Envisioning a Post-Pandemic World
How COVID-19 has reset the present and the future.
The repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic will shape our lives for the foreseeable future and beyond. Life as we knew it, in the days before constant hand washing, social distancing, and masking, is gone. The future may bring immunity passports, reconfigured public spaces, a transformed health system—and what else?
Five Bloomberg School faculty from diverse fields look ahead to potential impacts of the crisis in key areas, from the food system to digital health to transportation policy.
REROOTING THE FOOD SYSTEM
COVID-19 has profoundly shaken most aspects of the U.S. food system and food security, highlighting threats to food workers, vulnerable supply chains, and inadequate planning for resilience. Food insecurity rates are soaring. Response activities are being adapted and created at a scale and pace I have never before seen. We must keep providing food and resources. But that’s not enough.
Both pre- and post-pandemic, the root causes of food insecurity lie substantially outside the food system. We need large-scale social investments to provide jobs and income, and we must come together to address deep-rooted inequities. The billions of dollars and great energy mobilized during this pandemic suggest we have long had the resources needed to create a more resilient and just food system.
MIND, BODY, AND PHONE
With more mobile phones than humans on this planet, the opportunity for digital health innovation and use has not been missed as the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded.
Smartphone apps and chatbots have helped triage possible COVID-19 patients based on symptoms. Many countries have launched apps to help track—confidentially—interpersonal encounters to speed up contact tracing. Several governments have used digital technologies to keep the public informed and even ensure quarantine compliance.
Social distancing and limitations on elective clinical visits have pushed telemedicine into mainstream use. One can hope that the adoption and popularity of telemedicine increase even after the pandemic subsides. Remote access to health care could lower burdens and costs—from postsurgical checkups to mental health counseling—and, combined with home-based biometric monitoring technologies, possibly improve outcomes.
ROADS TO HEALTH
One unexpected benefit of stay-at-home orders is that some city streets are being closed to traffic, and speed limits are being reduced to ensure access to safe outdoor spaces for walking, bicycling, play, and exercise. Transportation policy is finally being viewed as health policy in a real way.
In many cities, these changes to streets will end once things are “back to normal.” [But] there is tremendous opportunity to do better than normal and reimagine how streets are designed and used. Infrastructure changes that support more walking and biking for all people—regardless of race, ethnicity, income, and ability—is possible. Long term, I hope that city leaders will work together to make safe streets the norm, and healthy, safe, and equitable communities a reality.
We are facing a mental health crisis as a result of COVID-19. Up to half of people in affected regions are reporting psychological distress. Health care workers are facing exceptional stress from the risk of becoming infected and infecting their families, extreme workloads, difficult decisions, and patient deaths. They risk accelerated burnout, PTSD, and even suicide.
Johns Hopkins has fared relatively well due to capacity to support staff and deliver psychological first aid through the RISE (Resilience in Stressful Events) peer-support program, which has coordinated closely with other resources. In the near future, institutions should plan to build up their organizational resilience and mental health support. Training to improve crisis communications and provide staff support will help us respond effectively to the next disaster.
WANTED: EXPERT OPINIONS
American public health experts have recently found themselves in conflict with leaders who dismiss inconvenient facts. For example, officials have dismissed global warming as a conspiracy; promoted unproven therapies as viable treatments for disease; fired experts who published findings with which they disagree; and claimed that COVID-19 deaths are over-counted.
But the public is beginning to understand the importance of reliable evidence in its battle against this horrific pandemic. The public is focusing its attention on the facts—as inconvenient as they might be.
If the American people continue to face their reality head-on, COVID-19, as deadly as it has been, will come with a silver lining for the future of our society and the public’s health. Public health research and practice will receive the public support needed to protect health and save lives, millions at a time.