The winners coming out of COVID: where are they now?

Zoom, leisure travel, telemedicine, and cannabis use all exploded during the pandemic, but which of these continue to grow? Center Director Jeffrey Cole digs into the data from the COVID Reset Project.

By Jeffrey Cole

In this column, using data coming out of the Center’s COVID Reset Project, we continue looking at the winners coming out of COVID in 2021, and how they have fared since.

Have the winners seen their positions improve, stay the same, or even become losers?

Zoom: No company rivaled the success of Zoom during the pandemic. Others, such as Amazon, may have made more money, but it was a trillion dollar company before we were all stuck at home. Zoom rose from an obscure service almost no one had ever heard of to the system that made work and school from home possible. Even though there were other services already established such as WebEx, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams, Zoom epitomized remote work. In four weeks, it went from anonymity to a verb. Nothing like that had ever happened before.

Of course, there was pushback against something we were forced to use, sometimes for eight hours a day. Zoom fatigue came fast. We tired of people showing up late, or refusing to turn on their camera, or turn off their microphones when they were taking to people not in the conference. Many could not wait never to do another Zoom call.

As we expected, the COVID Reset Project data shows that time on Zoom declined as many returned to the office three or more days per week. But corporations maintained their Zoom subscriptions. It was too valuable a service to cancel. Individual, free accounts remained steady.

Zoom came from nowhere and changed our lives and our vocabulary. How much we use it has changed, but it remains a constant and important presence in our lives. It is what makes working from home possible several days or more a week. Zoom has maintained its position as a winner.

Leisure Travel: During the height of COVID, few of us traveled any further than we could reach in a car, and many were uncomfortable staying in hotels when we got there. That’s why the sales of RVs skyrocketed. We were confined, talking to the same people and looking at the same four walls for a year or more. We desperately needed to escape.

As people grew more comfortable leaving home (at first with masks), we looked for any possible way to get away. It didn’t matter where it was so long as it was far from where we were imprisoned during the worst days of the pandemic.

While business travel was deeply affected (and still is), leisure travel exploded—along with high prices and crowds. Journalists described the desperate need for millions to get away as “revenge travel.” We sought to make up for all the anxiety and fear we suffered during lockdown.

Hotels and airlines wanted to recover some of the nearly complete loss of revenue during 2020. Air tickets and hotels prices were the highest they had ever been. Hotels cited the pandemic (sometimes true, often not) for lack of food service and housekeeping. Of course, the hotels did not cut their prices to reflect the lack of service. Car rental companies, worried about maintaining large fleets when everyone was at home, sold off their cars. When demand returned, there were few if any vehicles to rent, and prices leapt into the stratosphere.

We launched the COVID Reset Project because we knew immediately that the pandemic would change nearly every aspect of human life. Knowing this, we got into the field at the start of COVID to capture a baseline before things changed. We’ve gone back into the field every quarter for three years, amassing a priceless and actionable longitudinal data set.

It took two years, but high prices—and the fact that we got travel fever out of our systems—has now led to what analysts feel is a return to normal leisure travel demand and costs. Prices this fall for air travel seem to have fallen back to Earth. Not so much for hotels. The position for leisure travel has largely been maintained.

Telemedicine: Like giving up cash, telemedicine was one of those changes many people did not want. We were forced into it because, in many cases, it was the only way to deal with the medical system. Hospitals were full of COVID cases; many doctors closed their offices. Elective procedures were canceled for as much as a year. It was a terrible time to have any other medical needs when almost all attention was on COVID.

Even if the thought of meeting with our doctor through Zoom felt impersonal and unsatisfying, it was the only game in town. Reluctantly, many of us used telemedicine because there were no other options.

Surprisingly to many who resisted it, telemedicine was a pretty good substitute. Over 75% of patients have used telemedicine or will consider it. Over 85% were satisfied with their medical experience online. They liked not having to commute and pay for parking. Even more, they liked not sitting in a waiting room (often with sick and contagious patients).

Of course, many had conditions that required physical exams. Those visits had to wait until it was safe to be inside a medical building and around doctors and nurses. Tragically, some people died, or they discovered that they had a serious disease only after they could see their doctors, or they discovered their conditions had seriously worsened.

As soon as it was safe, those who needed to be seen in person made appointments and went to the office. They were joined by the 10-15% who didn’t require a personal exam but were unwilling to try telemedicine.

Most people realized that telemedicine had become an important tool; the positives far outweighed the negatives. Just as most have adopted a hybrid model combining working from home and the office, we too have built hybrid models for medicine. Now, we decide which problems require us to commute to the doctor’s office, wait for an exam, and get a diagnosis. More of us take that first step through a computer or phone screen.

Many of those digital visits result in the doctor wanting the patient to come to the office. But then we know there is a reason to get in the car, park, wait and see the doctor. Since we have eliminated many in-person visits, we now do blood tests, vaccinations, blood pressure, and blood sugar tests at local walk in clinics or pharmacies like CVS or Rite-Aid. The position of telemedicine has been maintained.

Cannabis: Use of cannabis was up 43% during the confinement days of COVID. That is considerably higher than alcohol or overeating. With much of the stigma surrounding cannabis gone (although it is still illegal in many places), people were comfortable relying on it, especially since stores would even deliver.

In the two years since we declared cannabis a pandemic winner, the picture has gotten more complicated. Federal legalization was expected by now. Instead national legalization efforts have stalled. It is still illegal in many places, cannot be taken onto airplanes, and cannot be freely moved over state lines.

Furthermore, even where it has been legalized, the cannabis business has been tightly constrained by a Byzantine patchwork of local laws and taxes. The situation has become so bad that legal growers (the white market) have returned at least partially to the black market of illegal and unregulated (and untaxed) sales. Many growers say it is impossible to survive only selling legally.

At the same time, hallucinogenic drugs (such as psilocybin) are showing more promise than cannabis in dealing with depression and PTSD. Furthermore, the science at the moment points to fewer if any side effects from magic mushrooms and other psychedelic substances. Several states have already legalized psilocybin, making it a preferred choice for some.

California passed a bill legalizing psychedelic mushrooms, it passed the Senate and State Assembly, but at the last minute, the governor vetoed the bill—not over objections to psilocybin, but with questions about how it would be dispensed. He made it clear that he supports legalization and would support the bill with small changes.

Cannabis has been normalized in daily life. Concerns have arisen, problems have shown themselves, and other alternatives are becoming available. Cannabis’ position has weakened somewhat.

We launched the COVID Reset Project because we knew immediately that the pandemic would change nearly every aspect of human life. Knowing this, we got into the field at the start of COVID to capture a baseline before things changed. We’ve gone back into the field every quarter for three years, amassing a priceless and actionable longitudinal data set.

As we’ve seen in these columns, some of the changes were temporary and some permanent, with big implications for life as we know it. We’ll continue going into the field, since it’s clear that the one thing that won’t change is change itself.


Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.



See all columns from the center.

December 6, 2023