Megan McArdle, writing at the Washington Post, speculates about What changes after covid-19? I’m betting on everything. She’s thinking about the other side of the pandemic, when the worst has subsided, and we are no longer here but instead there. Her forecast focuses on technological changes likely in the wake of the COVID-19:
But on closer inspection, the more I realize I don’t really know what “there” will look like. For all the talk of a “return to normal,” large chunks of the old normal are due for a post-covid-19 rethink. And I’m not just talking about movies heading to video or takeout cocktails — though, please, let’s keep the takeout cocktails. The more I think about it, the more I think I’m talking about practically everything.
The most obvious place to start is with the health-care system. Hopefully, people are already considering how to strengthen the medical supply chains that broke early in the pandemic and stayed broken too long — including reforming the reimbursement systems that reward medical procedures rather than basics such as protective equipment. We need to reward nursing homes for the basics, too, like cleaning and infectious-disease control, rather than costly extra services — a perverse system that damn near amounted to geronticide when the pandemic hit. These things should have been fixed decades ago; the next best time is right now.
In her column, one finds not probabilities but hopeful possibilities: not what will happen, but rather those conditions & processes she believes are “due for a post-covid-19 rethink.”
One cannot doubt that she’s right, generally, that many practices are long due for a rethink. They were due before the pandemic, and will be overdue after the pandemic.
And yet, and yet, is it not obvious that McArdle is writing for some parts of America and not others? Some regions of America are more adaptable and truly innovative, than others. Progress has been uneven since the Great Recession (2007-2009), but it is certainly true that some parts of America have seen unmistakeable technological and material gains. On both coasts, cities have advanced far beyond the economic conditions of 2007. They were affected by, yet recovered from, the last recession. It’s a reasonable bet they will recover well from this pandemic and its recession.
For much of the rural Midwest, recovery from the Great Recession has been only partial, and communities have struggled with addiction, stagnation, poverty, and malaise. It has done leaders in these communities no good to subsidize empty projects, and spout empty rhetoric, while many residents have empty shelves. (Some of us have done well these dozen years; we are an economic minority within our communities.)
If even after the Great Recession rural leaders chose poorly (and did they ever), it’s improbable that those same leaders will chose wisely now.
Past becomes prologue: the most likely outcome is a slight variation on the present. Communities that have been vibrant will be use that dynamism to recover. Communities that have been stagnant will move slowly. The effort to break from conditions of stagnation is considerable, requiring something more than dull repetition. Sadly, it’s the very nature of stagnation to produce more of the same (in thoughts, actions, and results).
McArdle’s predictions of responsive change after the pandemic apply only to some places. Rural America isn’t among them.