I Have Seen the Future—And It’s Not the Life We Knew

Cities around the world might slowly be coming back to life, but there’s no going back to “normal.”

People look out at the city skyline from Mount Namsan in Seoul, South Korea
SongJoon Cho / Bloomberg / Getty

Last week, confined to my home in America, I glimpsed the future. Or more precisely, one of several possible post-pandemic futures.

Christopher Suzanne, an American who teaches English in Wuhan, China, took me on a tour of the city where the novel coronavirus originated, where the first lockdown was implemented, and where restrictions are now being eased as the outbreak ebbs.

On a video call, as he ran an errand around 11 p.m. on a weeknight, Suzanne showed me a largely lifeless street that would typically be bustling at that hour. He walked past dark, boarded-up storefronts; one lit-up restaurant with three empty bar stools assembled outside and some perceptible human activity inside; another restaurant with a table blocking its door and a menu planted on the sidewalk for customers wishing to place their to-go orders; a few people in masks milling about the entrance to a kebab joint.

This was not normal. “If you’re familiar with Spanish culture, they [have] the siesta during the daytime, and then they’ll come back out at night full force. That’s Wuhan culture, just without the siesta,” he explained, his voice muffled by an N95 mask.

When he caught a taxi to head home, Suzanne had to present the driver with documents detailing his health status, which were checked and photographed. When he arrived at the gated community where he lives, a masked police officer wearing gloves scanned his wrist to check his temperature before allowing him inside. Suzanne carried a card, a kind of pass to the outside world, that listed his temperature each time he left the compound. “It’s not just for taxis. It’s to leave your community. It’s to go into the hospital. It’s to go to even those small restaurants that I just showed you. If I wanted to buy something from that kebab place, I would have [had] to scan a code or show them my paperwork,” he said.

One of the strangest things about this pandemic is that while it’s afflicting the entire world, it’s doing so asynchronously, transforming countries into cautionary tales and object lessons, ghosts of outbreaks past, present, and yet to come.

As the United States engages in its own agonizing debate about how far to go in easing lockdown measures, I’ve spoken with people in China, South Korea, Austria, and Denmark to get a sense of what they’re witnessing as their countries’ respective coronavirus curves flatten, their social-distancing restrictions abate, and they venture out into life again. And although that life doesn’t look like the present nightmare those still locked in coronavirus limbo are experiencing, it doesn’t look like the pre-COVID-19 past either.

Here are some of the common themes:

There are two kinds of post-lockdown people.

Zak Dychtwald, who runs Young China Group, a consultancy focused on Chinese Millennials, noted in an email to subscribers that the coronavirus crisis has sown “fear that the careful balance of our lives—personal, financial, or otherwise—can be broken at a moment’s notice.” Dychtwald has observed two types of responses to that fear, based on interviews he’s done with Chinese contacts over WeChat and his reading of Chinese sources.

Some people, who skew younger, are taking the “YOLO” approach of enjoying life while they can because “tomorrow isn’t promised.” They’re eating out, hanging out, “revenge shopping,” traveling. “In the last few days Chinese friends in Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu have sent video[s] of dense crowds drinking and partying hard on club dance floors,” he wrote. But others, especially those walloped by the economic toll of the lockdown, have resolved to “live cautiously” because “life is fragile.”

People wearing masks walk over a bridge near the Yeouido district of Seoul. (Ed Jones / AFP / Getty)

Sujin Chun, a staff writer who covers global affairs for the South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo, told me that bars, restaurants, and public transportation are filling up again in the country, which has one of the world’s best test-and-trace systems for COVID-19 and never had to go into full lockdown. Still, she added, “We are very well aware that it is not time to relax and [think], Things are normal now; let’s party. It’s not like that.”

In Austria, many companies are continuing to urge employees to work remotely if they can, even though nothing prohibits them from returning to the office, Thomas Czypionka, a health-policy expert at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna, told me. When restrictions first eased, many people headed to big home-improvement stores—suggesting they were still contemplating spending a lot of time at home—rather than to newly reopened smaller shops where avoiding close contact with others is difficult.

Gradual reopenings can send unintended signals.

When the Danish government recently reopened day cares, kindergartens, and primary schools after its lockdown, Séamus Power and Merlin Schaeffer, both professors at the University of Copenhagen, noticed something interesting. The government had made the move in part because Denmark has the highest share of working mothers among developed nations, and keeping young kids at home with two parents working full-time was exacting too high a cost on productivity. But many Danes seemed to see the move as a sign that the public-health threat posed by the coronavirus was subsiding. They flocked outdoors on the subsequent weekend to enjoy the spring weather, jogging and gathering in small groups in parks and public spaces.

“It’s full sunshine, some people have shorts … The parks are blooming … Everything feels like a new beginning. It’s not. We all know it’s not,” said Schaeffer, who is working with Power and other colleagues on a study of the impact of social-distancing policies on everyday routines, mental health, and family life. Their preliminary survey results suggest that people are gradually shedding practices such as frequent hand-washing, keeping social distance, and staying at home. Yet Schaeffer noted that COVID-19 cases in the country have increased from hundreds before lockdown to thousands today, “so the probability to get it is much higher now than it has ever been.” Nevertheless, people are latching onto any opportunity to extrapolate normalcy from the reopening of schools, hair salons, massage parlors, and small shops. Just “because the schools open, doesn’t mean you should stop washing your hands,” Schaeffer told me.

“People are going to keep interpreting this tiptoe back to normality in a more extreme way than it’s intended by the government,” Power said. “This has to be one of the next big challenges of the unfolding crisis around the world: when things start to open, how people are subjectively understanding this.”

Life returns in dribs and drabs, and the new normal is not the old normal.

Many of the people I spoke with described returning to a slippery sense of normalcy, a post-lockdown life that looked like the life they used to lead but failed that test upon closer inspection.

Parents and children wait to get inside Stengaard School north of Copenhagen, Denmark. (Ólafur Steinar Gestsson / Ritzau Scanpix / AFP / Getty)

Yes, schools are now open again in Denmark. But Power and Schaeffer described an alien, atomized environment of outdoor classes, hourly hand-washing, and fewer teachers. “The kids are not allowed to touch each other, to play together, to embrace each other, to do high fives, things like that,” Schaeffer said. “There’s only one child per table, because normally you have two kids sitting [at] one, two-person table.”

Chun, in Seoul, said she’s now taking public transportation again. But when she once forgot to wear a mask on the bus, she got aggressive stares. “I sort of get it myself. Because this is a time to be extra careful,” she said. Chun is back at the newsroom, but with guards at the entrances to take people’s temperature and hand sanitizer everywhere. She is receiving fewer emergency text messages from the government than she did at the height of the outbreak in South Korea, but they’re still a presence in her life: She’d recently received one confirming another COVID-19 case in her neighborhood and alerting her to which restaurants in the area he had visited. She had “mixed feelings” about the messages, which provided helpful information but also had an unnerving “Big Brother” feel to them. Some people say “now is [the] time for Big Brother, for protection,” she said.

Justin Lovett, an American freelance videographer and photographer in South Korea, worries that people are more suspicious of him in public now because the main remaining transmission pathway for the virus in the country is through foreigners traveling there. He’s back to being shoulder to shoulder with people on the subway, but he makes sure to wear a mask and avoids coughing or sneezing, “because I know everyone’s noticed me already.”

Children wear masks while playing at the zoo in Wuhan, China. (Getty)

In Wuhan, the city is coming alive again, Suzanne told me when I checked in with him this week. Trains, highways, and buses are humming anew and people venture out more. Yet many businesses have not reopened, many people (including Suzanne and his wife) are still working from home, many restaurants are still open only for takeout, and the local economy is still a shadow of its former self. “There’s a lot of traffic, but looking around, I just don’t know where these people are going,” he said.

"I don’t want people to think Wuhan is this booming city again, and everyone’s ready to go, and the economy is roaring,” he added. “No, it’s 20 to 30 percent open for business. Maybe 70 percent of people are outside."

Living in the shadow of another wave is scary.

To ease restrictions, at least for some time, is to fly blind. Once lockdowns are loosened, the coronavirus’s long incubation period means governments won’t detect any resultant increase in infection rates for many days, Czypionka explained. That’s why the Austrian government is lifting its lockdown in phases. “Until we have substantial immunity, either through infection or vaccination, social distancing and masks on some occasions will accompany us for a year or more,” he told me.

On the Friday afternoon after schools reopened in Denmark, Power sat on a park bench with a colleague and had a beer. “We talked about everything except coronavirus,” and it gave him “a sense of hope that things are opening and maybe a model of how things might look. But if I think about it intellectually, I’m more cautious.” Schaeffer interjected. It could be “a false sense of hope,” he noted. After all, the Danish government has indicated that some social-distancing measures will stay in place until the end of the year and that life might shut down again if infection rates increase. “We will not reach pre-corona life” in 2020, he said.

As Dychtwald sees it, both the carefree and cautious responses to post-lockdown life in China are informed by the specter of a second wave of the virus. “The first are having fun in what feels like [it] could be the eye of the storm. The second are battening down the hatches,” he wrote.

A couple lies on the grass in the garden of Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria. (Getty)

Suzanne said that although he’s still fearful of the virus, he “can’t be inside locked up” for long. Nevertheless, he’s not spending time with friends, in part because there are few places to meet, but also because everyone knows this ordeal isn’t over. The government is still sending texts with messages such as “‘wash your hands, be afraid, the second wave may be coming,’ so everyone is kind of expecting this second wave. And we definitely don’t want to be a part of it,” he explained.

“In the very beginning of the lockdown you start thinking, Oh, this is just a quick thing; it’s just like a hurricane; it’ll be done in a couple of days,” Suzanne continued. “And then a couple of weeks into it, you start reading into conspiracy theories and rabbit holes, and then you get past that point, and you’re talking with your group-chat buddies and they’re sharing their cooking videos, and how they’re using beer and ketchup to cook food, just to make jokes. And then it gets to this point like, okay, this is getting old … when is it going to go back” to normal?

If Suzanne, in Wuhan, is asking that question, then what does it mean for those of us on the other side of the world still very much in the midst of our outbreaks? More than four months into the worst pandemic in a century, no one can predict whether we’ll ever return to something like the life we used to know.