In this time of radical disruption of patterns of living, the words “new normal” are often used. However, the very idea is wishful thinking. We have not yet discovered the dimensions of our present abnormal. Almost a year after the invasion of COVID-19, those who are studying it and trying to treat its victims keep encountering the unknown. Yesterday’s assumptions become today’s failed notions.
Having survived a moderate case of the virus, I have done a lot of reading and consultation with my family experts. I do not always like what I have learned. Some people who have had it get it again. It is not certain that all who get it cease to be infectious when symptoms are gone. Some patients get better and later get sick again.
The virus could mutate and attack the world as a slightly different disease. A vaccine, when perfected, might not be 100 percent effective and will not protect against any variant of the virus for which it is being designed. Meanwhile the number of people who are contracting the disease follows a pattern of decline and resurgence in this country and around the world.
We know too little about the present abnormal and cannot predict when we will.
Therefore, it is impossible to project what the “new normal” will look like. It is safe to say that it will be very different from 2019 and adapting to that world will require some wrenching changes.
Change, rapid change, was already the constant in life before COVID-19. From the end of World War II forward, new technologies drove almost revolutionary changes in every part of human life from food to space exploration. Thriving towns became ghost towns when their highways lost travelers to the interstate highway system or had their commercial cores dragged out to new centers along bypasses. Electronic devices now connect people to many others -- even thousands of miles away — but sometimes leads to a disconnect from family and friends nearby, even in the same room.
E-commerce, buying and selling via computer or cell phone, was booming before COVID-19 invaded. It is possible to buy almost anything any day, 24 hours a day from one’s own chair, couch or bed while wearing a tuxedo or nothing at all. After electronic transfer of funds, one can have items delivered to the door very quickly. Well, it is now possible to buy automobiles online and these cannot be parked on the porch, but curbside is still not too far. For shut-ins and hermits, it is a great way to buy stuff.
However, there are several down sides to e-commerce. The first is obvious. It reduces personal contact, like electronic “conversations” another reduction of human connectedness. Of course, placing and receiving orders at a drive-through food joint is not a warm and fuzzy experience either. Living with COVID-19 has made buying online even more attractive — almost necessary — and reduced human contact everywhere else.
It is a safe prediction that COVID-19 will further entrench e-commerce in the new normal whenever it happens. The impact on local communities will be dramatic. More local business will be driven out of the market. Statesboro had already lost several — notably Kmart — before the virus, which helped to finish off JCPenney. More will follow. Restaurants are struggling and, barring a quick end to the infestation, some will fail. Some retail stores have introduced their own version of distance shopping and even delivery in some cases, but have not achieved the seamless systems of Amazon, etc.
The first consequence of the failure of local businesses is loss of goods and services for those who cannot or will not engage in e-commerce, notably the elderly and the poor. Certain things are required for e-commerce: a computer or cell phone with necessary apps, cash or credit accessible for purchases, a stable address for delivery of goods. Many people lack one or more of these and they must depend on local access to goods and services. Moreover, knowing how to navigate the system for e-commerce is as alien to many seniors as the mountains of the moon.
Now, I am a kick the tires and try on the trousers person. I have ordered things by mail through the years, but much prefer to see how it feels and looks before I shell out my money. When a local store closes, it is a bit of a personal loss to me.
Apart from the lack of goods and services for the elderly and poor, loss of local businesses erodes communities. The city, county and to some degree the state depend upon ad valorem (property) taxes and sales taxes to provide basic, necessary services. The ad valorem tax bases for both city and county suffer every time a business fails. Every online purchase of anything that otherwise would have been bought locally denies sales taxes to city, county and state governments. Local officials must then choose between cutting essential services, like police and fire protection and raising property taxes on homes, farms and businesses.
One obvious alternative is imposition of sales taxes on all e-commerce, but there are questions about doing so on interstate commerce. At best, lengthy and expensive court battles would be guaranteed.
These are just a few of the issues to be faced during the new normal.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.