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Elizabeth Merritt, on Forecasting 2022

Cover image from “Pandemie 2019 – 2023” by Ranier Bartel.

Elizabeth Merritt, Forecasting 2022, Part 1: Waves Ahead, American Alliance of Museums, 14 December 2021

I’d hoped to be forecasting the post-COVID future by this point, but that apparently wasn’t in the cards. (Forgive me a little futurist Tarot humor.) Instead, it’s entirely possible that 2022 will become Year Three of the COVID-19 pandemic. That being so, your foresight, and mine, needs to remain firmly focused on the uncertainties of the near-term time horizon. In this post, I offer some encouragement and advice for your COVID strategy next year and introduce a new set of scenarios to prime your planning. I will complete this set with two more scenarios in the new year and cap the series with a discussion of trends likely to have a strong impact on museums in the coming year, looking at critical issues in labor, technology, education, travel and tourism, and the civic realm. Will this pandemic end? Yes. The virus will never disappear, but most likely it will eventually fade into the background, becoming an endemic disease, like the annual flu. But it may take a full year or more to get to that point. Meanwhile, hang in there and know that we can make it through by taking care of one another.

–Elizabeth Merritt, VP Strategic Foresight and Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums, American Alliance of Museums

Why You Should Update Your COVID-19 Scenarios

Since March 2020, when I published AAM’s first set of COVID scenarios, I’ve been emphasizing the importance of foresight as a tool for navigating the massive uncertainties around how and when the pandemic will play out. Uncertainty is exhausting, I know. It would be such a relief to simply write and implement a plan for next year, instead of scanning the news every morning to revisit your decisions.

Unfortunately, we need to sit with discomfort for a while longer. Even a month ago the US seemed to be on track to contain the Delta variant with an emphasis on vaccination and continued masking; now, with Delta not yet under control, the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus is sweeping the world. First detected in Botswana and South Africa in November, it already accounts for 40 percent of new infections in London and has been detected in 30 US states. The World Health Organization’s recent statement on Omicron emphasizes how much we don’t know about the variant, including transmissibility, severity of disease caused by an infection, and effectiveness of existing vaccines. Even if Omicron turns out to be a minor threat, overall, it illustrates the ability of the virus to mutate, with unvaccinated populations in the US and abroad, (not to mention domestic populations of deer), serving as potential incubators for new variants.

Given that we’re still deep in a zone of multiple possibilities, the best strategy for guiding your organization safely through the coming months is to spend some of your precious cognitive and emotional energy creating a few scenarios about what the year might be like (or updating your existing scenario set). Using scenarios can help you create plans that can adapt to conditions as the future unfolds. This can take the form of contingency plans—knowing what you will do as key variables become defined. Best case, you will be able to identify some strategies that can succeed under most or all of the conditions your scenarios explore.  And collapsing the uncertainties we face into a few stories that encompass the most important variables can help you to manage your personal and organizational stress while remaining open to change.

To get you started, over the next few weeks I will publish three COVID scenarios exploring 2022. All lie firmly within the boundaries of the Cone of Plausibility, and though they are not trying to predict the future, the world we inhabit in another year may well contain elements of each. If you use the scenarios for your planning (rather than writing your own from scratch) I recommend you tailor them for your local conditions, taking into account what you know about your community’s systems of health care, education, and government. For example, COVID aside, your neighbors may be coping with challenges such as rising rates of homelessness, violent crime, drought, the opioid epidemic, poverty, or violence against women, AAPI, and LGBTQIA+ individuals. Even when faced with the same situation, two communities may respond very differently depending on their histories, experience, politics, and world views—consider these factors in forecasting how your local officials, neighbors, and audience are likely to behave.

2022 Scenario One: A Third Year of Waves

Over the course of 2022, Omicron turned out to be highly transmissible as well as being able to evade some of the protection afforded by two doses of vaccine. While booster shots strengthen protection, they were not 100 percent effective and some breakthrough cases still occurred. The resulting infections were often milder than the worst outcomes of the initial waves of COVID-19, but the sheer number of cases still resulted in high numbers of hospitalizations and some local shortages of ICU beds. As the year progressed, a new “variant of concern” was detected about once every three months, on average, triggering the reassessment of the efficacy of existing tests and vaccines, and reconsideration of the need for government mandates regarding vaccinations, masking, and limits on public activities. With over half of doctors and nurses suffering from burnout, and two-thirds reporting damage to their mental health, record numbers left the profession in 2022, increasing the strain on remaining health care workers.

In the face of the clear, continued risk from repeated waves of COVID-19, the world entered a period of hard, extended lockdown. With public fears about contagion outweighing the economic concerns, countries around the world imposed or reimposed stringent restrictions on travel, mandating testing and vaccination for people crossing their borders, in some cases forcing organizers to cancel international events. These actions firmly aligned with the comfort zone of travelers, many of whom made destination choices based on health and safety data, often choosing local vacations, and passing up the usual star attractions to seek out less crowded, more personalized experiences.

Consider: how would another year of limited travel and tourism impact your organization? How might you capitalize on a rise in “staycations” or a desire for less crowded destinations?

The Beijing Olympics offered a clear and early signal of these travel concerns. When the winter games kicked off on February 4, the “diplomatic boycott” by the US, UK, and Australia went almost unnoticed, as most countries chose to send few or no political representatives to the games due to COVID concerns. Almost 15 percent of athletes missed their competitions due to travel restrictions, positive COVID tests, or because they have been unable or unwilling to meet the event’s vaccine or quarantine requirements.

In the US, while some local governments continue to resist mandates, the extended impact of the pandemic led most states and cities to support mask and vaccine requirements. And although legal challenges continue to arise, in most cases judges issued exemptions that allowed mandates to be enforced while cases worked their way through the courts. One of the bright spots of 2022 was an emerging bipartisan consensus* that united action was needed to prevent the US death toll from surpassing 900 thousand.

Consider: in 2022, what will your organization’s policy be regarding vaccination and masking for staff and visitors? What decisions (by parent organizations, or local, state, or federal government) may constrain your choices?

As the public settled in for an extended stint of home-bound entertainment, “ghost kitchens” and food delivery services thrived while almost one fifth of place-based restaurants shuttered permanently. Sales of VR headsets grew 150 percent, and by the end of 2022, 30 percent of people in the US were using VR on a regular basis. The film industry, giving up on the hope of a robust return to theaters anytime soon, has embraced a “digital first” approach to content production, and movie theaters, along with live performance venues, increasingly booked their sites to groups, filling their socially distanced seats with people who feel relatively comfortable with one another. These “buy out the house” bookings have been especially popular with self-assembled groups of friends and families, and companies who want to provide opportunities for staff, largely working remotely, to interact with their colleagues. Several large retail chains, notably Whole Foods and Target, implemented “timed ticketing” to control crowding while avoiding the inconvenience and frustration of lines.

Consider: How can your organization serve the demand for virtual experiences in 2022? Can you build income around digital products and services sufficient to sustain your staff for another lean year? How can you foster a sense of safety around in-person visitation, for example, by providing exclusive times to groups?

Building on experiments begun in late 2021, many school districts limited return to the classrooms in order to combat teacher burnout and stem the tide of educators leaving the profession. Common adaptations included adding more half days of school, continuing to combine in-person and virtual instruction, extending holiday breaks, and increasing pay for full-time and substitute teachers. While these efforts had modest success in lowering stress for educators, they increased the burden on parents, and contributed to the increasing number of women who dropped out of the workforce.

Consider: How might your museum support teachers, parents, and students navigating another year of disrupted learning? Can you offer programs that help fill the time freed up by half-days and early closures? Can you offer space and staff support for students who need quiet spaces and good connectivity for successful remote learning?

One of the trending terms in the news in 2021 was the “Great Resignation,” referring to the phenomenon of workers leaving their jobs, particularly low-wage, high risk work, and either choosing to remain unemployed, or finding better jobs in other sectors. This put significant pressure on employers to raise pay, improve benefits, and offer other incentives to retain their workforce and attract new hires. While at the end of 2021, less than half of US workers earned a living wage, over the next twelve months this figure rose by half, and by the end of 2022 nearly three quarters of American workers earned enough to pay for adequate food, housing, healthcare, transportation, childcare, retirement savings, taxes, with a little extra to deal with  unexpected events.

This employment landscape empowered workers to exert control over their work environment as well. Over two thirds of office workers strongly preferred to work from home, and their interest, in many cases, aligned with those of their organizations. As many employers indefinitely postponed plans to return to the office, nearly three-quarters of companies shifted some employees to remote work long term, with no plans to end the arrangement when the pandemic eventually recedes, choosing instead to downsize offices and save on rent.

Consider: how might your organization support staff, and reduce turnover, in a third year of pandemic stress? Are you monitoring the long-term impact of the crisis on staff at all levels, and how can you mitigate that impact through your policies, procedures, wages, and benefits? How will a shift to remote work affect your local community and its economy?

In December 2022, three companies announced that new “pan-COVID” vaccines were in the testing and approval stage. By December 31, the number of eligible individuals in the US who had received at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine had reached 85 percent, and 65 percent of people ages 12 and up were fully vaccinated including a booster dose. With these developments, a number of prominent research labs and epidemiologists expressed cautious optimism, with the January cover of the Atlantic magazine boldly declaring 2023 “The Year of Recovery.”

Some of the data foreshadowing this scenario

(Follow the links embedded in the text above for more news stories that serve as “signals” of this potential future.)

Travel and tourism: A Flash Eurobarometer study about the attitudes of Europeans towards tourism carried out by Ipsos European Public Affairs on behalf of the European Commission has shown that the vast majority of European Union citizens expect that the COVID-19 pandemic will have some long-term effects on their travel behaviour. 38 percent expect that the pandemic will result in more holidays in their own country and less travelling overall; 24 per cent of the respondents think that the COVID-19 pandemic will have an impact on their destination country selection.

Education and schools: Surveys released by the National Education Association in June, 2021, showed that 32 percent of respondents planned to leave the profession earlier than expected, due to the pandemic, and a survey by the RAND Corporation reported that one quarter of school teachers said they might leave their jobs by the end of the school year.

Employment and wages: 32 percent of small business owners report they are increasing salaries for existing staff in response to difficulty in attracting new hires (Kabbage Small Business Recovery Report, August 2021). Of the 125 million full-time jobs in America, 50% can be done remotely working from home; of those 60 million potential WFH employees 30 percent say they would prefer to never come into the office (Gallup, 2021).

* the “emerging bipartisan consensus” is the most implausible element of this scenario, but I wanted to challenge readers to think about how it might become more plausible.

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