We Never Saw It Coming

Unexpected patterns due to the pandemic.

Posted Dec 06, 2020

My wife suddenly took up doing puzzles. Our daughters surprised us by gifting us a stationary bike to use at home even though we are both members of a health club. One of our daughters recently bought two tandem kayaks to use by the whole family. I have seen more people out walking or riding their bikes than before the pandemic. These are just some of the changes that we never saw coming or could have anticipated a year ago. These new patterns of our family activities were due to, no surprise, the pandemic.

Some patterns of human behavior can of course be predicted.  Based on past trends and from studies of past epidemics and pandemics, we can observe that the media, public health officials, and government leaders respond similarly.

Courtesy of the Bulb Club.
Figure 1 Patterns of human behavior can be predicted from past pandemics.
Source: Courtesy of the Bulb Club.

Their responses follow four stages of grief, beginning first with denial, and then moving to the second stage of panic, the third stage of fear, and, if all goes well, the fourth stage and a rational response (Greenfeld, 2020). Throughout history, whenever a new microbial killer emerges, we go through each of these stages, beginning when government officials insist that there is no outbreak.   

During the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 and despite the government’s denial, panicked shoppers found the grocery market shelves stripped of paper goods and other essentials. Panic was followed by fear. Schools transformed from in-person to online learning. Masks were mandated.

As we learned more about the nature of the virus, sources of infection, and means of transmission, the public became more realistic about the personal risks and how to protect against infection. Now, preparations are being made to vaccinate millions of people worldwide.  

The response to the pandemic has unwittingly produced some other large-scale, though less conspicuous, effects. It has presented researchers with a rare opportunity to study the modern world under some truly bizarre conditions, and they are scrambling to collect as much data as they can. The pandemic is being felt across land, air, and sea.

Have you noticed how much quieter the world is? With so many people staying home—and public-transit agencies cutting service as a result—there is significantly less noise from cars, buses, trains, and other transportation. I now recognize birds singing all day long, something I only experienced in the early morning.

Paula Koelemeijer can feel the world around her growing quieter as well. Koelemeijer, a seismologist, has a miniature seismometer sitting on a concrete slab at the base of her first-floor fireplace. Since the United Kingdom announced stricter social-distancing rules last month, telling residents not to leave their homes, the seismometer has registered a sharp decrease in the vibrations produced by human activity. Right now, daytime in London resembles Christmas Day. (Koren, 2020).

COVID-19 has reduced economic activity, which in turn has reduced pollution and saved lives. As cities and, in some cases, entire nations weather the pandemic under lockdown, Earth-observing satellites have detected a significant decrease in the concentration of a common air pollutant, nitrogen dioxide, which enters the atmosphere through emissions from cars, trucks, buses, and power plants.

Courtesy of Olena Zaskochenko  Shutterstock.
Figure 2 Covid-19 has reduced economic activity, which has in turn reduced air pollution and saved lives.
Source: Courtesy of Olena Zaskochenko Shutterstock.

The cleaner air could lead to a brief respite in parts of the world with severe air pollution even as they battle the coronavirus. According to an analysis by Marshall Burke, a professor in Stanford’s Earth-system science department, a pandemic-related reduction in particulate matter in the atmosphere—the deadliest form of air pollution—likely saved the lives of 4,000 young children and 73,000 elderly adults in China over two months this year (Koren, 2020).

America’s eating patterns were abruptly interrupted by the COVID-19 outbreak. According to David Portalatin, the NPD Group’s food industry advisor and author of Eating Patterns in America, “I couldn’t have imagined when we released last year’s Eating Patterns in America that this year’s report would be telling the story it is.” For several years, 80 percent of meals have been sourced from home and 20 percent sourced from restaurants and other foodservice outlets. During the pandemic, the gap has widened to as much as 87 percent of meals sourced from home (NPD, 2020).

Due to depreciation, prices listed for used vehicles typically decrease over time. Data provided by Edmunds.com reveal that the average listing price for all used vehicles climbed to $21,558 in July 2020, marking a $708 increase compared to June. (Edmunds.com, 2020).  

transport Courtesy of Anasuya Basu, The Telegraph
Figure 3 The used car business expect car sales to rise as people will prefer personal vehicles to public transportation.
Source: transport Courtesy of Anasuya Basu,The Telegraph

Online used car sellers have gained from customers' thinking twice before gripping a subway pole or jumping into an Uber pool. Consequently, the demand for buying a used car, and its cost have increased (D'Souza, 2020).  

More groceries, less gas. The pandemic is sparking big changes in how we spend money. My wife was startled by the prices of meats and other groceries during her last trip to the supermarket. "During the pandemic, people are consuming a lot more food, particularly at home, and a lot less transportation and recreation goods," Harvard University economist Alberto Cavallo said. "When you take into account these changes in consumption patterns, it turns out inflation levels are significantly higher. (Horsley, 2020)."

While they have not closed the gap with women, men are doing more domestic work during the pandemic than they did before it. “Across the board, whether it’s dishwashing, laundry, childcare, reading to kids, physical care, we’re seeing a universal movement toward more egalitarian sharing,” said Dan Carlson, a sociologist at the University of Utah and author of a study showing men doing more housework and childcare than before the pandemic. (Swenson, 2020)

Given that COVID-19 will be the most significant event of this decade, the changes will likely persist for years beyond now.


D'Souza, D. (2020, August 6). Used Car Prices Spike Amid Inventory Shortages. Retrieved from Investopedia: https://www.investopedia.com/used-car-prices-spike-amid-inventory-shortages-5073915

Edmunds.com. (2020, August 5). Used Vehicle Prices Are on the Rise During the Coronavirus Pandemic, According to Edmunds. Retrieved from Cision- PR Newswire: https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/used-vehicle-prices-are-on-the-rise-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic-according-to-edmunds-301106479.html

Greenfeld, K. T. (2020, March 5). The Pattern That Epidemics Always Follow. The Atlantic, pp. 1-8.

Horsley, S. (2020, September 11). More Groceries, Less Gas: The Pandemic Is Shaking Up The Cost Of Living. Retrieved from NPR (National Public Radio): https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/09/11/911880715/more-groceries-less-gas-the-pandemic-is-shaking-up-the-cost-of-living

Koren, M. (2020, April 2). Pandemic Turning the World Upside Down. The Atlantic.

NPD. (2020, November 24). The COVID-19 Pandemic Causes Eating Patterns in America to Take a Sharp Turn. Retrieved from NPD Prepared Foods: https://www.preparedfoods.com/articles/124797-the-covid-19-pandemic-causes-eating-patterns-in-america-to-take-a-sharp-turn

Swenson, B. S. (2020, June 17). An unexpected upside to lockdown: men have discovered housework. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/17/gender-roles-parenting-housework-coronavirus-pandemic