As our daily world shrinks to four walls, a computer screen, and occasionally the sidewalk, it turns out that certain economic categories and philosophic frameworks are more expendable than ever expected.
- Oil. More specifically, fuel. At this point, we need petroleum by-products for personal protective equipment far more than we need fuel to go anywhere. It turns out that there’s a 50-year backstock on the most useful petroleum by-products, so oil producers are scaling back production and paying speculators to take oil nobody wants right now in the hopes that someone will want to to go to Timbuktu again someday. By the time this is over, though, I’m quite certain one budding genius or another will have invented solar-powered flying cars in her backyard.
- Schedules. Turns out, an occasional online meeting is all some of us need to convince our bosses that we’re actually doing the things they pay us to be doing. Interestingly, no one seems to care about timestamps on emails anymore, and response times of 2-4 hours are now acceptable when 2-4 minutes was previously the average.
Of course, certain people are leaving the house on a regular basis to do totally essential things like remove our garbage, restock grocery shelves, and reiterate that we can reopen when the data says so, not somebody’s intuition. Even these people have discovered that traffic no longer makes the commute to their essential job unbearable and lunchtime lines at Subway are avoidable thanks to the app. So many apps.
Our children have gamed out the ruse of schedules and planning. School-age children rouse themselves to log in to their online classrooms, post their assignments, and then wander into our online meetings to proclaim their boredom or announce that the microwave exploded. Toddlers lurch between playing contentedly for hours with an empty box and knocking over drinks to get our attention. We are all rediscovering what babies already know, which is that clocks are irrelevant to meeting life’s essential needs, namely eating and sleeping.
- Specialists. Dentists and certain doctors are suddenly shocked to discover that they are temporarily expendable. There is no place more empty than a plastic surgeon’s office right now. I haven’t been to my dermatologist in something like 89 months, but they sent an automated message to assure me that they care and can safely review any skin spots or other “areas of concern” either in person with a physically spaced appointment or via telehealth. Orthopedists and podiatrists find themselves in the same state of bewilderment. Of course, they will be very busy when we emerge from our cocoons, but until then their type A personality is completely bent out of shape.
- Individualism. The frontier-driven philosophy of doing it all by and for ourselves turns out to be a bit dangerous in the midst of pandemics. Something is seriously askew when the taxpayers of Los Angeles have to pay their police officers to babysit adults by parking in soccer fields in order to prevent grown men from continuing to play soccer games that are clearly forbidden.
Suddenly, conservatives and libertarians are looking at Sweden with awe and admiration for staying open. They fail to take into account that as a nation, Swedes tend to follow the rules and consider the collective good, while Americans pride themselves on the opposite.
- Standards. It turns out that standardized testing is not essential to educational progress. Actually, no testing whatsoever can take place when some children are learning from broken Chromebooks while hiding in their closets and others get designated learning spaces in the living room and the lucky few can retreat to their parents’ third-floor solarium. Naked inequity is a very unattractive thing.
Professionally, many middle managers have quietly given up on quarterly evaluations while coping with more concrete issues. The definition of “grows in professional expertise and shares it” has been downgraded to mean “teaches teammates to Zoom properly.” Nobody cares anymore how many spaces come after a period or whether the latest corporate announcement about the response to the pandemic is flawlessly worded. There will be another announcement tomorrow or the next day, and best practices evolve hourly.
Unfortunately, now nobody knows what anybody knows and instead of merely checking off benchmarks and goals, we’re going to have to have actual conversations moving forward. That is the most frightening outcome of all. What if we actually learn something?