Five years of change in six months

Posted 10/14/20

If you long for January, when things were “normal,” you are not alone. We may not have liked everything then, but we at least knew how to navigate our lives. Since March everything has turned …

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Five years of change in six months

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If you long for January, when things were “normal,” you are not alone. We may not have liked everything then, but we at least knew how to navigate our lives. Since March everything has turned upside down. Nick Patton Walsh, a CNN analyst, recently said we’ve seen five years of change in six months.

There are some, especially politicians, who want to tell us that normal is just around the corner. They say “just hang on for a few more months and things will return to the way they were.” They are fooling themselves and trying to fool you. There is growing understanding we won’t return to “before” for years, if ever.

The Kenan Institute held a virtual forum in mid-September that reflected on changes titled “Seven Forces Reshaping the Economy.” We want to list them, adding comments of our own.

“By far the biggest impact of the pandemic has been where people go — to work, to play, to live,” the report begins. Businesses can meet using Zoom (or other apps) and don’t have to work from one location; neither is travel to meetings and conventions as essential. Many employees can work from home, forcing change in real estate markets, both as companies reduce rented office space and as workers choose where they want to live. No longer will folks hop a plane to Cabo, Snowshoe or Disney for leisure travel, instead choosing locations where they can reasonably drive. The travel and hospitality industries face major change.

Shopping habits have changed. Brick and mortar retailers have suffered and many are closing, as people shop online. Survivors will include a few mass-market chains and unique boutiques with specialized goods or personal services. Delivery services for food, groceries and merchandise are now a way of life. People are making fewer trips to the grocery but will likely end up spending more on food purchases. Many lower wage workers will be out of work.

COVID-19 demonstrated that supply chains must to be nimbler, more efficient, more resilient and closer to home. Companies will seek partnerships with regional warehousing and distribution facilities. Some will bring manufacturing in-house or at least within this country. Manufacturing will be highly automated and computerized and will not require as many workers.

Recent racial protests have prompted the business community to redouble diversity efforts, conduct more sensitivity training and to partner with minority owned businesses, not because they are forced to do so but because they recognize it is the right thing to do. They will re-emphasize participation withing their communities and a renewed emphasis in doing business with local supplier networks.

The pandemic demonstrated the need for major school reform. This year’s disrupted education proved that educators must incorporate new technologies, both online and in-class. Education outcomes must improve; successful innovators will be rewarded in this era of school choice. Government revenue shortfalls will reverberate down to local school systems, increasing the urgency for education to improve quickly and for reliable and safe childcare parents need in order to earn livelihoods.

Our healthcare systems are under extreme pressure. Many rural hospitals are barely surviving, too many communities have a shortage of doctors, and too many citizens have no government or private health insurance. We see the results of these problems in the rates of those infected and dying from COVID-19. The need for expanded telemedicine is urgent. New funding models are needed that place emphasis on wellness instead of just treating sickness. Our healthcare providers spend too much time processing paper and not enough treating patients. New job opportunities in biopharmaceutical, R&D and teleservices will create job opportunities.

For the economy to rebound capital providers need new risk assessments for long-term investments. Workforce retraining is urgently needed to offset those losing jobs and businesses striving to meet the new demands. Our unemployment rate has dropped but won’t likely return to January levels for many months as the economy adjusts.

Changes are sometimes hard to accept and may be viewed negatively. But as New York Times writer Peter Baker said: “When tectonic plates of history move, move with them.” Some changes can bring good. The question is how can we be agents for positive change?

Note: You can read the Kenan Institute report at: cutt.ly/kenanreport.

Tom Campbell, a former assistant N.C. State Treasurer, is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of N.C. issues that airs on UNC-TV’s main channel.

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