Pandemic Lessons

Road to Resilience


The pandemic is drastically changing the way we do things and the likelihood is that many of the changes will persist after the epidemic.  Some of the changes will remain because they are preferable to the past, and some will be preferable simply because we won’t want to get caught in a vulnerable position should another pandemic occur.

There are massive changes in the workforce.  Right now, 42% of the workforce works remotely and virtually from home.  Thirty-three percent are retail, food, entertainment or other service workers, many of whom are unemployed because of the pandemic.  The remaining 26% are the essential workers who are required to be out and about or in immediate proximity to the people they serve.

The people that work from home are largely professionals, managers, and financial workers that can perform their jobs via the internet and their computer.  These are the ones that have been lucky enough to continue with minimal impact on their income or lifestyle.  The essential workers are also still bringing in an income, but at great risk to their health and with the consequent great efforts required to preserve their health and that of their families.  The rest who are unable to work, either because their work is shut down or because they need to stay home to take care of children, are having a very tough time.  If nothing else, this pandemic has highlighted vast discrepancies in quality of life.  The people least affected by the pandemic tend to be the best paid.  The essential workers, except maybe for doctors and nurses, are paid far less.  Perhaps as a result of this pandemic, grocery workers, janitors, maids, garbage collectors and others will get the respect and the pay that they deserve.

The effect of remote work means that much of our central business district infrastructure and services are underused and may remain so.  I say this because there is sufficient reason to believe some of the pandemic precautions will be maintained, and there are obvious economies to be had by limiting commuting.  A large portion of remote workers worked in the many tall office buildings that make up the city center.  The impact of vacancies is already becoming a problem.  The many restaurants, bars and other service providers that used to serve the city center employees have lost at least 50% of their business.  I would have thought it would be more.

After the pandemic, Nicholas Bloom, economics professor at Stanford expects that a good number of these remote workers will continue to work at home for at least part or most of the week.  This prospect bodes dramatic changes in land use and transport.  Remote work will no doubt lower demand for office space downtown, so there may be little demand for more highrise office space.  Employers of these workers are already considering continuing some elements of social distancing at the office as a precaution.  By doubling the workspace, a lot of the empty office space downtown may be utilized.  Will that lower the revenues to building owners or greatly increase the costs for renters?  A remaining intractable problem is that safe elevator use will require a capacity reduction of 90% in the case of another pandemic.

For some, working at home is difficult or impossible depending on home space and internet speed availability.  Others just prefer to get out of the house and off to the office for social reasons.  When you consider the time, fuel expenditures, and carbon footprint for millions of people going 5-100 miles roundtrip five days a week, anything that reduces that will be a real boon.  For all of these reasons, there may be an increased demand for regional office space with state-of-the-art technology for remote workers living nearby.  The current business hubs like the one here on Vashon serve this need now.

Essential workers for the most part will have to continue commuting.  Perhaps, in addition to the pay raise they deserve, they should be paid for commuting time.  Retail, food, entertainment, and personal service workers will need to commute as well or be retrained for the new economy that will emerge from the pandemic.  I’m not throwing a wet blanket on the prospect of returning to the crowded restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues that we love, but some sort of security for employees in this sector will need to be in place.

We should also try to continue limiting our air travel, because it is one of the biggest contributors to the carbon buildup causing climate change.  So far, no easily produced sustainable renewable fuel has been developed with the weight and energy density to equal jet fuel.  Perhaps the day of large scale heavier-than-air travel should be ended in favor of taking a little more time to travel in comfort by state-of-the-art electric rail.  I recently read a description of lighter-than-air ships made of photovoltaic fabric that could travel at a third the speed of jet planes, land closer to cities and provide service to cities that can’t afford the massive investment in an airport with runways.  Why travel in a cramped seat in a tin can when you can travel comfortably for a few more hours?