Visions of the “New Normal”

Visions of the “New Normal”

IEEE Life Senior Member Terry Malkinson and his colleague Jacqueline Terlaan provide an international perspective as they share a vision of the “new normal” post COVID-19, and an assessment of some of the uncertainties related to employment, careers, education, healthcare and more.


The rapid spread of the novel CORONAVIRUS-19 throughout the world has affected and disrupted everyone — creating health, business, employment, education, governance, socialization, and mental challenges. We are fortunate to have good public healthcare infrastructure, along with outstanding medical practitioners, scientists, engineers and resources to manage the pandemic. We must all realize that this challenge is new — and evolving rapidly and unpredictably — perhaps continuing for many years.

The danger stems from the virus’s natural ability to change quickly, ensuring its ability to reproduce and survive. Additionally, individuals infected with this virus may or may not experience symptoms, and may unknowingly infect others. IEEE and its members are playing an important role in providing leadership and professional expertise throughout these hard days. IEEE has created an information-rich resource for you: “COVID-19: Your IEEE Resources” [https://spectrum.ieee.org/static/covid19-ieee-resources]. IEEE-USA created a Help page on its website [https://ieeeusa.org/help] which also has many resources and a lot of useful information you can access. Additionally, many medical journals are providing free access to COVID-19 articles.

A plethora of opinions abound about the origins of the new corona-virus — ranging from the possible to the ridiculous. The answer remains elusive. Experience with other pathogens suggests that the coronavirus may have jumped from animal to human, a phenomenon known as “zoonotic spillover.” The reality is that humans are complex biological creatures and subject to the rules of the natural world. We are all vulnerable to many health issues. Birth does not come accompanied with an extended warranty; rather, it comes with a “limited warranty.” This event is causing considerable anxiety to many — some realizing for the first time their vulnerability, their mortality, and the importance of a healthy lifestyle that enhances wellness.

In time, we will overcome this challenge — and applying good engineering and science will help us do so. Further, we will emerge even stronger and better because of the experience. Learnings and coping mechanisms from this experience may well become permanent; and will have a dramatic effect on many aspects of our culture. Now is the time to adopt a positive “new normal” coping mechanism, and position yourself for personal and career success. We must all use this time for self-reflection, and reassessment of what is important in life. For many, this time has brought families and significant others closer together. Entrepreneurial opportunities are opening up to those with vision, tenacity, and the courage to take risks.

This article will focus on realistic forecasts for our future, providing insights on how we can best prepare ourselves for career and personal success.

Redesign of Our Cities

Historically, there has been a planned migration to urbanization — where large numbers of people now live closely together in communities and condominiums. We work in massive office towers, travel in crowded public transit systems and elevators, and walk closely together on narrow sidewalks. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo blamed the severity of COVID-19 in New York in part on urban density. “There is a density level in New York City that is destructive,” he tweeted. “It has to stop and it has to stop now. New York City must develop an immediate plan to reduce density.” The world’s population continues to grow, as the concept of global population management, popular several decades ago, has lost influence. Now, we need to re-examine it. Data from a Harris Poll revealed that nearly a third of Americans are considering relocating to less crowded places, as a direct result of COVID-19.

In response to COVID-19, urban leaders have temporarily implemented changes — which may become permanent, especially as citizens find the changes refreshing. Most planners have built urban centers around the automobile. Now, city and state leaders are closing many streets to cars; opening up space to bicycles; and widening sidewalks to encourage walking, and facilitate social distancing.

Keeping people apart [social distancing] contradicts the emphasis urban planners have traditionally placed on human interaction. Citizens have never before experienced restrictions intended to reduce the spread of the virus on their many valued traditional freedoms. We value “nearness” and meeting places as venues of socialization, collaboration, inclusion and community building. Social interaction confirms who we are. Social isolation is causing considerable mental anguish for many, including the very young who cannot play with their friends, and the elderly who cannot have visitors.

Contactless Interfaces and Interactions

COVID-19 has made us acutely aware of touchable surfaces that could spread the disease. Incredible entrepreneurial opportunities will emerge for new innovative interfaces that will changes in how we interact with technology. Some are as basic as motion controlled switches, door openers, Plexiglas barriers, and contactless options to pay for goods, services and delivery. We are population tracking and contact tracing; and we are using surveillance technology to control the virus’ spread that presents myriad questions related to privacy.

Changes in How We Care for the Elderly, Disabled and Immunocompromised

In this pandemic, the vast majority of deaths have occurred in extended care facilities. As healthcare practitioners and others say, it is often a result of overcrowding. Innovative new architectural designs for these facilities, effective staff training programs, and appropriate compensation must occur. Similarly, those with disabilities, or with chronic health conditions are vulnerable and require innovative programs and technology to mitigate the risk.

Another important consideration that has emerged for many is the importance of preparing in advance, in the event of illness. An updated last Will and Testament, designated Power of Attorney, a Personal Directive, and type of remembrance celebration are essential documents that everyone should take the time to prepare. A frequent comment in the coronavirus “chatter” is that family members do not know the final wishes of elderly parents or loved ones. Does the individual wish for technology and/or medications to keep her/him alive; or, do they prefer to pass naturally, with no extreme measures taken?

It is important for everyone to save a portion of their income for emergencies — such as unexpected temporary or permanent loss of income; have medical insurance; and establish early in life, a retirement income plan. Additionally, it is important to make the most of every moment — particularly family and friendship relationships, and contributing to making the world a better place.

Work Site Redesign

Second only to the elder care facilities, the largest outbreaks of coronavirus are occurring in overcrowded worksites, where workers often make the minimum wage and work long hours. These employees are often fearful of harassment, or termination, should they speak up to their supervisors about company practices that might put them at risk for illness. Implementing changes in management/supervisory practices is critical now. Employers must provide authoritative information, and effectively listen to their employees who believe that their workplace is unsafe. Updating operational manuals, business plans and business risk-management plans is necessary.

Expansion of Digital Infrastructure

COVID-19 has demonstrated the possibilities for using innovative digital solutions to interact with the world, when we are restricted to our homes. Many workers have embraced the “home office” employment arrangement, and most would like to continue. Some are even fearful of ever returning to their worksite. These overriding individual thoughts and feelings will have a significant effect on public transit, roadways and business travel. Is it really necessary to travel to an office; locally, nationally or internationally? A video call for meetings can be more effective and is environmentally responsible.

New housing is now incorporating a home office as a crucial, or even mandatory, marketing strategy for new homebuyers; and it provides value-add opportunities for home renovation. COVID-19 will sweep away many of the artificial barriers to moving more of our lives online; however, not everything can become totally virtual. Face-to-face interaction is important and essential for organizational cohesion and team building. Body language is important. We will need to be selective — choosing options that best meet the circumstances.

To reduce visits at hospitals, pharmacies and healthcare practitioners’ offices, many doctors are implementing consultations through video appointments. Developing remote diagnostic and monitoring technology provides incredible opportunities for entrepreneurs. As a result of the pandemic, a majority of shopping has moved online, with contactless delivery. Those businesses that do not have an online option face financial ruin. Businesses that want to remain competitive will, by necessity, enhance their online services — even if they chose to maintain a brick-and-mortar location. Robots, drones and automation support us today and will play an increasingly important role post-COVID-19.

K-12 and Post-Secondary education is also undergoing significant transformation in response to the pandemic. The challenge is the traditional classroom — where students sit closely together for instruction and interact socially on the campus. Educational administrators are now implementing online learning options and smaller class sizes, reducing the student population on campus. Concerned parents are considering home schooling. Some post-secondary students are seriously considering taking a “gap-year,” or forgoing college education completely, in favor of self-learning. They are concerned about paying the same tuition for online instruction as previously for classroom instruction. Changes in educational delivery also have important ramifications — because education is multi-faceted, particularly with regard to socialization, relationship building and peer interaction. Quality of education is important to industry by ensuring a supply of skilled employees.

Reduced Demand for Fossil Fuels

The world population wants and is learning to live with less oil. The coronavirus pandemic, along with foreign national politics, and new technologies, have, in some cases, destroyed the demand for fossil fuels. Investors are dumping oil assets. There is no indication that this industry will ever recover to previous levels. The need for oil and oil-based products and services will always exist, but not at levels previously enjoyed. A product for which we have no control over the price or market is not a good basis for an economy. Employees are working from home. International travel is plummeting. On the positive side of airline travel, passengers will experience increasing scrutiny for illness prior to boarding aircraft. Citizens in once polluted cities are increasingly enjoying blue skies, quietness, refreshing air, and clear water. They are demanding tougher emissions controls and increased efforts to tackle the climate crisis. The fossil-fuel industry has served society well for many years; however, as history has shown — it most likely will decline, as creative people (many of whom are IEEE members) develop newly emerging technologies.

Encouragement of a Healthy Lifestyle

Everyone knows that the best defense against illness is regular exercise, which stimulates the body naturally to overcome challenges. Excess weight, smoking, alcohol, poor nutrition, and use of non-prescriptive drugs all make the body susceptible to infection, and present difficulty with treatment should an individual become ill. We know that exercise has a significant impact on the normal functioning of the immune system, including improved immune responses to vaccination; and lowering the risk of diseases, including cancer, HIV, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cognitive impairment and obesity. It is important to develop innovative ways to exercise, while maintaining social distancing and practicing good personal hygiene. We need more opportunities for providing mandatory education on a healthy lifestyle, the epidemiology of disease, and regular participation in professionally led fitness programs. Fitness centers will need to reconfigure, and have larger equipment footprints. Perhaps, as is the case with a home office, a home gym might become a valuable asset. Personal trainers may well train you virtually, or privately, in your home gym.

Greater Respect and Support for our Engineers, Scientists, Public Service, Educators and Healthcare Providers

Leaders who deny or discount engineering and science are a significant liability to the public good. Well-educated professionals, who have the benefit of historical and current peer-reviewed knowledge, generally have been discounted and dismissed, when they expressed an opinion contrary to government or industry thinking. Some countries have reduced funding significantly for the best engineers and scientists over time — resulting in the best and brightest leaving for better opportunities — where there is an unequivocal holistic understanding of basic and applied research that will have long-term benefits. The professionalism of law enforcement, teachers, doctors, nurses and technologists are all-important, as we work together during this pandemic. All citizens need to take the time to express their appreciation to the many professionals who are working hard to keep us safe.

National Supply-Chain Self-Sufficiency

Globalization has been the basis of industry. Because of the pandemic, most people increasingly see dependence on imports from foreign corporations as not being in the national interest. In particular, the pandemic has exposed the fragility of food, fuel and medical supplies to global supply chains. There is no reason why nations cannot manufacture and supply most of their own essential supplies and services.

National Emergency Planning and Preparation

Delays of international cooperation has weakened the world’s response to this challenge. For instance, the World Health Organization and the United Nations must have unencumbered funding, as well as independent, strong and informed leadership to monitor, forecast, communicate and mitigate risks to the world’s population. No one should have the power to influence, or interfere in any way with the independence of this important work. International jurisdictional disputes, or those within a country, must not interfere or delay action for the national benefit.

Digital (Virtual) Events

Organizers and participants of in-person events that switched to virtual events realize there are both benefits and risks. The pandemic has had a tremendous effect on sporting events. Athletic events with long histories have immediately cancelled their offerings, for the first time ever. Owners, athletes (professional and amateur) and fans have had to put on hold, or cancel and deal with the reality of their attendance at large venues. But by employing innovative broadcasting methods, sports enthusiasts can now view events close-up in the comfort of their homes, at low cost. Is there any need to construct larger and larger event centers? Some professional sports are only now resuming their season broadcasting — with no spectators in attendance — and with very rigorous health protocols and virus testing for the athletes and necessary personnel in place.

Conclusion

With unprecedented scientific collaboration, researchers around the world are working diligently to create an effective coronavirus vaccine, as well as treatment options for those who become ill. Regulators are examining methods of fast-tracking testing and approval processes to ensure that a potential vaccine is not only effective, but also safe for mass immunization. That is the best-case scenario — but it is far from certain…

Would a vaccine for the new coronavirus wind up offering long-lasting immunity, potentially wiping out COVID 19; or will the virus prove to be a shape-shifter — mutating quickly enough that people will need multiple or annual updated vaccinations — like those for seasonal strains of influenza? To create long-lasting protection, researchers need to pinpoint a piece of that structure that is likely to remain stable over time, then isolate and de-activate it. Infectious disease experts warn that a new coronavirus — or other similar, undiscovered strains — could wind up causing seasonal infections long after this pandemic.

Even if we should we be successful in creating an effective vaccine, changes are inevitable. Learning from our current experiences may well become a permanent component of our culture. “Game-changing” events, such as the ones we are now experiencing, result in loss to some and opportunities to others. One thing is clear: those who become informed, are entrepreneurial, think futuristically, and have the courage to embrace change will be successful.

IEEE and its members will play an important role in meeting the challenge, and developing solutions, as society transitions to a “new normal.” In a rare message to the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth II addressed the COVID-19 pandemic early on, stating, “I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge.” The Queen offers an enduring and reassuring voice, urging resilience in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.

For Further Information:

Chu, D.K. et al. Physical Distancing, Face Masks, and Eye Protection to Prevent Person-to-Person Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Lancet. Published online 1 June 2020.

Lam, K. et al. Assessing Telemedicine Unreadiness Among Older Adults in the United States During the COVID-19 Pandemic. JAMA Internal Medicine. E1-E3. Published online 3 August 2020.

Paltiel, D. et al. Assessment of SARS-CoV-2 Screening Strategies to Permit the Safe Reopening of College Campuses in the United States. JAMA Network Open. Published 31 July 2020.

Zhu et al. Immunogenicity and Safety of a Recombinant Adenovirus Type-5-Vectored COVID-19 Vaccine in Healthy Adults Aged 18 Years or Older: A Randomised, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Phase 2 Trial. Lancet. Published online 20 July 2020.


Terrance Malkinson is an IEEE Life Senior Member and a long-time contributor to IEEE-USA. He is the author of more than 500 peer- and editorial-reviewed publications, and is now retired. His diverse career path includes 26 years in medical research, as a founding member of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Calgary; a three-year appointment as a manager with the General Electric Company; followed by a one-year applied research appointment with SAIT Polytechnic. In retirement, Malkinson vigorously continues research and journalism — with an extensive portfolio of basic and applied research projects, journalism, philanthropy and mentorship.

During his long career, Malkinson has advanced both basic and applied medical, health and wellness, scientific, and engineering knowledge. He has trained and mentored undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students as well as staff in the business sector and government. He is a 45-year, long-term member of the IEEE. Over the years, Malkinson has served in many IEEE governance and publication roles. His current research interest in health and wellness extends to being an accomplished, multi-sports triathlete — including, among other events, completion of eleven, long-distance Ironman Triathlons.

Jacqueline Terlaan recently completed her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Philosophy (Honors) at the University of Alberta. She is the recipient of several student achievement awards and competitive scholarships. Terlaan has contributed her expertise in writing to outreach at the University of Alberta.

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