We're not going back to the way life was before

Yet there are real reasons to think that things will not revert to the way they were last week. Small disruptions create small societal shifts; big ones change things for good. The O.J. Simpson trial helped tank the popularity of daytime soap operas. The New York transit strike of 1980 is credited with prompting several long-term changes in the city, including bus and bike lanes, dollar vans, and women wearing sneakers to work. The 1918 flu pandemic prompted the development of national health care in Europe.

Here and now, this might not even be a question of preference. It’s not clear that South by Southwest, for example, will be around next year. Or that the cruise industry will survive—Princess and Viking have now suspended all of their operations, with more lines sure to follow. Or that public transit won’t go broke without federal assistance. The infrastructure might not even be in place to do what we were doing in 2019.

But even with federal aid to hard-hit industries and employees, institutions might find they like parts of the new, more remote status quo—especially those that build on earlier trends. Political campaigns may decide they need fewer events and fewer live audiences, while businesses may double down on smaller workplaces and more remote workers. Paid sick leave might become a national right—Democrats are already pushing for that this week. Companies might emerge with a revised, stricter sense of what kind of travel is really essential to business. Perhaps we’ll build more resilient, local supply chains. “That is not only going to change the entire structure of things within China, but also the global fabric connecting China to the rest of the world,” a Chinese economic analyst told the Washington Post, arguing the disruption would push foreign companies to “decouple” from China.