A look at the ways the pandemic is shaping our future.

Pandemics and infectious diseases have always been a part of our lives. Cassie Brailer ’13, public health analyst at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, remembers the emergence of the 2009 h1n1 influenza virus while she was an Elon student. It was the first influenza pandemic in more than 40 years. The swine flu, as we more commonly call it, is now a regular seasonal virus. Though COVID-19 is here to stay, there could come a day when it, too, could become a seasonal virus similar to influenza, Brailer says. Just don’t ask her to predict when that will happen. “The future of the outbreak depends on our individual choices and everyday preventive actions,” she says. “Everyone can do their part to help prepare for, prevent and respond to this emerging public health threat.”

Cassie Brailer ’13

As a global community, she says, we are learning more every day about the virus and the disease it causes. We continue to increase our collective public health knowledge and experience, but there is still a lot that we do not yet know. She cautions that while it is expected a vaccine should be an important protective step in combating the virus, it won’t be a cure-all. “Even with a vaccine, we will need to continue the preventive behaviors such as handwashing, wearing a mask and physically distancing ourselves,” Brailer adds.

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If nothing else, the world’s response to COVID-19 has exposed the gaps in our pandemic preparedness. For Brailer, this means we need better global public health surveillance systems and laboratory capacity to prevent, detect and respond to outbreaks before they become pandemics. “It has shown us how valuable a well-funded and connected global public health infrastructure can be,” she says. “We can also learn the importance of listening to science and evidence. In the future, we need to find better ways to combat misinformation and continually learn how to develop clear, concise and actionable information for all audiences that is based on facts.”

To learn more about other lingering effects on our everyday lives and interactions with others, we asked several Elon experts to share their insights about what we can expect as we adapt to living in a COVID world.

Scrambled brains

Amy Overman

No matter how much we try, most of us are finding it harder to concentrate while dealing with the anxiety and stress that is part of life during a pandemic — whether it’s work, study, family demands or even relaxing activities like reading. That’s because according to Amy Overman, professor of psychology and principal investigator of Elon’s Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory and Aging Lab, our attention is divided. We are thinking about all the things we have to do for safety, which makes us pay less attention to our daily interactions.

How has the pandemic affected the way we think?

Overman: We know that anytime there is a chronic stressor, it impacts our ability to focus and impairs our memory to some degree. Our brains are adapted to buckling down and focusing on the essentials. It’s harder to focus on long-term goals, so the immediacy of this stressor is so overpowering. It takes more effort to think long term because we are so busy putting out little fires and dealing with the immediate challenges that we are all facing. The flipside is that it is actually pretty important to set longterm goals. It gives us something to work toward that isn’t about the pandemic. It’s something hopeful and it’s more important than ever to have something to look forward to in the future that is not related to the pandemic.

Why is everyone struggling with time right now?

Overman: A part of that has to do with the cognitive load of being in a pandemic. Your mind is like a stovetop, and there is a pot of pasta always boiling in the background. That’s the pandemic. While you are baking a cake, you have to make sure you are still watching the pasta, so it doesn’t boil over. We are always thinking about the pandemic in the back of our minds, and it causes us to lose track of time. People are also used to cues about time. In pre-pandemic time, you might have gotten up and had a cup of coffee or driven to work. Those are all cues. When we all stayed home because of the pandemic, our cues got jumbled up. Now we are back at work, but our day doesn’t look the same. It’s almost like we have to develop new cues to tell us what day it is. Our routines got distorted, and we have to find new routines.

How can we reset our brains?

Overman: Humans really are resilient, but we need to have that down time in order for our brains to work properly. We need to get enough sleep, and it has to be quality sleep. We need time away from screens. It’s more important now than ever. It’s not the time to skimp on sleep or spending time in nature or exercising. I think when we go into survival mode — and we are still in the lens of survival mode — our brains won’t function as well if we don’t keep up our wellness that way.

Small business conundrum

Bernie Coston II ’08

On Main Streets across towns of all sizes, many small business owners were forced to close their doors in 2020. Despite losses, the biggest thing small businesses have learned is the ability to be flexible, says Bernie Coston II ’08, a business initiatives consultant at Wells Fargo based in Atlanta. Having a plan is paramount, but even more important is the ability to be able to change at the drop of a hat.

How have small businesses managed to survive?

Coston: By quickly adapting, despite not receiving a lot of guidance with regards to how to operate in what has quickly become our new normal. In particular, small businesses have tried to create an environment in which not only their customers feel comfortable, but more importantly, their workers feel safe and comfortable coming to work every day. Customer service used to be a huge driver in terms of how businesses would differentiate themselves from one another. Businesses are still looking to enrich the customer experience, but that experience is now driven by seamless online interactions and speed when it comes to delivering a product to their customer.

Will businesses that are closed be able to reopen?

Coston: I do think so, though it’s not an easy task by any stretch. For starters, the business owner needs to have the capital saved up and also a true understanding of their business model in order to recognize when to shut things down for a period of time because they are just taking too large of a loss. Living in Atlanta, I’ve seen a lot of places be able to stay open since May because of the weather, but I’ve also seen a lot of places have to remain closed because of the new standards they have to adhere to, and that takes time to prepare for. I’ve already talked to a couple business owners who will have to make some tough decisions once winter comes to see if it’s worth it for them to still operate while taking a huge loss. Only time will tell what decision they will have to make, but I can say it is possible for a business to be able to shut down for a period of time and then reopen.

What lasting trends will we see in how people interact with businesses?

Coston: Online shopping is here to stay. A lot of small businesses have now had to make a big investment in their online platforms to make sure that they can meet demand. However, for people of my father’s generation, there is absolutely still a huge desire to go into a store, feel a product, talk to a representative, go to a different store and compare and contrast. Each buyer is going to operate in a completely different manner and will continue to operate in a manner that works for them. Restaurants using QR codes rather than printed menus might be a trend that will stay. But it depends on the restaurant. For example, patrons in an upscale restaurant really want to get a feel for what it has to offer because that meal and that experience are truly an investment. Comparatively, if I go to my local taco shop, I just need to look quickly at the menu before I make my decision on what to order.

An economic shift

Brandon Sheridan

The impact of the pandemic has been widely felt across all sectors of the economy, but the biggest economic impact has been on the labor market. The service sector in particular has borne the brunt of the impact, says Assistant Professor of Economics Brandon Sheridan, something that has led to millions of furloughs now turning into permanent job losses. Other visible signs of the impact on the economy include rising food prices and supply chain interruptions that have led to shortages of certain items — even coins.

What have we learned from COVID-19’s impact on the economy?

Sheridan: Economists have been very clear from the outset: If you want to help protect the economy, then you have to control the virus. This means testing and tracing are extremely important, and this is an area where the U.S. has performed very poorly from the outset. We’ve also seen how important the role of government is during a time like this. Sending out pandemic relief, increasing unemployment benefits and providing assistance to businesses probably helped stave off total economic collapse. But we don’t know whether it was enough and how much is still needed. We’ve also seen that it is important to have mechanisms in place to quickly distribute financial relief to those in need. Some states have performed better than others on this aspect.

Will remote work persist?

Sheridan: I would be shocked if the percentage of people working from home, or working some larger number of hours from home, is not permanently higher going forward. Part of the reason is workers have already been forced to figure it out and are now more comfortable with the idea and the technology. Another contributing factor is companies have been given an opportunity to try this out on a mass scale and they have seen which aspects have worked well and which have not. This presents opportunities for people and companies who are flexible and adaptable. If people are spending a larger percentage of time working from home, then we may see some changes in the population density of cities. This has implications for the finances of large and small cities alike.

What are the lasting effects on the national and global economy?

Sheridan: While this is still somewhat of an unknown, we do know that people tend to be more cautious after traumatic events like this one. We will likely see more precautionary saving, which could lead to slower economic growth worldwide. People may also be less inclined to take risks, which could hamper entrepreneurship. We also need to be keenly aware of the impact on children. While they may be less susceptible to fatal complications of the disease, many students are stuck in less-than-ideal learning environments. This could have long-term effects for all children and could be especially harmful for those children who are already disadvantaged (e.g. food-insecure, low access to internet, etc.), further exacerbating existing inequalities.

Unplanned lessons

Cherrel Miller Dyce

The move to online learning in the spring caused many disruptions. Public and private schools alike scrambled to create virtual classrooms with little time for careful planning while parents suddenly became at-home instructors for their k-12 children. A new academic year saw stronger systems in place. Remote learning is certainly here to stay, says Cherrel Miller Dyce, associate professor of education and director of diversity, equity and inclusion in Elon’s School of Education, but it doesn’t mean one option fits all as some students won’t have the technology necessary to access the information to engage them in success.

What lessons have we learned from virtual classrooms?

Miller Dyce: In this virtual space, you have to be extremely flexible. For me, flexibility is central to equity-based teaching. We have to practice, in a sense, equity in how we accommodate the needs of students and by extension the needs of their families. I really think this is a time where equity-based teaching takes center stage as we are trying to navigate a pandemic that we know is affecting certain communities at higher levels, particularly the Black and Brown communities. Students are not divorced from their communities. The other lesson I’ve learned is the value of empathetic teaching. It takes precedence in the virtual space, especially when you can’t always have your finger on what is happening in your students’ lives because they are not directly in front of you.

How has it changed the way you teach?

Miller Dyce: Because I educate young people to be teachers, what this virtual classroom allows me to do is model for them what they need to do for the students they will teach. I model for them the equity issues they need to keep front and center. Do the students actually have the technology to learn? Do they have a place to even sit without being disturbed? Are they in a chaotic or nurturing environment? Are they taking care of a younger sibling at home? Do they have enough to eat? Are they dealing with sick family members? Are they dealing with trauma and mental health issues?

How will this shift impact higher education?

Miller Dyce: It will push institutions of higher education to be more creative in our offerings because of how k-12 students are being impacted by remote learning. I think we will see a significant shift in the way students engage in the brick-and-mortar college experience. There will be some students who enjoy the rituals and rites of passage of the college experience while others will prefer remote learning only. Some students will still yearn for the move-in experience, the crossing-the-stage experience while others remain in their home communities. I think the shift will heighten awareness about providing a hybrid model for some students, but the experience of attending college in person will still be desirable. Whatever our new reality is, equity has to take center stage, because if it does not, then we further expand the equity gap.

Life through a screen

David Bockino

Prior to the pandemic, most people had never heard of Zoom. Now, even kindergartners know how to get on a call using the platform. People are having digital happy hours, trivia nights, birthday parties and weddings. Will this last? David Bockino, an associate professor of sport management, is skeptical. “While there are many instances where digital gatherings make a lot of sense (I’m looking at you, university committee meetings), there are other instances where these get-togethers tear at the very fabric of community,” he says. “Does anybody really want happy hour to become a bunch of boxes on a computer screen? No thanks. I’ll stick to the bar down the street.”

How has the pandemic affected media outlets?

Bockino: The No. 1 issue facing news outlets remains the same as it was a year ago: the need to figure out sustainable ways to monetize the “business of news” and pay the salaries of good, reputable journalists while competing within a media landscape where anyone can publish anything they want anytime they want. That was difficult before COVID and will remain difficult after COVID. One fascinating thing to watch is the way news organizations have had to grapple with COVID data (number of cases, hospitalizations, percentage of positive results, etc.) There are so many questions to ask here: What is the most important data set that the average person needs to see? How do we obtain consistent, reliable data? How do we express that data in the most appropriate way? In a world of endless information, the organization of that data has become as important as ever.

How have sports and other live events been affected by the pandemic?

Bockino: COVID has really revealed the competence, or lack thereof, of lots of leagues around the country and world. The NBA and WNBA had a plan, executed it nearly flawlessly and have been able to put out an exciting and competitive (if less than ideal because of the lack of fans) product. College football, meanwhile, has been a logistical and PR nightmare for the most part. Everyone wants to save the season, but nobody knows how to do it. And it’s brought to light a lot of fundamental questions that linger over the entire state of the college football landscape such as: Can we put college athletes in a “bubble”? Some people think this could be the beginning of the end of big money collegiate athletics as we know it. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned minor league baseball yet — that whole industry will never look the same again.

What role will the media play in people’s lives in a post-COVID-19 world?

Bockino: I really don’t think the primary trends we’ve been seeing over the past 10-15 years (more streaming services, destruction of local news, cord cutting) will fundamentally change now that we’ve gone through a pandemic. One thing that might be interesting to monitor is the health of smaller media companies/personalities over the next few years. Think about a group like “travel influencers.” So many of these have emerged in the past decade, making money by traveling to different places/hotels/cities and then getting paid to talk about how great these entities are. With so many travel restrictions, will this type of job go away? Will it come back even stronger? I have no idea. But the companies that are the most diversified are the ones able to weather this storm and possibly the ones to benefit even more in the coming years. In other words, as it is with so many other earth-shaking events, COVID will allow the rich to become even richer.

Less common touch

Kyriakos Pagonis ’99

COVID has impacted all facets of our lives, including how Congress does its work, says political consultant Kyriakos Pagonis ’99. From how lawmakers interact with their constituents on a daily basis to when they go back home to their districts, opportunities for personal connections have diminished substantially. As a result, more members are engaging over social media now than they might have otherwise.

How has the pandemic affected our political process?

Pagonis: Most lawmakers are doing Zoom types of events, which is at least one way they can continue to be accessible, but it’s certainly very different from what they did before COVID-19. For one, the House has set up proxy voting, so members don’t actually have to be in Washington to cast votes, which wasn’t the process before. This creates fewer public opportunities to interact with lawmakers and staff and changes how business is done. I think politics in general is a very personal experience. They want to be in front of their constituents to make themselves accessible, to learn about the issues and to be able to react to that.

What about campaigning and elections?

Pagonis: I think the election process is somewhat similar to what we’re seeing on the legislative side. Candidates had to get creative in terms of how they got their message out to their constituents. Technology is playing a much larger role today than it did back in February. That’s probably not likely to change. Once members have figured out they can do certain things, maybe even do them better, using technology, I think they’ll stick to that. I still believe that once they’re able to do more in-person events, then they’ll go back to that. But I think the communication of campaigns was changing before and it’s accelerated because of COVID.

What lasting effects do you foresee for Congress?

Pagonis: I think the long-term implications, aside from how members communicate with the public and how the public communicates with lawmakers, are really going to focus on social and economic issues that have become more evident as a result of COVID-19. Things like unemployment and other labor issues might get corrected, maybe not going back to where we were pre-COVID but certainly better than where we are now or were a couple of months ago. I still think there are issues around homelessness, housing, wage issues and health care that are going to be front and center as a result of COVID-19. I think Congress will have to deal with those issues long after the pandemic has passed.

Social disparities

Marissa Rurka ’14

We often think that differences in health and educational achievement are the result of differences in individual behavior. As a sociologist and researcher, Marissa Rurka ’14 looks further upstream and considers how human behavior is shaped by other, more fundamental causes — such as economic inequality and structural racism. And the pandemic, she says, has helped to make these fundamental causes more apparent.

How is the pandemic impacting existing social inequalities?

Rurka: I think the pandemic has the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities, particularly when it comes to income. It is likely, for instance, that we will see an increase in educational achievement gaps. Although the transition to remote learning presents challenges for most children, those from low-income families face additional obstacles. Besides being a source of childcare for working parents, schools offer children a place where they can access resources such as tutoring, internet connection, educational technologies, disability services and nutritional food. In addition, in the midst of a pandemic-induced economic recession, children from low-income families may have to deal with the additional stresses of food and housing insecurity. These challenges may have detrimental consequences for children’s educational achievement not only in the coming year, but for years to come.

How has our home life been impacted by the pandemic?

Rurka: We have all been encouraged to limit in-person interactions with those who are not part of our household. For some families, this has led to increased contact, which could be protective of well-being for some. But it could also fuel family conflict and, in turn, psychological distress. People may be especially hesitant to interact with older generations, and vice versa, given that older adults tend to be at greater risk of serious complications from COVID-19. This can be socially isolating for older adults. For those who care for older relatives, the pandemic has resulted in greater stress as family members have to navigate a number of tough decisions.

What kind of impact will social isolation have on us?

Rurka: Social isolation and loneliness have been associated with increased depression and anxiety, accelerated cognitive decline, worse health behaviors, increased risk of chronic health conditions and increased risk of premature mortality. Physical distancing has made it more difficult for us to interact and connect with others. Although communication technologies may help people to stay connected, these may not fully compensate for in-person interaction. Increased social isolation and loneliness likely contribute to the spike in anxiety and depressive symptoms, substance use and suicidal ideation that we have seen in the United States during the pandemic. We will continue dealing with these ramifications well into the future.

Beyond the church’s walls

The Rev. Caleb Tabor ’09

One of the initial struggles both ministers and congregation members have dealt with from day one of the pandemic has been maintaining connection, according to the Rev. Caleb Tabor ’09, the young adult missioner at Episcopal Campus Ministry in Raleigh, North Carolina. Religious spaces, he says, are often carefully designed to inspire folks in a variety of ways. Lacking the ability to meet as usual has been challenging.

Has the pandemic strengthened or strained relationships with God?

Tabor: Difficult moments always inspire challenging questions and concerns. Some people have a hard time finding divine meaning in a crisis, while others find a great deal of meaning and purpose and are inspired into states of great resilience, brilliance and strength. Most folks seem to find themselves moving back and forth within that spectrum. Part of what religious and spiritual communities do is address these issues together and work through them as a group. Many faiths teach that God is everywhere (omnipresent), so this is a time to really cultivate that kind of spiritual awareness.

What will the church of the future look like?

Tabor: The church will have to continue to be adaptive and dynamic while maintaining a stable spiritual core. More online content, more services and activities outside, and more small gatherings where it is safe to do so will continue as the norm. Looking ahead a bit, some smaller communities may close or drastically reduce operations. But if we are able to see those challenges as opportunities, I think we’ll come out the other side of this much stronger. I also think that religious groups have learned an important lesson in the value of community and being with others. If we can cultivate a greater appreciation for the value of other people in our communities and in our lives, everyone, whether religious or secular, will be better off for it.