A world reshaped: Effects of pandemic likely to reverberate for years - Albuquerque Journal

A world reshaped: Effects of pandemic likely to reverberate for years

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A Washington, D.C., runner passes under flags hanging at half-staff Feb. 24 to honor the 500,000 lives lost to COVID-19 in the U.S. The pandemic has had a profound and likely lasting impact on how we feel, work and act. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

COVID-19 has shocked the U.S. more than any event in generations, a deadly viral threat that simultaneously crippled the economy and dramatically transformed everyday life such that masks are now customary while concerts feel like a distant memory.

Americans have had to navigate a public health crisis and a recession while largely separated from friends, loved ones and normalcy. Even for many who never fell ill, the pandemic has had a profound impact on how we feel, work and act.

Like many catastrophes before it, the pandemic will reverberate for years after the immediate threat is over, whether through permanently altered routines or lingering distress.

The Journal talked to some experts about how it has reshaped America to date and what might be forever changed.

Americans’ working lives have dramatically changed in the last year.

For those in “essential” fields, it meant reporting for duty and working behind new layers of personal protective equipment.

Others found themselves doing Zoom meetings and filing reports from their dining room tables and bedrooms as part of a massive shift toward teleworking.

And for millions more, it meant unemployment, particularly in industries like leisure and hospitality and other in-person services.

Some estimates say it will take years to regain all the lost jobs.

Workforce Connection of Central New Mexico officials say they have begun working with people looking to change careers due to the pandemic, whether that’s because they have lost jobs or want something more stable and flexible.

Joy Forehand, operations manager for the workforce development board, said she anticipates a new wave of younger workers seeking the agency’s services — which includes career counseling — as they are often disproportionately impacted by recessions.

She and WCCNM administrator Art Martinez say the industries likely to be hiring post-pandemic are probably similar to the ones hiring before, including health care and information technology. And while many fields require specialized skills, demand continues to exist across sectors for those who work well on teams, can write and are generally reliable, Forehand said.

“Overall, it hasn’t changed through the pandemic: employers are really looking for what has been coined for a decade ‘soft skills,’” she said.

Martinez said there is a sense that the widespread adoption of teleworking could ultimately be a boon to places like New Mexico.

When companies headquartered elsewhere become more comfortable with remote workforces, New Mexico might attract new residents no longer tethered to corporate offices in places like San Francisco. It could also mean more job opportunities for workers already based here.

“They just need some talent, and we’re looking at being able to supply that talent,” Martinez said.

The number of people working remotely all or some of the time has fallen since the pandemic’s early days but still accounted for about 56% of U.S. workers in January, according to Gallup surveys.

Though it may look different long-term, experts believe working from home is now an entrenched part of American culture.

“As of now, managers have been pleasantly surprised (with remote work success),” said Bhushan Sethi, a partner with the global accounting and professional services firm PwC. “No one is going to (argue) remote working doesn’t work or that flexibility is not allowed; the next challenge is how do we operate this thing in the hybrid workplace?”

PwC, which has been surveying executives and office workers, found most companies are moving toward a “hybrid” model in which employees spend some time at home and some in offices designed more like shared spaces.

While the overwhelming majority of executives believe working from home has been successful, PwC found that bosses want a faster return to the office than workers. Sethi said companies will have to find a system that best balances the need for face-to-face collaboration and customer service with flexibility and fairness for workers. That will likely vary by industry or even within individual companies.

“There is no one-size-fits-all,” he said.

The pandemic could also bring about permanent changes for those in the essential workforce.
About 50 million Americans work in “front-line” jobs, most of them making below-average wages, according to 2020 Brookings research.

But Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts who researches workplace inequality, said the pandemic has cast a new spotlight on workers who have long been treated as “disposable.”

“The pandemic has really revealed how much we rely on these kind of basic service workers, like the manufacturing workers in food plants and the truck drivers who deliver our goods and services, and I’m hoping this kind of general cultural recognition that these are in fact essential workers will increase the degree to which they are treated with respect by their employers,” he said.

Though often temporary, some large companies provided new benefits and pay hikes during the pandemic. Home Depot, for example, says it offered 40 hours of paid time off for part-time hourly employees in 2020, and even more for full-timers and those over 65. Since the pandemic started, Target has distributed a series of bonuses to employees and implemented a permanent $15-per-hour starting wage.

Tomaskovic-Devey said companies may have to continue improving benefits, such as paid family medical leave, as they rebound from the pandemic and hope to lure back the millions of workers — often women — who have dropped out of the workforce during COVID-19.

“When employers want them back, they should be offering incentives to make it worth their while, not the same conditions they were offering before,” he said.

Tomaskovic-Devey said the pandemic may have pushed worker issues higher on policy-making agendas, too. The pandemic has renewed national debate over raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. States have taken new steps as well; Colorado, for example, in 2020 passed a law mandating all employers offer paid leave.

COVID-19 rippled through even the most basic facets of everyday life.

“The pandemic, particularly last March and April when it started, was the biggest behavior change in America society since World War II,” said Chris Jackson, senior vice president of public affairs for the market and public opinion research firm Ipsos. “We had whole swaths of the country essentially in the course of a couple of days go from living their normal lives to staying home full time.”

What impacts has COVID-19 had on consumer behavior, and which will ultimately stick?

There was an immediate and pronounced shift in shopping habits in the pandemic’s early days; a U.S. consumer survey last summer from Inmar Intelligence found 79% of participants had bought groceries online since the pandemic started compared with 57% who had done so prior to the virus.

But Jackson said some of that has already subsided.

The virus forced people to rapidly adapt, but people tend only to permanently embrace changes if their needs are still being met.

Shoppers may keep buying products such as paper towels online after they start because they are indifferent to the experience either way, but may find traditional shopping more pleasurable for other items, like bananas and bell peppers.

“I think a lot of people like being able to pick up their own produce, so you might see some of that (shopping) revert back,” Jackson said.

Ipsos has routinely surveyed Americans throughout the pandemic on consumer behavior subjects. Its polls indicate 25% are spending more money now than before COVID-19, compared with 40% who report saving more.

But data suggest Americans are shelling out more money for certain things, namely products and services to keep themselves busy — or, in some cases, relaxed — while locked down. They spent more on video games, toys, patio furniture and, according to The NPD Group research firm, even candles and massage appliances.
Some aspects of the so-called “homebody economy” are likely to remain even after the pandemic.

“U.S. consumers have also adopted many in-home alternatives, and many of these activities such as online streaming and cooking regularly are expected to stick post-COVID-19,” the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. reported on its website in December.

Irma Munoz sanitizes the equipment at Anytime Fitness Westside. Gyms took a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic but the industry is hoping for a comeback. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Customer behavior also has changed significantly when it comes to fitness.

Home gym equipment sales soared during the pandemic — with some manufacturers running out of popular products — while traditional gyms took a hit.

About 17% of America’s health clubs shuttered permanently in 2020 and the industry lost $20.4 billion in revenue, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. The trade group, however, remains hopeful about a comeback, reporting in its 2021 media guide that gym membership had been rising prior to the pandemic and that people go to the gym for both health and social reasons.

“The full impact of the pandemic may not be quantified for some time, but early feedback from Americans is encouraging, and shows how much they value their health clubs, gyms and studios,” IHRSA reported.

The toll COVID-19 has taken on Americans’ health cannot be measured solely in virus case counts, hospitalizations and deaths.

The pandemic also has had widespread effects on Americans’ mental health, as demonstrated by higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

“People had so much uncertainty, and uncertainty breeds fear, and fear breeds anxiety,” said Jagdish Khubchandani, a public health sciences professor at New Mexico State University who has been researching the pandemic’s impact on mental health.

He was lead author on a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Public Health that found rates of anxiety and depression in American adults have more than doubled during the pandemic. The research showed that 42% were experiencing anxiety and 39% experiencing depression, and the incidence was higher in certain demographics.

Men showed a higher rate of depression, Khubchandani said, while anxiety was more common among women.
Some populations had higher rates of depression as well as higher rates of anxiety, including Hispanics, people making less than $60,000 per year and young adults ages 18-25.

“Clearly a young demographic of racial and ethnic minorities was hugely affected,” Khubchandani said. “They’ve seen a lot of death in their community (and have) a lot of uncertainty about the economy, and so it does seem like they have more effects.”

And young people might be suffering from more than the pandemic’s direct force. They are also overwhelmed by the onslaught of information they are processing about it, according to an analysis Khubchandani conducted with a team of researchers. It found young people were more likely to be concerned about the quality and quantity of information they were seeing about COVID-19.

Even without a pandemic, many people who need behavioral health services do not have them. Khubchandani said the growing number of people grappling with anxiety and depression today likely means that many more people now lack necessary treatment.

“There will be a huge residual effect,” he said.

Only 38% of Americans experiencing anxiety or depression symptoms took related medication and/or received therapy in the last four weeks, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent household pulse survey.

“What we’ve seen with the pandemic is that gap in care really has been laid bare, and it likely has increased because we haven’t increased our workforce to meet the demand of what people are going through with the pandemic,” said psychologist Vaile Wright, senior director of the American Psychological Association.

She said groups that are already most vulnerable to mental health conditions — including young people, lower-income populations and essential workers — are also likely to have a longer path to recovery because they often lack resources, whether that is emotional resiliency in younger populations, financial wherewithal or health care.

Federal and state regulators have relaxed some rules to better facilitate telehealth counseling and make it more accessible, and over 90% of psychologists the APA surveyed now report doing some or all of their appointments remotely.

But Wright said it will take more than growing telehealth adoption to counter COVID-19’s impact, suggesting a wide-ranging approach that holds insurance companies accountable for covering mental health care; better integrates mental health care into primary care settings and perhaps even schools and churches; and creates stability within vulnerable populations by investing in housing and other social supports.

“It’s both traditional interventions,” she said, “but also thinking much more holistically about how we address our emotional well-being.”

Online Memorial: Those We’ve Lost

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