Our best-case scenario right now is COVID-19 turning out to be mildly lethal and not very mutant. Like a severe version of the flu. This would imply the pandemic is here for a while, until it burns itself out, for most parts.
What does this mean for the future of our professional and personal lives then?
This means when the first peak (which is what we are seeing right now) goes away, as folks start stepping out, a few in the population are likely to fall sick again.
That is likely to lead to another peak soon, though a slightly lesser one. But our natural response will be a lockdown, probably localized one.
We are likely to see a wave pattern of open and locked periods for a while. Until we figure out a vaccine. Once we figure a drug out, things will improve, but only if, and this is a big if, we change our social and professional attitude and policies towards hygiene, health-care and sickness.
Because the virus will continue to be highly infectious, we won't be able to report to work with a runny nose or a slight fever, as we were used to in the past. We *will* need to have more work from home, lenient leave policies and better health care.
But before we go more into this - why is it likely that we might get a drug and why is it likely that the virus is only going to be mildly lethal?
First, because one hopes to god that is the case.
Second, because it's in the interest of the virus to not be overly lethal. An overly lethal virus kills its own host faster than it can spread onto the next and dies out rapidly. COVID-19 is clearly not like that.
Third, COVID-19 has shown to have just one long strand of genetic material — making it an *unsegmented* virus. Compared to the common flu virus which has 8 genomic segments, indicating that the number of mutations it can do, will be mappable over a finite time. This is why no matter how many flu shots you take, you have to get another one each year. With the pace at which the medical and scientific community is working, one hopes that in another year we will be able to figure out a vaccine and/or we will develop herd immunity.
So, what does this mean for the future of work and society?
The good news first. Shareholder capitalism will have to give way for stakeholder capitalism. Stakeholder capitalism is where financial profits are not the sole motive of the enterprise.
For the first time in human history, it will be critical for the wealthy and powerful to make sure the larger population is healthy. Since a single infected person (your driver, your maid, your watch man) can infect and stop your entire business.
Governments will be forced to change public policy because an unhealthy or infected society will face international embargo and that's no longer tenable in today's economy.
But we won't get there easily.
We will have to go through periods of uncertainty, lockdowns and rapidly unraveling existing systems. Existing ways of work will be disrupted. A lot of professions and businesses will cease to exist. Countries like India will witness tremendous social distress.
In this interim phase, government response will likely be through more monitoring, gatekeeping, exclusion (we are already seeing this in many parts of the world, as democracies turn into autocracy).
Right-wing parties globally will get more boost to their fear-mongering.
Existing governments will consolidate power even more, because of public fear.
Markets will behave irrationally. Travel will become a high risk. Social mistrust will highly likely be commonplace.
There are going to be many rapid cycles like these, costing us billions of dollars and millions of lives before we learn and change kicks in.
The closest analogy in living memory, are the two world wars that we fought in rapid succession, destroying entire nations - before we collectively learned that a global-scale war is a bad idea.
The only way to avoid this is a huge outcry by the general public and a demand for immediate action.
Our own apathy towards healthcare issues is to blame for what's happening to the world right now. If we had more hospitals and doctors per thousand people, we wouldn't have to come to a grinding halt, as we have now.
So, side bar, don’t do zoom parties and online drinking sessions. Instead, write joint petitions to your government and demand more investment in public health care. Or be ready for a period of immense learn this the hard way if you survive.
Now, back to the future. What will your professional life look like?
If you are a white-collar worker, it's highly probable that your work will become virtual, and chances are it will pay less.
If you are a blue-collar worker, expect automation leading to job loss. If you work in farms, agriculture, etc. there is likely to be very little impact.
It's likely that your current job will shrink or vanish due to higher automation. The tech for that has been around for a while, but COVID-19 is going to be the trigger for businesses to adopt that.
It is also likely that telecommute will be the default state. Folks who are good at remoting, communication, tools, etc. will do better. You might need to learn new skills, maybe something entirely different from what you are doing now. You might need to rethink your current location, lifestyle or even country.
Our ability to adapt, learn new skills rapidly and be agile - those will determine how easy or difficult things will be for us.
Being adaptive will not just be a good thing. It will become the single most defining criteria for us as individuals and societies.