[More added: now 183]
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.
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:
Businesses & other organisations:
Spare capacity & redundancy:
Digitization & modernization:
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.:
?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
Public healthcare funding:
International collaboration on health research
Faster health research processes:
Advances in virology, epidemiology, sociology etc. from coronavirus research
Infectious disease reduction, due to long-term hygiene improvements (e.g. handwashing, ?face masks):
Digitization of health data:
Trust in science and medicine
Remote work (usually office jobs):
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:
Change of job/career:
±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:
Innovation to deal with new circumstances, compete for reduced demand, or cut costs, e.g.:
±Business failures - especially if barely viable even before the pandemic, or have crowded spaces, e.g.:
De-urbanization due to remote work (see Work):
Remote workers moving country:
±Re-shoring (see Disaster preparedness)
?Delivery drones, self-driving vehicles, etc. to fulfill increased online orders
Outdoor activities as social distancing measure (even long-term, if further pandemic waves are expected):
Re-assessment of education & educational institutions, including:
±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.:
Other pursuits & hobbies tried/increased under lockdown, e.g.
More online entertainment, e.g. live events, reaching wider audiences
Some relationships improved/renewed by lockdown:
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
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:
?End of physical cash due to infection risk:
?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 an expected value of 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.
De-urbanization is something you list several times as being important and beneficial. I don't think I agree.
In the short term at least de-urbanization is diametrically opposed to __climate progress__ -- and that may be true in the medium to long term. See for instance, stats about NYC
In the long term, urban areas have been highly productive historically -- and while it is possible that tele-everything can undermine that effect, I doubt it can fully counter the productivity benefits of cities. Insofar as productivity has been critical for human welfare over longer time spans, I worry that reducing productivity by deurbanizing could have long term consequences. I suppose you could have a complicated model where partial telework allows some de-urbanizing of work, which lowers urban prices, which allows greater concentration/productivity? But at minimum it isn't __obvious__ to me that this is a benefit.
More broadly though -- I really like your list and the general thesis. Good writeup too.
Thanks for this.
I'm not a geographer/economist, but I assume the historical productivity benefit of cities has all boiled down to proximity, hence transport - people close enough that they can work together, trade, etc. People who choose to de-urbanize will explicitly take into account these effects in their decision - can they still conveniently get to work (if they need to visit an office once a week, say), see friends, get to a cinema/mall, etc. If they find the rural life too quiet (i.e. too far from places they want to be) they won't move, or will move back to a town/city.
So I assume people will choose their own optimum; leaving only the problem of externalities, primarily indeed climate change. I can see de-urbanization would increase at least some driving, e.g. further to get to stores (though online shopping will increase), and thereby have a climate effect. So I've added a mention of that.
If climate change is dealt with in a suitable way, e.g. carbon taxes, that would however internalize this externality and so people would respond in an appropriate way - e.g. by cutting down on unnecessary trips to the mall.
Could certainly go either way. I was trying to emphasize that the productivity loss has an externality associated with it though. I wholeheartedly agree that individuals may be better off -- they are optimizing, but with more information. At most, their predictions about locational preferences have changed but reality hasn't (outside the next couple of years at least). But if that reduces aggregate productivity growth, people alive in 100 years may be suffering -- their utility isn't being accounted for by individual decisions.
A secondary effect, which I failed to mention I thought you should add (I don't think you have it) -- is that I suspect people will move closer to family. I've been comfortably living a 12 hour drive from any family for 5 years now -- and I was happy to fly to see them frequently -- but flight is not a robust transport method -- and going forwards I'll be thinking about locales within more like 4 hours of them.
Whether that is good or bad, I don't know. Closer family bonds, which are good for many reasons. but the models around people moving towards work involve largish productivity growth again.
I see your point re reduced productivity growth affecting future generations. Though how much difference that will make to the present generation's vs future generation's wellbeing isn't clear.
Indeed I hadn't thought of the family point, and will add it.
You could say the same about WW2... and a lot of idiots have. Trillions of dollars worth of destruction (mostly from the "recovery programs", aka bailout opportunities grabbed by the upper-class twits) does not help anyone achieve any legitimate goals.
Those who talk about "less materialism" while supporting transfer programs from my barely solvent self to them can stuff it.
I'd accept the "practice for a more serious pandemic" one... that's true. Problem is that there is no sign of anyone working on stopping FDA and CDC from banning PCR kits for the NEXT epidemic either... in fact, they'll both get big budget boosts from the publicity they've generated by making it impossible to even LOOK for the virus until late March for most places...
With the big exception of the reduced existential risk, I'm not claiming an overall net benefit. Though even existential risk aside, perhaps there is one (would need to do the calculations). E.g. it seems to me the long-term changes in work and work-life balance could be a huge permanent benefit; such as reductions in commuting and office usage, which seem a vast waste of time & money. It's a shame it takes a disaster like this to make it happen, but that seems to be the way the world works. The status quo has to be stretched to breaking point.
Also not all the destruction is bad in itself - 'creative destruction' is a real thing. Some organisations really are just a waste of time & money, and are better off closed down so people & capital can find more productive use. Many were in a 'zombie' state before coronavirus. The UK department store chain Debenhams for example, which went bankrupt last month only a year after the previous time it had gone bust and been rescued. An outdated retail model for which there is no longer enough demand.
I also know lots of classical musicians who barely scrape a living, and really there are too many chasing too little work. It can take decades for people to realise they're fighting a losing battle; a crisis can accelerate that.
Those are all good points. One problem is that when the parasitic class prints itself a few trillion, it justifies it by also doing tax-supported "rescues" of obsolete companies, a terrible idea as your second paragraph implies.
I disagree all of those are benefits, * shrug *
All are intended to be net benefits anyway, or possibly so (hence ?s).
Which do you particularly disagree with?
I reread and I think it's pretty good actually :)
But here are some comments:
UBI - the +/- indicates the uncertainty. But there is certainty of *calls* for UBI (which is how I worded it) - already happening!
Exercise - fair point, maybe there will be a fall-off in exercise even after lockdown. So I've reworded. I reckon a lot of gyms will go bust, because their business model relies on automatic renewals of membership subscriptions even though many people don't go very often. Presumably subscriptions have all stopped, and after lockdown I think a lot of people won't restart them, having figured out how to exercise without a gym; or become couch potatoes.
Indeed the mental health harms will be big, but as the post was intended to list only benefits, I was focussing on the long-term upsides. I reckon there will be big short- to medium-term harms (e.g. from isolation, anxiety, then unemployment) but also benefits from recognition of the harms; e.g. better recognition of mental health problems, less stigma, more healthcare funding. Which may well be permanent. Anyway I'll reword to make it a bit clearer.
Re relationships - point taken, so I'll change that to say 'Some relationships'. Indeed there's been a big upswing in domestic violence etc., and no doubt break-ups and divorces will rise too. But also people learning to live better together, spend more time together etc.
Yes I'm unsure about redistribution of wealth too, hence the +/-.
I find it odd that you list "Prayer / worship" as a benefit without even a ±.
In general, the presence of ± items makes the list read a little oddly; some of them seem clearly bad to me (on net, though I do understand they have some benefit), which gets me in the mode of expecting a pros and cons list, and then being confused when an obvious con isn't listed.
Overall, great post, though. Strong upvote.
Thanks. Yes, maybe it should have a +/-, so I've added one. A bit borderline. My justification for not giving one was that research shows religion produces a substantial increase in wellbeing (and I'm a utilitarian so put a high value on that); but I agree it often comes with a significant cost (to rationality etc.)
There were quite a few borderline cases, so the +/- may not seem that useful, but I wanted to acknowledge that e.g. failures of businesses, charities and educational institutions involve substantial short-term harms, even if probably net beneficial (clearing out dead wood etc.)
On the numbers from The Precipice - I think the point is that the next 100 years have an estimated 1/6 chance of extinction, but also contain the power to protect us from future harm and facilitate the human race flourishing across the universe. Extrapolating risk from next 100 years to an expected 600 year lifespan, and using current population forecasts as the number of humans involved therefore seems not in the spirit of his model.
I thought I read Ord give the 600 year figure, but maybe I'm mistaken. Anyway that would presumably be a correct extrapolation if we continue 'business as usual' - i.e. without taking steps that would reduce the risk. (Not least as the risks are otherwise increasing, due to e.g. it getting easier and easier to create deadly bioweapons.)
I don't see anything wrong in using current population forecasts, since I don't think anyone's suggesting they would be far wrong AFAIK? Give or take a few billion. (Unless we leave earth and set up massive space colonies elsewhere, which I suppose could happen in a few centuries perhaps, but even then seems unlikely to produce very many billions more people that quickly.)
I think what might add a great deal of value to a post like this -- and I do like the idea of looking at both sliver lining aspects and what can be learned -- would be to compare the suggestions to what actually is supported historically. Did these prior events produce the type of results claimed/hoped? If not perhaps some thoughts on why not.
Also, perhaps some probability/likelihood estimates and level of confidence (however soft they might be) might be good too.
For instance, preparedness for future pandemics seems rather weak to me. Certainly in something came up maybe 5 years after we have this one figured out perhaps. But we've seen a lot of epidemics and some pandemics in recent history but still pretty much everyone got things pretty bad -- I will give Taiwan a good mark, Singapore and South Korea seem to have done well at the outset but are running into problems. China most definitely did not do well in my opinion on a number of counts. The USA and EU -- well might be hard to make a case for even a average grade. Russia? Iran or middle east in general? South America (have not been paying any attention there). Africa?
If we've really learned much from the past it doesn't seem like much to me. However, that might be a very unfair assessment. I'm not really sure what counter-factual outcome I should be comparing the reality against and that will matter a lot.
Indeed analysing how these things have been dealt with in the past would be interesting, but it's beyond me to do this myself! Lacking the necessary knowledge. Perhaps others can.
Re preparedness for future pandemics, this is the first truly global one for a century, so it seems a different kind of beast from others like SARS. The amount of government and scientific effort being thrown at it is huge, as is the disruption to voters. So it seems to me that voters won't quickly forget it, and will urge governments to ensure it doesn't happen again, which will force them to show they are making serious preparations against future ones.
I have a similar list on my phone, which I have been writing for the last few weeks. Mine also includes people being more willing to show their emotions, a sense of worldwide solidarity, and an increase in reading.
I don’t share your enthusiasm for the increase in Amazon, Deliveroo and other companies with awful worker conditions - I would put this as a +/- at least. I do hope that local independent retailers do well from this crisis, and I suspect they will. We are doing all of our shopping in a corner shop and are on first name terms with the staff there now.
Inspiring post, thank you very much.
Thanks for this. I've made the online shopping thing a +/- as suggested (even though personally I think it's net positive; re worker treatment, while no doubt there is some of this, I doubt the conditions are awful on the whole - e.g. contrary to the horror stories, surveys show most gig economy workers are happy with their work.)
Reading and worldwide solidarity are already in there under Perspective (I put a ? by the solidarity thing because there has also been xenophobia & protectionism and this may increase).
Re people being more willing to show their emotions - is this so? More willing to show appreciation, certainly (mentioned again under Perspective).
Let me know if you come up with any more!