None of us know what comes next. But we can choose a better future

Making the best of the pandemic.

In this Nov. 11, 1989 file photo, East German border guards are seen through a gap in the Berlin wall after demonstrators pulled down a segment of the wall at Brandenburg gate, Berlin. After an initial wave of euphoria, there were dire predictions about what the end of the Cold War would bring.
In this Nov. 11, 1989 file photo, East German border guards are seen through a gap in the Berlin wall after demonstrators pulled down a segment of the wall at Brandenburg gate, Berlin. After an initial wave of euphoria, there were dire predictions about what the end of the Cold War would bring.LIONEL CIRONNEAU/Associated Press

When will all this end? When will a vaccine be found? When will things return to normal? No one has the answers. But the punditocracy seems to be clear on one thing: The coronavirus will “change our lives forever.”

Air travel will never be the same — in fact, it will be a lot worse; Americans will abandon cities; handshakes will go the way of the dodo bird; the death of department stores is upon us; shopping, work, and education will move online and social isolation will grow; countries will become more inward-looking and populist.


All of these developments are certainly possible.

But maybe we should pump the brakes on the confident predictions about what comes next. Perhaps we should be more optimistic about what the future might bring; and above all, we should recognize that we all get a vote on the shape of our post-coronavirus world.

In 1989, when the superpower conflict that defined the world for more than four decades ended, the initial surge of optimism soon gave way to weary pessimism about human nature. There’d be a “clash of civilizations,” as one popular book intoned, we would “miss the Cold War,” as an influential magazine article warned, and conflict, “anarchy,” and “global chaos” would be endemic. Few predicted that the world would become dramatically safer, freer, healthier, wealthier, and more connected. Yet, that’s precisely what happened.

After September 11, New Yorkers were told that people wouldn’t want to work in tall buildings anymore. They would move out of the city, never to return (we hear many of the same arguments now). There were terrifying predictions that a wave of “dirty bombs” would follow. None of this occurred. Indeed, the dominant global trends in 2001 — the broader adoption of information technology and the trend toward globalization — did more to shape the world around us than what happened on that awful September day.


A global pandemic is, of course, a very different situation. The coronavirus has upended the lives of practically every human on the planet. Things have to change, and for the worse, right? Perhaps, but we all too often underestimate our ability to adapt and steer things in a positive direction.

Some have suggested that the pandemic will strengthen the hands of right-wing wannabe autocrats and will continue the nationalist trend of the past several years. But the countries with such leaders have tended to fare the worst in this crisis. One can’t discount the possibility of an electoral backlash against them — starting this November in the United States.

Closer to home, it’s not hard to imagine Americans, post-COVID-19, being wary of venturing outside the house. But maybe the opposite occurs. Maybe millions of people realize what matters most in life are human connections — and that they can’t be made via a computer screen.

More Americans, we are told, will want to work remotely. But maybe after months of being cooped up inside, they will miss the feeling of community that comes from working in an office. Or perhaps they will realize that too much of their lives have been devoted to labor and not enough to family and they will demand a workplace that allows them to prioritize the latter, rather than the former.


And after our country has been attacked not by a foreign invader or terrorist network, but by fickle nature, maybe we’ll be humbled and begin to recognize that we can no longer afford to ignore the science of climate change, as many, including our president, sought to ignore the science of infectious diseases.

I have no idea if any of these predictions will be borne out. It’s certainly possible everything will change and we’ll be worse for it. Humility demands not only uncertainty about the future, but also a clear understanding that seemingly transformative events don’t always transform our lives in the ways we might imagine, or for very far into the future.

Yes, after the Great Depression, America embarked on a new political and economic course that re-made this country. And 80 years later, after the Great Recession, one might have expected a similar shift to a new political and economic system that tilted power away from the wealthy and toward the rest of us. But that didn’t happen. After mass shootings there are perennial calls for stronger gun laws. But still the carnage continues.

Will this time be different? Will Americans recognize the failures of their health care system? Will they be outraged by the ways that the pandemic exposed our enduring class and racial inequalities? Will they demand that their leaders invest in the social infrastructure that will prevent a repeat of what’s happened the past few months? This kind of transformation would be one of the best ways imaginable to honor those who have been lost, needlessly.


But turning this potential into reality will require collective action.

Schools may want to move to mobile learning, workplaces may push everyone to work from home. But all of us have a say here. We can insist on something more familiar and human.

Americans backing a different political party this fall would go a long way in transforming the country, but new leaders will struggle to enshrine lasting change without help. Their success will depend, in no small part, on all of us — all of our advocacy, engagement, and political involvement.

Maybe everything will be different in a post-coronavirus world. Maybe it won’t. None of us know. But if enduring change takes place it will not be because it’s predetermined — but rather because it’s the path we choose.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.