Nine Unintended Consequences from our Approach to COVID

by | Feb 10, 2022 | Future Trends

Futurist Speaker Thomas Frey Blog: Nine Unintended Consequences from our Approach to Covid

If it feels to you like we’re currently living in a new world with a new version of the future than we envisioned three years ago, you’re not alone … and I think you’re right.

To put it mildly, many things have changed since January 2020 and those changes are propelling us toward new versions of the future. And that’s what makes the study of the future so interesting. The future is constantly evolving; we can’t have certainty about it until we get there.

First a Word on Risks

In the course of our two-year experience with Covid, one thing we’ve learned, or hopefully are in the process of learning, is that there are no risk-free paths to the future. Our journey is one of risk mitigation, not risk elimination.

According to Canadian psychologist and best-selling author Jordan Peteson, “There are no risk-free paths forward. There is only one risk, or another. Pick your poison: that’s the choice life often offers.”

Covid certainly reinforced the lesson of balancing risks – risks related to vaccines themselves, risks related to passing the virus to a susceptible person, risks of remaining unvaccinated, risks to mental health from isolation, and risks to educational development due to extended school-from-home arrangements. I could go on.

In addition to granting us this lesson about minimizing and balancing risks, Covid has triggered some unintended or at least unforeseen consequences, and the list is growing. You can attribute some to the pandemic itself, and in other cases our actions to minimize the impact of the pandemic unexpectedly produced other areas of risk or hardship.

With that said, here are some of the most significant unintended consequences from Covid that are defining our path to the future:

1. The Supply Chain Crisis

Many factors are contributing to the current supply chain crisis and product shortages. Covid-induced labor shortages and transportation bottlenecks are the two most critical.

When will supply catch up with demand? Not for several years. And rest assured, it will be a generation or more until business owners have the courage to revert to some of the pre-pandemic models like Lean Manufacturing and Just-In-Time inventory management.

In the meantime, the globalization of our economy will take a giant step backwards as business owners realize that foreign sourcing materials and goods makes them susceptible to geopolitical conflicts, port backups, weather events, and massive cargo ships blocking the Suez Canal. However, we won’t be able to locally source some critical inputs like semiconductors with a snap of the finger. These will happen over an extended period of time.

2. The Great Resignation

Late last year we explored root causes and implications of the so-called Great Resignation – the tens of millions of Americans leaving their jobs in the past two years and the troubling situation of simultaneous low unemployment and high job vacancies.

In hindsight, I would add more future implications of the Great Resignation to that list. Employees and labor unions have enhanced clout that may last for generations. To that end, some observers have recast the Great Resignation as the “Great Renegotiation.”

We’ve all seen organized labor’s recent successes with worker strikes at companies like Starbucks, John Deere, and Kroger. Beyond that, there are non-working people holding out – on strike as it were – for the better jobs and better wages they’re confident they’ll find very soon as labor continues to evolve through this transition.

3. K-12 Education Crisis

The Covid-induced situation that probably concerns many people the most is the K-12 education crisis, resulting in several lost years of education for our K-12 students. Yes, the super motivated students with vigilant parents might not be harmed in the long run. But few family situations afforded the resources, time, and fortitude to maintain a high level of self-learning for their kids who were more used to using computers and phones for games, not STEM classes.

Unfortunately, we’ll see an even more rapid decline in the STEM skills of young people in our country. Over the long run this will be to the detriment of these students – especially those from lower-income or recently immigrated families – and the economic strength of the nation.

In the long run, we’ll also see the impacts of stunted emotional development and interpersonal skills with this generation of children. For two years or more, they haven’t been able to have carefree interactions with their peers or benefitted from the institutional discipline of a controlled, in-person learning environment.

Futurist Speaker Thomas Frey Blog: COVID Induced Education Crisis

4. Secondary Education Crisis

The K-12 story has similarly been mirrored in the college and university setting, except with bigger people and bigger stakes and risks.

We all know that young adults view their college experience as an opportunity to “find themselves” and prepare for a rewarding career. They’re going to suffer in both regards as they haven’t had the opportunity to learn about themselves within this relatively safe, away-from-home setting.

Scholastically, these college students may have had an easier time with remote course work than K-12 students since they’re generally more comfortable with and possibly more disciplined about remote learning and its tools. The rigor of college instruction, though, as well as the opportunity to learn within a group, has suffered. No doubt academic standards have slipped a bit during this period as well. The motivated college student might not have lost much momentum during the pandemic, but the average student was less likely to become an overachiever.

Unfortunately, the emotional toll of pandemic also was evident in an even more immediate and devastating way for college and university students as suicide rates surpassed those in previous years.

5. Non-Covid Death Rates have Mushroomed

We’re all numbingly familiar with the steadily rising tally of Covid victims. As of late January 2022, there were more than 864,000 Covid fatalities in the U.S.

However, there’s another grim statistic called “excess deaths” that counts the number of deaths over a period of time above and beyond what would be expected in a “normal” period. A New York Times report found that the number of excess deaths in the U.S. in 2020 was 356,000 – quite amazing since our stay-at-home and off-the-roads lifestyles offset much of the “normal” number of fatalities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25% of the 356,000 excess deaths were attributed to non-Covid illnesses. They were people who chose not to seek medical care for other conditions; people who could not obtain emergency health services; those who succumbed to substance abuse; and people for whom stress exacerbated underlying health conditions.

Clearly future pandemic planning will need to include better non-covid casework for these kinds of vulnerable groups.

6. Declining Birth Rates Decline even Further

The fertility rate, defined as the number of children a woman is expected to have over her lifetime, has been in decline for the past 15 years. It’s somewhat surprising that the pandemic didn’t slow that trend, let alone reverse it, even though young adults did not face a high risk of serious illness – 2.4% of Covid deaths were of people between 18 and 40.

Fertility rates for women aged 30-34 (“prime childbearing age”) decreased in the 2020-2021 timeframe, further illustrating the disruptive nature of the pandemic amplifying the already hectic lifestyle most families have balancing career and family demands. This decline, though, was partially offset by an increased fertility rate for younger women, those in the 20-24 age bracket, who may have felt that this downtime was a good time to have a baby. Hopefully the data doesn’t reflect an increase in unintended pregnancies for women in this age group.

The long-term decline in birth rates is concerning for our future, though, and it’s unfortunate that we didn’t see more of a baby bump (pun intended) during this period.

7. Business Closures

Similar to how we calculate excess deaths when describing the human toll of the pandemic, we saw 200,000 more businesses fail during the first year of the outbreak than we would otherwise expect (600,000) in a normal year. It’s not surprising that small businesses were impacted the most.

Two-thirds of the 200,000 excess business failures were individual companies. The rest were branches or local establishments of major companies.

The future impact of this is an acceleration of the trend toward shopping, eating, and recreating at businesses owned by national and international chains – in other words fewer locally owned bagel shops, florists, and auto repair garages.

Futurist Speaker Thomas Frey Blog: Future Implications of Inflation and Business Closures

8. Inflation

Like the Lite beer commercials (Tastes Great! Less Filling!) circa the mid-1970s, there’s more than one opinion about why we’re suddenly experiencing inflation rates similar to what they were in that same timeframe almost 50 years ago. (Supply Chain Disruptions! Labor Costs! Too Much Stimulus!)

One thing we can agree on though, the pandemic and its countless side effects (some mentioned above) are all interrelated and have led to levels of price inflation that only a few experts were predicting in early 2021. But with annual inflation now running above 7%, there’s widespread concern among consumers, business owners, economists, and policymakers.

One year from now we may be closer to traditional levels of inflation, but there are a surprising number of new variables at play, and it will only happen if we ease pandemic restrictions.

When we face another pandemic or widespread natural catastrophe in the future, our economic models will have a better handle on the direct economic impacts from a catastrophe like this. Hopefully we’ll avoid a repeat of this kind of “runaway” inflatio9. Collapsing Retail Storefronts

Certain changes in retail were already slowly trending prior to 2020, including more online shopping and the use of delivery aps, online ordering, and curbside pickup for restaurant purchases.

We saw a major leap forward in both of these areas in the last two years. The pace of change will settle down and maybe even backtrack a bit temporarily as more people venture out and about. But overall, we can see the future of retail … and it’s not a reversion to widespread boutique browsing or lingering over a family meal at the local eatery.

Disruption and Change Continues

What I’ve mentioned here is only scratching the surface of all the nuanced disruptions that continue to unfold around us. Every business and industry, from banking, to healthcare, insurance, manufacturing, agriculture, and childcare have all had to work through countless challenges associated with covid mandates and restrictions.

We have attempted to solve for “X” while letting the other 25 letters of the variable alphabet run wild. We brought a myopic lens to a peripheral vision party.

Rest assured, the list of unintended consequences will continue to grow. This is far from over. We will likely see the collapse of entire industries, governments, and cultures as we move forward.

The Future is Coming Faster Than Ever

Covid has been a major turning point in human history. 2019 seems like a generation ago. In the end we will likely find that “doing nothing” may have been the optimal route. But doing nothing is not in our nature.

We’ll need to learn from this experience about ourselves and our society. And we should always remember that even in the darkest times, people of extraordinary character have lived among us, guiding us on pathways to a better future!

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