How The Coronavirus Pandemic Could Play Out In 6 Months, According To Experts

JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP/Getty Images

Since news of the coronavirus broke in December 2019, chances are you've been refreshing Twitter, Instagram, and live coverage pages nonstop. With this hyper-vigilance and a focus on the present, it's hard to even conceptualize how the coronavirus pandemic could play out six months from now. The reality is that this is a new experience for all of us, so references are limited.

As the world comes up on three months since the initial COVID-19 outbreak was reported in Wuhan, China, experts can hypothesize where another six months will lead us. Here's how they say the coronavirus pandemic could impact mental health, the economy, the environment, school systems, and the medical system down the road.

Coronavirus' Lasting Impact On Mental Health

Dr. Norman Fried, Ph.D, a PTSD and disease specialist and professor at Columbia University, tells Bustle that people could be more susceptible to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) over the next six months as a result of the virus. "The outbreak will be a traumatic experience for many," Dr. Fried explains. According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is an "emotional response to a terrible event" that can include flashbacks, unpredictable emotions, trouble sleeping, and headaches in the longterm. As both the APA and Dr. Fried note, it's also possible to experience trauma without realizing it. Layoffs at work, food rationing, and social isolation can all be traumatic to individuals.

Even once shelter-in-place orders end, he suggests things won't return to normal right away. "People will be waiting for more bad news, flashbacks, reminders of initial fears of the event itself." Additionally, after noticing a number of new patients signing up for appointments, he suspects there will be a surge in remote therapy over the next six months. One of the most important stress reduction tools right now, he says, is simply knowing the facts around the coronavirus.

How Coronavirus Will Affect The Economy

"Buckle your seat belts," Dr. Paul J. Zak, Ph.D, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, says to Bustle. Not because it's necessarily going to be a long ride, but rather a "bumpy ride, in the short term." Despite the fact that people are rushing to companies like Amazon for hand sanitizer and quarantine essentials, Dr. Zak says the retail economy will take a big hit over the next six months. While online shopping is still an option, he points out that studies show a majority of shoppers spend more money when they're physically in the store.

As for the plummeting stock market, it's doing exactly what it's supposed to do according to Dr. Zak, and will hopefully level out soon. "The standard way companies are valued is by the income they're expected to accrue, so if theres a change in the short-run, it can, and should affect it," he says. Things don't look so great right now, but it's possible the market will bounce back in the longterm. In fact, the uptick in employees working from home could even help offset certain economic losses. "Data suggests that people who WFH work an extra hour on average," Dr. Zak explains. "So, there could even be a financial boom due to the increase of telecommuting."

How Coronavirus Will Impact The Environment & Pollution Levels

If you've seen NASA's maps of nitrogen dioxide density levels in Wuhan, China on Jan. 1 vs. Feb. 25 after coronavirus spread, you know the pandemic is already affecting pollution levels. "Nitrogen-dioxide is produced during combustion from motorized traffic," Dr. Fabienne Krauer, Ph.D, an epidemiology researcher at University of Oslo, tells Bustle. "So the lock-down has effectively reduced pedestrian mobility and motorized mobility." And this isn't just happening in China. A study conducted in Italy using residents' phone data showed coronavirus lockdowns reduced mobility by at least 50%, leading to a drop in nitrogen dioxide emissions there as well. The question, Dr. Krauer points out, is how long these trends will last.

While she thinks the world will return to standard pollution levels after the coronavirus pandemic ends, Dr. Nils Christian Stenseth, Ph.D, an evolutionary biologist and professor at the University of Oslo in Norway, hopes the experience has a lasting impression, especially on those who travel often for work. "Let us hope that we all realize that we can have virtual meetings rather than travel long distances," Dr. Stenseth tells Bustle. "If so, this pandemic might indeed have had a very positive effect on our continued environmental footprint."

What Schools Closing Due To Coronavirus Means For Students

With thousands of schools closed because of coronavirus, and students studying from home, Andrew Karas, MSEd, MBA, the executive director of Springboard Collective, an educational organization and collective dedicated to closing the literacy gap, is concerned. He tells Bustle the lost classroom time will make it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to "address the rigorous standards and benchmarks that students are expected to reach."

To make up for such setbacks should these closures extend through the end of the school year, Karas thinks summer vacation and weekends could start looking very different six months out or even sooner. Specifically, he says, schools might repurpose summer vacation as a "mandated learning opportunity" and enforce extended school days and even weekend learning during the next school year.

At the same time, Karas points out that it's not just about the academic side of things. "When schools close their doors, the act disproportionately affects students and families living in poverty, who rely on schools for learning, safety, and nourishment, among other things," Karas explains. There's already a gap between schools in wealthier vs. poorer districts when it comes to quality of education and resources available to students. With schools closing around the country and falling behind, he's worried this gap will grow even wider. "It will take substantial investments from local, state, and federal governments to address this gap now and once schools are back up and running," Karas says.

How Coronavirus Could Continue To Overwhelm Hospitals

In six months, we could be close to a vaccine, at the very least, according to Dr. Guenter B. Risse, Ph.D, MD, author and American Association for the History of Medicine Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. "The virus will be identified in all its molecular splendor, protein by protein, enzyme by enzyme, to create blocking agents and vaccine," he tells Bustle. "This should happen earlier than predicted because the new viral structure is a cousin of the previous agent responsible for SARS."

As for how hospitals will be handling the cases, Dr. Risse says, "I am certain that hospital care will be significantly compromised because of chronic shortages: caregiving personnel, number of beds, and equipment. Rationing care is probable." A topic that isn't getting a lot of attention right now is how non-coronavirus patients are being cared for with such limited staff, rooms, and resources. According to Dr. Risse, those patients will "be part of the collateral damage because of delayed treatments and surgeries."

Even if a vaccine is proven to be effective, he explains, the situation might not change until that vaccine becomes widely available to the public. In other words, the vaccine needs to be affordable and easy to access.

How Pandemics End

In order for the pandemic to be downgraded, Dr. Risse says that there needs to be a gradual decline in new reported cases. Cases could go down if new medications are developed, if vaccines are approved, or even if more people develop immunities. According to the WHO, the case numbers must drop down to typical seasonal influenza numbers in order to be considered post-pandemic.

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Bustle’s coverage of coronavirus here.

Experts:

​Dr. Norman Fried, Ph.D, PTSD and disease specialist and professor at Columbia University

Dr. Paul J. Zak, Ph.D, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies,

Dr. Nils Christian Stenseth, Ph.D, evolutionary biologist and professor at the University of Oslo in Norway

Dr. Fabienne Krauer, Ph.D, researcher at University of Oslo

Andrew Karas, MSEd, MBA, executive director of Springboard Collective

Dr. Guenter B. Risse, Ph.D, MD, author and American Association for the History of Medicine Lifetime Achievement Award recipient