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Two years of COVID-19: How the pandemic changed the way we shop, work, invest and get medical care

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Meme stocks, telehealth and remote work went mainstream, while people renovated their homes and demanded more from employers. Which changes will stick?

It was two years ago Friday that the World Health Organization officially declared the then-rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Many of us waved goodbye to co-workers as we headed home for what was supposed to be a two- or three-week stint in mid-March 2020.

But, from that point on, COVID-19, the name given in February 2020 to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, turned our worlds upside down. Millions of people globally got sick, and more than 1 million died in the U.S. alone. Jobs were lost, and the government sent out unprecedented stimulus checks as a lifeline. Restaurants, salons, gyms and beloved local businesses closed, many for good.

"Zoom" became a verb, and face masks became everyday accessories. We started paying attention to how clinical trials work and talked about "pods" and "social distancing." People waited in line for hours to get tested for COVID-19 every time there was a new wave of infections. And priorities shifted -- for corporations, investors, lawmakers and everyday Americans -- even after vaccines, tests and treatments allowed cities and states to start reopening.

The writers and editors at MarketWatch took a look at all the ways the first two years of the pandemic reshaped how we spend our money and our time, and the questions we still have going into Year 3.

Meme stocks are, in essence, a child of the pandemic.

Decades of low-interest rates fueling an unprecedented market run might have been the foundation, but it took a new coronavirus stopping the world on a dime to cause extremely bored and suddenly cash-liquid, everyday people aided by direct checks from the Federal Reserve to look at zero-commission trading apps like Robinhood Markets Inc. (HOOD) on their phones and think, "I want a piece of that."

As the pandemic wore on the collective psyche, and American people openly debated a second Trump term in the White House while massive protests over racial and social inequalities (some of them taking destructive turns) gripped American cities in the summer of 2020, a new and growing class of retail investors planned their attack on the Wall Street establishment. This ultimately led to the January 2021 short squeeze in brand-name stocks like GameStop Corp. (GME) and AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. (AMC) and announced the arrival of the meme-stock movement.

The number of active retail investors has shrunk considerably since the world has started to reopen. But what they did provoked a deeper discussion about stock-market structure that will endure beyond the pandemic. -- Thornton McEnery

Used cars are one of the pandemic's hottest commodities.

After being cooped up in their homes through the spring of 2020 and newly wary of public transportation, taxis and ride hailing as potential virus vectors, a lot of people concluded they needed, or at least wanted, a car of their own. Some, able to work remotely, moved away from urban areas and their many transit options. And that, too, created new demand for cars.

But the surge in demand, combined with automobile-factory shutdowns and chips and parts shortages squeezing new-car inventories, created a very competitive used-car market. Prices soared.

According to the consumer price index for February, released Thursday, the cost of used cars and trucks was up 41.2% from February 2021. This has been a key factor as the U.S. inflation rate has notched four-decade highs in recent months. Prices may soon drop, but that may depend on whether new-car inventories increase. (Read the full story) -- Claudia Assis

More people became pet parents -- and will keep spending money on their fur babies.

Sheltering in place allowed many people who would normally be away at work all day to finally bring a shelter animal home. Animal adoptions soared across the globe during the early COVID-19 shutdowns. It's estimated that 11 million pets found new homes during the pandemic.

"People are home for COVID, they're a little depressed, and they want that bundle of joy," Petco Health & Wellness Co. Inc. (WOOF) CEO Ron Coughlin told MarketWatch in January 2021, shortly after the company went public. Online pet-care marketplace Rover Group Inc. (ROVR) also went public during the pandemic, making its debut in August 2021. And online pet-products shop Chewy Inc. (CHWY) gained 5.7 million new customers in 2020 alone, benefiting from the $5 billion increase in online pet spending that year.

And while there have been reports of people surrendering their pandemic puppies and kittens back to shelters, Wells Fargo said pet returns in January and February 2021 were down 24% from the year-earlier months. Many of these new pets and fosters became permanent members of the family. And consumers dote on their animals: Americans fork over a collective $100 billion on pets each year, even if it means making sacrifices themselves.

Pets are usually recession-proof, and we will soon find out if they're inflation-proof, too. "Cutting back on pets is one of the last things people will do," the Petco chief said last year-- Nicole Lyn Pesce

Social distancing helped sell the idea of contactless payments to Americans.

The pandemic arrived, and suddenly contactless payments became all the more appealing: Instead of handing cash to a cashier or touching buttons on a ticketing machine, shoppers could tap their phones or cards against a terminal and avoid that extra interaction.

Contactless payments now account for nearly 20% of face-to-face Visa Inc. (V) transactions in the U.S., up from low-single-digit penetration when the pandemic began. Thanks to growing merchant acceptance, a surge in recently issued tap-enabled cards, and changing behaviors born of the COVID-19 crisis. Globally, contactless payments are even more common, making up half of Mastercard Inc.'s (MA) in-person transactions in the latest quarter, up from about one-third prior to the pandemic.

Tap payments have become a popular cash substitute when it comes to small-ticket transactions like the purchase of a cup of coffee, and financial-technology companies have worked with cities to enable contactless payments at mass-transit terminals. Transit is "one of the best ways to habituate people to tapping," Visa Chief Product Officer Jack Forestell said at a recent investor conference.

As offices reopen, more lapsed commuters are likely to become acquainted with the technology. -- Emily Bary

Many of us found an escape in videogames.

Billions (yes, billions) of people worldwide turned to the charming "Animal Crossing" and other videogames to escape the stress and monotony of the lockdowns, creating a huge boost in demand for the videogame industry.

Consoles like Nintendo Co.'s Switch were scarce, while the releases of Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) new Xbox and Sony Corp.'s (6758.TO) PlayStation 5 had to deal with pent-up demand in addition to a global chip shortage brought on by pandemic-related supply-chain issues. All in all, the pandemic drove a 24% surge in global videogame revenue to $227 billion in 2020 from both hardcore gamers and newbies alike. In the meantime, companies like Roblox Corp. (RBLX), AppLovin Inc. (APP) and Playtika Holding Corp. (PLTK) used the time to go public.

Already this year we've seen a frenzy of M&A starting with Take-Two Interactive Inc.'s (TTWO) $12.7 billion offer to buy Zynga Inc. (ZNGA), followed up by Microsoft's surprise $69 billion offer for Activision Blizzard Inc. (ATVI), Sony's $3.6 billion offer to acquire publisher of the "Destiny" franchise Bungie, and Playtika's announcement that it's considering a sale of the $7 billion company

But it won't be all "Animal Crossing" parties in 2022; the pandemic boom in videogames is forecast to evaporate this year-- Wallace Witkowski

We all became armchair epidemiologists.

Infectious-disease doctors, epidemiologists like Michael Osterholm and immunologists including Anthony Fauci became media superstars, educating us on the nightly news and on Twitter about R0 (the contagiousness of a disease), clinical-trial terminology and herd immunity. Moderna Inc. (MRNA) and Pfizer Inc. (PFE) became household names. We talked about "flattening the curve," vaccine effectiveness and breakthrough cases.

That doesn't mean this newfound knowledge doesn't have its own challenges. Debates about science and the risks associated with COVID-19, vaccines and treatments (authorized, approved or otherwise) have become at times tense, inaccurate and politicized. Misinformation and disinformation are prevalent, the nation's vaccination campaign has stalled, and the surgeon general is now studying the phenomenon of health misinformation.

As the U.S. moves closer to what feels like an endemic phase of the pandemic, this raises questions about how we address health misinformation going forward. -- Jaimy Lee

Companies thank their workers -- for now.

Some of the largest employers in the U.S., including Amazon Inc. (AMZN) and Walmart Inc. (WMT), have changed their attitudes toward their workforces, which some have started describing in their annual reports as "human capital."

Amazon, which has been accused in the past of mistreating employees, said in its latest annual report that it "strives to be Earth's best employer." The e-commerce giant had 1.6 million employees at the end of 2021.

Andy Jassy, who became Amazon's CEO last summer, told investors that his "retail teammates" have operated in "peak mode for almost two years." In Amazon's annual report in pre-pandemic 2019, when Jeff Bezos was still CEO, there was no mention of the company's aspiration of being seen as a good employer, much less the world's best.

Walmart Inc., an even larger employer than Amazon with 2.3 million employees at the end of fiscal 2021, including 1.6 million U.S. workers, appears to have increased its appreciation for its employees, at least for a little while.

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03-14-22 0925ET

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