At different times on this blog, readers have harkened back to “the good old days”—when people knew their neighbors, local farmers raised much of the nation’s food, doctors made house calls, and crises like wars brought people together. 

Trying to make sense of the current coronavirus pandemic might seem a fool’s errand, but whether you think it’s for real or some kind of conspiracy or hoax, one thing seems certain: the spillover will change our lives in significant ways, including bring back some of the best aspects of “the good old days.” Leaving aside the controversial stuff about whether government is doing what it should be doing to contain the virus (a big thing to leave aside), we can begin to see some of the shifts. 

Two of the big shifts I see seem at first to be opposites, but they are actually related in the benefits they potentially confer:

  1. New life for local and small food producers. Already, people are seeing the problems with the corporate food system in a crisis. The supply chains are not only long and complicated, but they are easily disrupted because they are keyed to “just-in-time” systems that emphasize minimal inventory all along the way. Thus, they are thrown out of whack during panic buying of the kind we have witnessed during the last few weeks. Many basics like rice, beans, and pasta (and toilet paper) have become unavailable from major chains like Publix, Costco and Whole Foods. The shortages beget more panic buying when stores restock, so it becomes very difficult to restore sanity to the marketplace. Enter local food. As Mark McAfee noted in a comment following my previous post, his raw dairy business, which owns and controls its supply chain, is going gangbusters, and can keep up.  In an email to customers, Edwin Shank of The Family Cow in Pennsylvania, put it this way: “That is the great advantage of buying directly from our farm. The food chain is very, very short and resilient and dependable. So even though we may be out of a food item briefly, like milk on Friday evening, all we had to do was milk the cows on Saturday morning and we had milk again for Saturday store customers. And we have plenty of milk for this week too.” A New Hampshire co-op I am a member of has tried to reassure members who started panic buying that it has long favored local producers, and expects those relationships to help keep supplies predictable going forward. In the Boston area, small retailers of produce, which grow their own or have long-established suppliers, are offering home delivery and early shopping for older residents, and drawing shoppers from the big chains.  
  2. Acceleration toward an online future. We’re all being forced to move more of our lives online, whether we like it or not. College courses have moved online, cancellation of huge trade shows has moved commerce even more forcefully online. Corporate employees are working from home and business meetings that once happened in person are now happening care of Zoom. Equally significant, health care is increasingly moving online as doctors are now handling non-corona-virus cases via FaceTime and Zoom video conferences rather than office visits. Consumers and business people are seeing that a lot of the travel, including commuting, wasn’t as essential as everyone once assumed. While we endure “social distancing,” we actually are sowing the seeds for more meaningful personal and business relationships.

So a big question: How much of these shifts is transitory and how much is permanent? I suspect it’s not entirely transitory, or permanent. The shock of the shift has been traumatic for many people. Many people never imagined they’d see out-of-stock supermarket shelves for days on end, but traumatic change often leads to significant long-term changes in behavior. Yet even if 40% or 50% of the changes stick—significant numbers of consumers stay committed to local producers and significant numbers of commuters continue working from home, for example—the effects will be huge. 

The restaurant, auto, oil, and travel businesses could suffer permanent hits. On the positive side, traffic jams could become much less frequent. The climate crisis could abate. 

Health care also could be transformed ever more to a do-it-yourself mode. Routine testing like blood pressure and heart rate readings have already become things consumers can do for themselves. Our electronic watches are gaining capabilities to do things like provide EKGs and before long will be providing blood sugar and other readings directly to health care providers. The less we need to visit doctors and hospitals, the better for all of us. 

There is lots more that is destined to change because of this crisis, and much of it could be favorable to our lives. Maybe not exactly like “the good old days.” But a not-bad imitation. Too bad it’s taken a pandemic to spark the shifts.