What the world has seen so far because of the COVID-19 pandemic may just be the tip of the iceberg. According to multiple UC Berkeley professors, the world may see the virus’s impacts for years to come, and in one potential case, the pandemic may not permanently leave at all.
Lee Riley, division head of infectious diseases and vaccinology at the campus School of Public Health, said there are still uncertainties about how the pandemic will play out in the future, nothing that he saw three possibilities.
In one potential scenario, the pandemic continues with variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, according to Riley. Although the variants seem to be transmitted more efficiently, as seen in some nations, it is too soon to know how they could affect the pandemic, Riley added.
“Right now, it’s a race between how these variants start taking off versus how quickly we can give the vaccine to as many people as we can,” Riley said. “If we give the vaccine to lots of people in a very short time frame, then we may be able to prevent the variants from taking over.”
Riley said the second scenario could be that COVID-19 becomes more of a seasonal epidemic such as influenza. The third, and best-case scenario according to Riley, is that COVID-19 becomes so weak that it resembles the common cold, but this would take much longer.
Some professors, however, believe COVID-19 could very well affect different facets of human life beyond public health.
These facets included the effects of self-isolation, a hallmark of the pandemic. Campus sociology assistant professor Yan Long said data showed a “historically high” number of deaths related to drug overdoses in the last year.
Long added that this indicated the effects of a lack of social interactions, as the pandemic and self-isolation intensified stress and led to not just more drug use but also increasing relapses.
Social interactions may change even after the pandemic, according to Long. She said an accumulation of mental health issues during the pandemic will continue to affect people, and this, in turn, could also change how they interact with each other.
Long added that companies may continue to use technology, leading to possible digitization of the workplace and the continuance of online interactions.
“On the one hand, it makes it easier to work from home,” Long said. “But it also blurs work-life boundaries.”
Campus anthropology professor Daena Funahashi noted concerns about this potential change in the workplace.
Funahashi, whose research has focused on labor, said corporations could see an opportunity to save money. This, however, could pose possible dangers because of increased surveillance, as companies can now record meetings and measure the time spent online.
“This is actually creating a pretty insidious condition whereby offices, workplaces, what have you, have increased control over your work time,” Funahashi said.
Funahashi also expressed concerns about how the pandemic will affect inequality, noting that decisions prioritizing economic health over public health, or vice versa, could have damaging effects on individuals and communities who cannot work remotely. Large corporations benefiting from natural disasters, such as Amazon during the pandemic, could also be part of a trend that would continue to worsen, Funahashi said.
Multiple professors also agreed on one thing: This is not the first pandemic the world has experienced, and it will not be the last.
Ronald Amundson, campus environmental science, policy and management professor, said viral experts have suggested the emergence of a virus could come up every five or 10 years due to human contact with animals.
“This COVID outbreak that we’re dealing with right now is really just one of many that we’ve facilitated over time,” Amundson said, citing diseases caused by viruses such as Ebola, HIV and measles.
Amundson explained that competition for resources among humans has led to hunting for wild game. This, however, also leads to more contact with animals that can pass viruses on to humans.
Riley also said this is the third coronavirus pandemic the world has seen in the 21st century, though the first two did not spread to the extent of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
“Even if this pandemic completely disappears, that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to see another coronavirus come out of some sort of animal reservoir and enter the human population and do the same thing,” Riley said. “We can’t just get relaxed after this pandemic disappears. We have to be really prepared for the next one.”