As the cloud of pandemic descended over the planet, we all became witnesses to how quickly our way of life could be transformed. And with no vaccine or reliably tested antidote yet available, we will continue life in a suspended state of perpetual caution for an indeterminate period. Eventually, this virus will either be eliminated or controlled in such a way that we successfully manage to live with it. But shockwaves from this disruption will continue to be detectable for many generations.
Given that this space is devoted to amateur radio, and that it is one aspect of our lives, we would do well to consider the impact already made on our hobby, and briefly speculate on the way it might reconfigure our future.
First, the cancellations. Hamfests, conventions, DXpeditions, club meetings, the bi-weekly club breakfast, even Hamvention and Field Day haven’t been spared. When “social distancing” first became a thing there were jokes about the solitary nature of ham radio and how isolation was our “normal” state. But just sixty days on we’ve discovered that was nonsense. It’s been refreshing to see the overnight growth of health and welfare nets on the air as we try to look after one another, but it’s no substitute for eyeball QSO’s. The camaraderie of our frequent social gatherings cannot be completely replaced with on the air contact.
Still, the cancellations were warranted. Where the Black Death (1346-1353) killed folks equally in every age group, this present strain of virus seems to prefer its victims a bit more seasoned. Older men, especially those with certain underlying health conditions, appears to be a sweet spot for COVID-19. It also describes a large segment of the ham radio population so our gathering in groups at this time feels like a recipe for bad outcomes.
It’s not difficult to imagine smaller hamfests folding up and not returning at all. In fact, it’s not all that tough to imagine the same thing happening to the larger shows. What if Hamvention is canceled again in 2021 or what if it opens but only a fraction of the normal crowd attends out of lingering health concerns?
The sudden advent of online testing took many of us by surprise. When you can’t gather in groups for license testing you can safely gather online. Whether or not this is a good thing for our hobby depends on who you ask, but I’m certain this will become a permanent feature long after the virus is no longer a problem. Eventually, this task will be completely removed from local groups and be vested in a national organization and all ham radio licensing will be administered remotely.
Where video conferencing existed mostly in the workplace pre-pandemic, it now invades everything, including amateur radio. The recent all-day Contest University seminar conducted via video conference was incredibly successful and well-received. Like it or not, a sizable chunk of similar events will move online. And other than the fatigue that comes from experiencing more of life through pixels on a screen, it provides many advantages. Going forward, I can imagine a speakers bureau of notable ham radio presenters available to entertain and educate aggregate groups via video chat, assuming they figure a way to monetize it.
Along with online testing this will drive a few more nails into the coffin of local radio clubs who will have to find new ways to add value to survive. One solution might be to make the local club radio station available for use remotely by its members but even this begs the question, what is a “local” radio club if everything about it can be accessed remotely from anywhere on the planet? There’s a good chance that all local radio clubs will fall away and a dozen or so regional clubs will take their place. This was probably going to happen eventually but the pandemic will likely speed that timeline.
The immediate future of DXpeditions seems very much up in the air. It’s one thing for a restaurant in Poughkeepsie to re-open after a few months, it’s a whole other thing for governments around the globe to lift restrictions on “outsiders” traveling to their domain without quarantines, etc. Perhaps the desire for income from tourism will overcome that resistance, but if so it may happen first in regions that aren’t on the Most Wanted list.
Amateur radio has always managed to adapt to change and challenge. The shutdown of the radio service during World War II being one notable example. Ham radio continuously evolves but that evolution typically happens at a slow, steady pace. But every now and then something big comes along that quickly shakes off the old and ushers in the new. It’s difficult to imagine something that would impact so many aspects of the hobby more quickly than what we’ve seen from this current pandemic.