the Luftwaffe over London in the Battle of Britain. The “few” in the pandemic are the thousands of health care workers in our hospitals—the most obvious heroes of 2020. We cheer them from our porches and balconies every evening, raising a clamor to the heavens in tribute to their service.

What will post-pandemic life look like? Photo: @alinabuzunova via Twenty20

But the heroes in this time extend beyond the medical workers to science itself. Science is behind medical workers’ superpowers. Science is why Amy Acton, Director of Health for the Ohio Department of Health, and Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer for the Province of British Columbia, have vaulted from obscurity to become local folk heroes. They are certifiable experts, and they tell us, calmly and honestly, what is true and what is not. Science is what we crave from epidemiologists as we grapple with the unknown and yearn for a timeline for returning to simple pleasures like dinner with friends or the seventh-inning stretch. Science is why the stock market jumps with each rumor of medical researchers racing to test treatments and vaccines. Indeed, all our hopes for the future seem to begin with the phrase, “Once there’s a vaccine . . . ”

  • If anything can end the pandemic, it’s science, and many of those we will ultimately pin medals on will be scientists. Taming the virus will enhance science’s standing—perhaps dramatically—and I expect that we will then invest more in scientific research. Institutions like the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, once the most respected public health research institution in the world, may come roaring back. Science denialism, meanwhile, could become peripheral; more people may see both its anti-vaxxer and its climate change variants for what they are: the stuff of tin-foil hats.

    Science denialism, meanwhile, could become peripheral; more people may see both its anti-vaxxer and its climate change variants for what they are: the stuff of tin-foil hats.

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    And if this happens, the enhanced respect for science will give us at least a modestly better chance of addressing the scarier global threat that continues to loom even during this crisis: the climate emergency.

    3: Solidarity

    The other heroes of the pandemic are the grocery clerks, bus drivers, cleaning crews—those who maintain the supply line of essentials such as food and water and those who sanitize critical places, from polling stations to assisted living facilities. Awareness is more widespread that the better-off often do nonessential work, while the worse-off do work that allows us all to survive.

    The pandemic is acting on society like one of the contrast dyes radiologists use to study our organs in X-rays. It is making visible the abject dependence of white-collar workers on their blue-collar compatriots. It is making plain that, outside of the health care sector, the best-paid people—most of them now working comfortably from their homes—have the least risk of infection, while the worst-paid workers have the most, and those risks have now generated gaping disparities in COVID-19 infection by race. The disease is making visible economic inequality as well: unemployment, now surging to Great Depression levels, falls mostly on those who are already low on the income ladder.

    If there has ever been a time for people to feel in their guts that we’re all in this together, that we’re not self-sufficient individuals but thoroughly interdependent members of a community, this is that time. Psychologically, we tend to bond with others when we face adversity together, particularly when adversity comes from an external threat.

    And if awareness and psychology aren’t enough to strengthen fellow feeling, self-interest might be. The control of infection itself is inescapably a collective problem. Literally everyone depends on literally everyone else to help stop the virus’s spread. I cannot be safe unless you keep yourself safe, and you cannot be safe unless I keep myself safe. Urban homeless encampments, crowded prisons, shoulder-to-shoulder meatpacking lines, understaffed nursing homes, and entire impoverished nations were already moral dilemmas that deserved everyone’s attention, not just that of those directly involved, but they were not threats to the survival of the not-involved. Now that it is painfully clear that we all float in the same global germ pool, those threats have, in the words of a psychotherapist I know, “broken through to our most private thoughts.”

    For these reasons, the pandemic could elevate solidarity, even in the individualistic cultures of North America. If it does, this change could be even more transformative than the elevation of competence and science. It could facilitate a stronger social safety net in the United States with, for example, paid sick leave for all, more-ample assistance to low-income renters, and conceivably even a universal basic income.

    Not going to the beach

    This trio of hypotheses—ascendant competence, science, and solidarity—is not an all-or-nothing matter. I do not expect the rise of these values to be anything close to universal. It would be turning up the dial, not flipping a switch. Still, in events like close-fought elections, a turned dial could make all the difference. For example, in a hyperpolarized American electorate that interprets even coronavirus news through a partisan lens, shifting the least polarized 5 percent of the public (swing voters) to a fuller embrace of science and a stronger sense of solidarity could entrain a fundamental political realignment.

    The most promising sign that the pandemic could ultimately lead to such a welcome outcome is simply the degree to which people are complying with stay-home orders and social distancing. Compliance is exceptionally high even among people in low-risk groups such as young adults and in places with low infection rates. Almost everyone, almost everywhere in the world—often at enormous cost to themselves (possibly losing their jobs, their businesses, and/or their homes)—is doing what public health officials are asking of them. Violators of the new norms get a lot of media attention, but they are vanishingly rare. A slim fraction of 1 percent of people go to the beach and end up on the news; the tens of millions who stay home do not.

    Our species has never experienced anything like this. All at once, united by a common purpose, we have completely changed our behavior. Perhaps in time, we will change our world, too.