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OPINION

Life with coronavirus, or the world we might have lost

How much are social mores going to change as a result of the pandemic?

Moderna developed the first experimental vaccine for the new coronavirus to be tested.
Moderna developed the first experimental vaccine for the new coronavirus to be tested.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Social mores change more than you think. If a time machine could take you back to 1981, you would be shocked by how much people smoked, for example. If you are a woman, you might be appalled by the overt sexism of male conversation. If you’re not white, you’d encounter much more explicit racism than today. And if you’re gay … well, more about that later. None of this has been eradicated. But it was so much worse, and more widely tolerated, then.

So let’s ask ourselves how much social mores are going to change as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. In the past week, I’ve had several conversations on the topic of “The World After COVID-19.” My immediate response has been, “Why do you use the word “after?” Why not "with?”

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Yes, there is undoubtedly a benign scenario in which one of the more than 70 teams currently working on a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 collects the prize. If all goes well, that vaccine could jump through all the scientific and regulatory hoops, go into mass production, and be available by some time in the second half of 2021.

In this same happy-ever-after scenario, there are also breakthroughs in COVID-19 therapies. New research confirms that the disease doesn’t do anything much to endanger the lives and health of younger people and if they do get infected, they get lasting immunity. Summer comes to the Northern Hemisphere and the contagion recedes. As lockdowns are lifted and people return to their normal gregarious habits, there is no major second wave of the pandemic.

All this is possible, and devoutly to be hoped for. But it is by no means a 100 percent certainty. Just consider the odds against a successful vaccination. Is there one for malaria? No. Tuberculosis? Not an effective one. HIV/AIDS? No.

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That’s why we need to give at least some thought to the not-so-nice scenario of living with COVID-19 — at best, the way we live with the flu, which delivers its regular seasonal bump in the mortality rate; at worst, the way we have slowly and painfully learned to live with HIV/AIDS.

Which takes us back to being gay in 1981, the year the New York Native published the first article about gay men being treated in intensive-care units for a strange new illness. (The headline was “Disease Rumors Largely Unfounded.”) It was more than a year later that the term AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) was proposed for the all-too-real disease.

Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine that COVID-19, which still has a long way to go before it catches up with AIDS as a killer, has the same effect on social life as AIDS had on sexual life? That, you might have thought, would be quite a different world, and more visibly so (as changes in sexual behavior largely go on behind closed doors).

Imagine a world in which we routinely wear face masks on public transport and in offices; a world in which we greet each other with a wave, not a hug or a handshake; a world in which grandparents see their grandchildren only on FaceTime; a world in which to cough or sneeze in public is as shameful as to fart; a world in which we rarely eat in restaurants or fly; a world without theaters and cinemas (other than a few retro drive-ins); a world in which football is played in silent, empty stadiums. (Will there be canned cheering when touchdowns are scored, the way there used to be canned laughter for sitcoms?)

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I’m not the first person to notice that there are some lessons to be learned from the last really lethal pandemic caused by a virus, despite the important differences between HIV and SARS-CoV-2 and between AIDS and COVID-19. Last month, The New York Times published an article asking “Are Face Masks the New Condoms?”

Yet the lesson of HIV/AIDS is not quite that it “changed everything”—the title of a celebratory book by UNAIDS published five years ago. The really striking feature of the history of the AIDS pandemic is that behavior only partly changed after the recognition of a new and deadly disease spread by sex and needle-sharing. An early American report noted “rapid, profound, but . . . incomplete alterations in the behavior of both homosexual/bisexual males and intravenous drug users” as well as “considerable instability or recidivism.” By 1998, just 19 percent of US adults reported some change in their sexual conduct in response to the threat of AIDS.

The advent of antiretroviral drugs that prevent HIV carriers succumbing to AIDS somewhat diminished the fear factor. Even so, one might have expected a bit more fear to persist. A 2017 paper showed that fewer than half of at-risk men had used a condom the last time they’d had sex. According to a recent British study, sustained campaigns of public and individual education are necessary to discourage gay men from having sex without condoms. Meanwhile, in Africa, the “ABC” (abstain, be faithful, and condomize) approach has had only limited success.

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Yes, there have been changes in sexual behavior. According to the psychologist Jean Twenge, millennials have fewer sex partners on average than earlier generations. Another US study concluded that ”Promiscuity hit its modern peak for men born in the 1950s.” And let’s not forget the invaluable British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, the most recent version of which revealed a marked decline in the frequency of sex in Britain.

But little if any of these changes can be attributed to HIV/AIDS. The return of “No Sex Please, We’re British” mainly affects married or cohabiting couples and, according to the definitive analysis in the BMJ, is most likely due to “the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 and the global recession of 2008.”

Social mores change more than you think. But, in the face of a deadly disease, they also change less than you might expect.


Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and managing director of Greenmantle.