There’s no facet of our lives that hasn’t been touched by the coronavirus pandemic. For the luckiest among us, attempts to curb the spread of the virus have been simply an inconvenience. For those less lucky, there’s been a big financial hit, particularly if they’ve lost their livelihoods. The unluckiest have lost loved ones or even their own lives.

The first order of business in dealing with a pandemic is saving lives, focusing on the health of citizens. But discussions quickly turn to economics, from the cost of social supports to the implications of additional lockdowns if COVID-19 cases surge.

In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, lockdowns were widespread, eventually easing off through the summer. Unemployment remains high, though levels have dropped since the early-going. Big picture, we may be seeing a microcosm of the much-older debate about the likes of the future of work, automation and universal basic incomes: the current displacement and need for redistribution of funds fit right into that discussion.

A new report from the Bank of Canada, for instance, finds business wary of what the future holds, with a weak recovery expected. About a third of companies surveyed expect sales to remain below pre-COVID levels for at least another year, with about the same surmising their workforces will remain lower over the next 12 months or to perhaps never return to previous levels.

Such concerns are mirrored in a new survey of Canadian businesses carried out by tax and advisory firm KPMG, which found 31 per cent of small- and medium-sized business owners or decision makers worry they won’t have the capital to make it through a second wave of COVID-19 if the economy craters. More than half note they’re in survival mode just now.

Some 40 per cent of businesses worry they won’t recover from the economic fallout of the pandemic.

As if the prospect of ongoing job losses wasn’t bad enough, there are signs the pandemic may be hastening a shift to automation, a trend that’s already put large swathes of the workforce in jeopardy.

Research carried out at Georgia State University earlier this year found economic shifts brought on by COVID-19 could lead to more use of artificial intelligence and automation as companies look to adopt new technologies.

“(T)he pandemic may be increasing the speed of the transition toward automation because of social distancing measures and because concerns regarding the spread of the virus have forced the creative use of digital technologies in education, business and medicine, among other industries,” reads The Future of Industry and Employment: COVID-19 Effects Exacerbate the March of Artificial Intelligence.

“While workers across the income distribution are affected by the current pandemic, industries with a large share of relatively low-wage occupations are bearing the brunt of the unemployment crisis.”

That the crisis has hit hardest those already at some disadvantage – the poor, minorities and unskilled workers among them – is beyond dispute. Those are the same groups already bearing the brunt of more established shifts in the job market, most notably where automation is replacing human labour.

Technology isn’t just about robots in the sci-fi version we picture, though there will be those with humanoid form, but a catchall term for automation. It’s a shift that promises to alter jobs, incomes and the very way we live. Whether that sees a descent into feudal squalor or finally provides for the leisure society long discussed (even as we’ve headed away from it) remains to be seen.

Much of the discussion about mitigating the downside revolves on some form of universal basic income that would at a minimum keep people afloat. That grows increasingly important as automation moves beyond replacing manual labour to pretty much every facet of employment, including professionals such as doctors, lawyers and accountants.

We’re already living in a time of flux. Increasingly, good-paying jobs have disappeared, replaced by crappy service jobs. Well, in part. Fact is, across Canada and the U.S., there are fewer real jobs even as the population increases. Where the labour hasn’t been sent offshore, high immigration levels – legal or otherwise – have been used to drive down wages and to provide fodder for our debt-driven consumer society.

Increasingly, those service jobs – crappy and even those that aren’t – that are hyped by those eager to hide the truth from us are at risk through automation. Machines have already displaced many workers, but even jobs in the hospitality industry – waiters, hotel workers, retail clerks – seem destined to be replaced in the shift to automation and robotics. A continually cited 2013 Oxford University study, for instance, predicted that machines might be able to perform half of all U.S. jobs in the next two decades.

News stories about self-driving cars and trucks are increasingly commonplace, with the corollary that job losses are likely to follow for people currently making a living behind the wheel … and the millions of others in service jobs that cater to such people (restaurants and motels along well-travelled routes, for example).

Driverless technology already exists today, destined to displace jobs such as truckers, cabbies and couriers. Driverless buses and trains will eliminate the need for transit workers, many of them an increasing burden on governments and taxpayers. 

Automated transportation, from cars to airplanes, is safer, more efficient and much less costly to operate – computers don’t fall asleep, take bathroom breaks, drink on the job or a host of other human foibles. For all those reasons, driverless is the future of transportation.

This isn’t science fiction anymore. It’s here, and the technology’s spread is inevitable. The same transformation will migrate to many fields. Not just McJobs, but into accounting, medicine, teaching and host of other jobs that now pay well, and are typically considered safe.

We’ve long been heading down a path where automation and technology – and now artificial intelligence – have replaced workers, a process that will only accelerate in today’s climate. That much seems out of our hands, but how we respond to such changes is certainly not.