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How the Virus May Change Us All

By CHARLES CRUMPLEY Chances are, the coronavirus pandemic will forever change the way you do business. For one thing, business travel may be reduced. Already, Zoom is zooming; one report last week said videoconferencing traffic in North America and Asia has doubled since the outbreak began. Once execs see for themselves that meaningful interchange really can get done remotely, they may not be so willing to expend the time and money for many face-to-face meetings in the future. For another thing, we likely will see more work-from-home options in the future. Last week, several universities, including California State University – Northridge, announced that students cannot sit in classrooms for the immediate future but will “attend” school virtually from their dorm rooms or even from home. I suspect many businesses similarly are quietly allowing more work to be off site. Again, once bosses see that remote work can be good work, the culture for offsite work will grow. And that, in turn, may trigger all manner of secondary effects. Will we need so much office space in the future? Will each family member need his or her own car? If more people are working at home, will business-lunch spots migrate to the suburbs? Another effect: decoupling from China. Businesses and consumers have long been addicted to low-cost manufacturing in China. But if Chinese producers increasingly are unable to deliver goods, especially if the coronavirus metastasizes across Asia for months and causes factories to seize up, American businesses will look for alternate providers. And once they make the switch, it may be hard to go back to China, especially considering that country’s low wages, spotty environmental concern and suspected use of slave labor. In short, big, disruptive splashes like the coronavirus often create ripples that have long-lasting effects. We can’t predict, of course, what all those effects may be. We only know that the coronavirus is likely to change the way businesses operate and the way you work. • • • The death rate from those who get the coronavirus is projected by some experts to be about 1 percent, although no one really knows yet. In any case, it is a bad one. Still, it is shaping up to be far less disastrous than the Spanish flu of 1918. According to some estimates, the death rate was 2-3 percent back then. However, the numbers suggest that the real death rate could have been much, much higher. It is hard to tell because back then recordkeeping was primitive to nonexistent in many places, especially in such regions as India, China and Africa but even in rural America. Let’s look at some numbers. An estimated 500 million people worldwide caught the Spanish flu and an estimated 20 to 50 million died of it, although some put the number closer to 100 million. That would imply a death rate of anywhere from 4 percent to 20 percent. Since the global population was 1.8 to 1.9 billion in 1918, 100 million deaths would mean more than 5 percent of the world’s population perished. Even if the low estimate of 20 million deaths was accurate, that would mean about 1 of every 100 people on Earth died that year, far worse than anything projected for the coronavirus. The Spanish flu was the worst pandemic in modern history. One oddity about it was that it ravaged healthy and young adults. More U.S. soldiers died from the flu than were killed in battle during World War I. It particularly devastated pregnant women. According to Wikipedia, one historian reported that in 13 studies of hospitalized women, the death rate ranged between 23 percent and 71 percent. Of those who survived, 26 percent lost their child. So many deaths occurred that funeral homes were overwhelmed and there were reports of people resorting to digging their own family graves. Some businesses and public places shut down, libraries stopped lending books and ordinances were passed that banned public spitting. According to History.com, the New York City health commissioner ordered businesses to open on staggered shifts to reduce crowding on the subways. About 675,000 Americans died of the Spanish flu in 1918. That compares to the 12,000 Americans who died during swine flu epidemic of 2009-10. By the way, 1918 was the only year in the 20th century when the U.S. population declined. One more thing: The Spanish flu hit a peak in October of 1918. By mid-November, it had all but disappeared. Since viruses often mutate, some theorize that the Spanish flu virus changed into something far less lethal. Fingers crossed that the same kind of mutation happens with the coronavirus. And soon. Charles Crumpley is editor and publisher of the Business Journal. He can be reached at ccrumpley@sfvbj.com.

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