Long before COVID-19 arrived, the public knew that some behaviors minimized transmission of respiratory viruses—thanks to years of work by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, school nurses, vigilant parents, and family physicians. (Some of us even foreswore handshaking for elbow bumping during each year’s cold and flu season.) Unsurprisingly then, in early March, 87% of Americans reported washing their hands and keeping their distance to minimize the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
The experience of this pandemic will create lasting personal and institutional memory. In the future, many will have masks at the ready and the wherewithal to wear and care for them correctly. In a similar vein, universities will know not only how to deploy testing, contact tracing, and vaccination, but how best to increase acceptance of them.
On the downside, COVID-19 elicited incontrovertible evidence that misinformation, conspiracy beliefs, and the politicization of science can endanger public health. Because social scientists are busy finding ways to blunt such cons and misconceptions and forestall their appearance in other guises, in the future we will be better forearmed against them.
The spaces in which we live and work will bear the imprint of COVID-times as well. As a prospective buyer eyes a home purchase, the quality of home office space and availability of reliable internet service will matter as much or more than the quartz counter top.
Conscious of the ways that viruses can spread, people seeking office space will prize lids on toilets and ample amounts of fresh air. New university buildings will have dividers between cubicles, wider hallways, and staircases designed for the possibility that at some point we will again need to enter using one and exit using another.
Although nothing can make up for the unnecessary deaths COVID-19 has caused, over the long term the changes we make in our behavior, scholarship, work environments, and communication may yield health and societal benefits. By doing a better job of avoiding the seasonal flu, we may be able to cut the tens of thousands of yearly flu deaths. We may suffer fewer colds as well. Importantly, should another virus appear, perhaps with an even higher rate of contagion, we will be better prepared to deal with it. When misconceptions surface, we will be more likely to interdict them before they do harm.
And finally, just as people who came of age during the polio epidemic of the 1950s remember that it was science that eliminated the “iron lung” from their nightmares, so too if COVID vaccines prove safe, effective, and widely adopted will people now in high school and college remember, for the rest of their lives, that it was the nation’s investment in science and scientists that vanquished the fear that a loved one would die alone in a COVID-19 ward.