There is no doubt that, all over the world, life will not immediately return to normal the moment the pandemic is contained. It’s not just that it’s impossible to shut almost an entire country down for a month and then simply restart it on a dime; it’s that social norms and behaviors that we took for granted for years are likely to change for good. Many may presume that, since the instances of the coronavirus have been far fewer per capita in most rural areas than in urban areas, there won’t be many permanent changes – but that’s probably a false hope.

The question will be, here in Maine and all over the world, which changes are permanent, which are temporary and whether they’re ultimately good or bad. We saw this most recently after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Some changes were very short-term, but others were more lasting, both positive and negative. One of the positive changes that came into place after 9/11 was the increasing ability of different law enforcement agencies, at both the state and local level, to work together to keep us safe. Unfortunately, after the 9/11 attacks we also saw endless foreign wars that unnecessarily cost thousands of lives on an often-flimsy justification.

Similarly, there will be societal benefits that are retained after the pandemic is over. For one, hopefully we as a country will get better at long-term planning – notoriously a weak spot in our history that’s frequently gotten us in trouble in the past. Also, if we all continue to improve our consistency in washing our hands, we may cut down on the spread of future disease. That could save lives not only from new diseases in the future, but also even from the seasonal flu that annually sweeps across the country.

Other changes being put in place temporarily during the emergency could be positive in the long term if they were maintained, and we should be open to that possibility. One of those changes that could be positive would be the increased willingness of companies to allow employees to work from home. If so, that could prove to be a long-term boon to Maine’s economy, as it would allow more people to live here while working for a major company in a large city.

That’s often the best of both worlds for not only the employees and their families, but also the company they work for and their community as well. If that new resident is treated well and gets involved in the community, the smaller community benefits both from expanding their tax base and by the presence of a talented resident who could never otherwise find sufficient employment locally. The company benefits not only from having an employee who’s happier and, therefore, more productive, but also from consuming fewer resources at their physical headquarters. The employee benefits from living in Maine, just like all of us are right now, and by cutting down on their time spent commuting, giving them more time to be with their family.

This increased adoption of telecommuting may also make it easier for young people to return home to Maine sooner than they would have otherwise. Politicians across the political spectrum have long decried the state’s “brain drain,” where younger, talented Mainers leave for better-paying jobs in large cities and never return, or come back only when they’re old enough to retire. That’s creating a demographic problem where retirees are flocking here while young people are fleeing, contributing to both a slow rate of growth overall and an aging population.

Although our immediate focus has to be on saving lives and mitigating the damage, rather than long-term planning, this disease is a seminal event that will leave a changed world in its wake. As soon as it’s possible, we should be considering how our communities, and our lives, might change in the future.

It would be wise to consider an investment in expanding broadband all over the state, if it can be done in a fiscally responsible way, so that it’s easier for more Mainers to work and learn from home. That’s something that we should have done long before the current emergency, but it’s not an issue that we can afford to ignore for much longer. Indeed, the very future of Maine may depend on finding a reasonable solution to that problem, if we want to preserve as much of our current way of life as possible.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins.
He can be contacted at: [email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel

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