Has Coronavirus changed everything?
I write this c.100 days after the first case of the novel coronavirus was reported. In a short space of time, the world has changed on an unimaginable scale. Though we were on course to experience the next global health pandemic and it should not come as such a shock, the reality of living through one is quite something. At first, the surreal drone footage of major Chinese cities lying empty. Next, the same in streets closer to home; Milan, Paris, London. First-person reports of ICU as it is overwhelmed. The existential threat of an invisible virus sweeping ever closer. A record number of 1.54 billion children and youth impacted by the COVID-19, and as of 31st March, 185 countries in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, North America, and South America all with school and university closures announced or implemented. Unemployment in the U.S shooting up. Mass graves, clapping rituals, the new great depression, instant takeup of digital services, rewilding on our city streets.
I hear many people say “everything will be different after Coronavirus.” Part of me questions this rhetoric. Humans are creatures of routine and social order. For the most part, we live in Capitalist frameworks which demand a return to growth. At the point of a vaccine being available, won’t our instinct be to hit things at 150% to make up for lost time, and return the money to our coffers, and shareholders? I very much hope that things will be different, and we learn from this experience as GenC-ers. But what, if anything, might change?
- Healthcare will be prioritised as an essential national resource.
At the time of writing 19 healthcare workers had died from Covid-19 in the U.K. Because of the daily sacrifices and contribution of essential healthcare workers in fighting Coronavirus, we have a newfound respect for our healthcare systems. In the U.K, the Thursday “clap for carers’ and frontline services is a reminder that an underfunded NHS is fighting the Coronavirus daily, from telephone triage to specialists in ICU. The NHS will have 13.4 billion pounds’ worth of debt written off in a bid to strengthen the system to fight the coronavirus pandemic. One can’t help to look sideways and appreciate that our healthcare system does not have the hallmarks of a privatised system where teenagers are denied treatment and subsequently die due to lack of insurance. Conversely, there will be lessons drawn from the speed at which testing could be rolled out in Germany due to a decentralised healthcare decision making power. Perhaps the new impetus for UK healthcare will be around 1) rewarding our healthcare professionals with better pay and b) building on the agile practices Coronavirus has forced on the NHS to deploy resources and rethink systems. Perhaps we will finally get our digital healthcare records sorted and properly test AI within a live healthcare environment?
- The daily commute will come under scrutiny
For many of us who work remotely the shift to self-isolation and lockdown was less of a shock than the full transition from office, manufacturing line or other physical location. Yes, suddenly we were baking bread, helping sprog with digraphs and trigraphs, and trying to eek out enough internet for the 4th Zoom call of the day, but the mental shift to managing own workloads, exercising and remaining sane at home had already been made. Some jobs can’t be done remotely; fisherman, tree surgeon, surgeon(!), delivery driver etc. But some jobs have been stubbornly resisting “flexible working” for no good reason. For these employees, the wasted vagaries of the daily commute and group meetings will come into light relief. Suddenly, these employees will realise that when push comes to shove they can be hugely productive in four select hours. The opportunity cost of the daily commute will be clear; time spent in the garden with our loved ones, or reading and engaging in deep thinking, or working out and maintaining our health, or engaging in self-development and sleep, or sharing the workload of childcare and learning. With systems in place to work remotely, will everyone just return to the office as normal or will there be societal pressure to ringfence these hours through more flexible working? With the likelihood of on/off continual social distancing measures, a flexible and hybrid team may become attractive to employers, also looking to reduce their overheads. That said, when flights return on mass, how much pressure will there be to engage clients in f2f meetings whilst they are still novel – in a non-coronavirus way?
- We will cherish the hug like never before
During my university days, one of the essay’s that made the most impression on me was Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving. In it, Fromm argues that true love comes not from romantic love and one person, but all forms of love – brotherly, sisterly, from friends, parents, colleagues, lovers etc. Never has this felt more apt. If lucky enough to live in a household we feel safe and cherished in, we will nevertheless be daydreaming of when we can be reunited with friends or parents or those special people that sustain us. When social distancing was first announced, I worried about the impact it would have on our five year old. Suddenly, we were normalising for months his spending time only with adults, his engagement with friends at a distance, his constant use of hand sanitiser. Would this have a long-lasting impact on his ability to socialise and trust in others? In Alain De Botton’s podcast episode with Elizabeth Day, De Botton talks about the importance of the simple hug, how it can connect us at so many levels. I for one, can’t wait to break down the fourth “2-metre” wall and hold onto so many hugs in the future months to come. There is something quite alien about being close – 2 metres – but yet so far apart.
- It will be unacceptable that our democratic processes are not digitally enabled
In the early days of Coronavirus in the UK, it seemed inherently odd that whilst everyone was being told to work from home to avoid spreading the disease our politicians continued to sashay around Parliament as if they were somehow Teflon coated. Why were daily briefing podiums closer than 2 metres; for the benefit of the media wide-pan shot? This small example seemed to demonstrate only too well that Parliament is set up to serve the well-oiled system and was not prepared for having to do things differently. The macho culture of handshaking, of continuing with business as usual, wouldn’t work elsewhere. Employees would be calling on the duty of care to an employer and questioning the safety of the working environment. Whilst schools and Universities switched to online lectures and schooling in a matter of days, Parliament froze and revealed the blind spots to its quaint traditionalism. Whilst Dominic Raab was able to deputise for our Prime Minister, taken ill with COVID-19, Parliament was not able to shift online. Scenes continued of MPs awkwardly seated apart in the House of Comms, still clutching papers. Eventually, The House of Commons and the House of Lords agreed to rise early for Easter Recess. Both Houses rose on Wednesday 25 March, suspending debate. Meanwhile other European parliaments, including Slovenia, passed legislation to allow their chambers to convene over the internet. After days and weeks, it now looks like Parliament will return on the 21 April to debate coronavirus measures and authorise spending on the UK’s pandemic response, using remote working measures. But the public will question why a digital option – with all the necessary encryption, data and other security protocol – wasn’t already prepped. This will have long term implications for our ability to vote and enact other aspects of the democratic process digitally.
- The return of the expert
In 2016, Michael Gove famously said: “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts.” Whilst Gove complains that his comments were taken out of context, they nevertheless set the tone for the populist years of Brexit, Trump and “just getting things done”. Coronavirus has forced us to draw on our best research and experts, modelling everything from infectious disease spread to financial impact to social behaviours. Move aside architects of populist campaigning, literally and figuratively running away from the new age of information, questions and actions. Move-in, blink-free chief medical officers and other specialists insisting on proper cautious practice around silver bullet cures. No, BCGs and malaria tablets can’t solve everything right now. The experts can help us understand why and what questions to ask. Refreshing.
- The ‘blob” gives way to the art of the possible
Many within Universities, Colleges and Schools, have talked about the previously plodding nature of digital transformation giving way to radical overhaul overnight as students, parents, teachers and lecturers worked to become connected. In healthcare, a 4000 person capacity hospital was organised in 9 days in London, commandeering the London City Airport, whilst resource distribution across the NHS, and across GP practices has been organised and signed off in ways hitherto unthinkable. This is culture change management, financing, communication, and action within days not decades because of the urgent need to change. The legacy of this “art of the possible” can’t be underestimated, and whilst there will be fraud, data security breaches, and safeguarding issues, there will also be a whole generation of institutions, employees and users suddenly fast-tracked in digital tools and basic online pedagogy. In this context, just-in-time online and mobile training has been essential; to equip junior and retired doctors in the fold, and new administrative workers within the NHS, with the information they need in a constantly changing situation. There has been much speculation that within education those institutions which have adapted to this new normal – maintaining trust and continuity for students during the chaos -will be those which weather the storm and come out on top. This is noticeable in the race to onboard new students in a highly unusual situation; an exam vacuum, no in-person campus tours, and lack of clarity over new term times. Digital engagement will be more important than ever, in the short to medium term, and whilst the sector will be battered financially and structurally, it will be bolstered by the societal reminder on the value of top research and skills development.
- The momentum of toxic politics will be undermined
Much as with the death of the expert, the tone of political exchange between 2016-2020 was particularly shallow, focusing on xenophobic rhetoric, throwing the EU baby out with the EU bathwater, and increasingly insular sentiment. We must “get things done” rather than consider their difficult nuances. We must be in opposition to our interlocutors and mistrust their motives rather than find our common ground. Much like the remain campaign, the prevailing politics up until 2016 had been overweighted towards the economic argument and anaemic in arguments around the role of values. Values were then propped up and used to turn us against one another. One positive to come from Coronavirus is to deflate this fixed and toxic notion of who we are in relation to one another. Whilst there has been the usual Town. Vs. Country mouse tit-for-tat, the overwhelming experience is of neighbours and communities coming together, setting up voluntary groups to look after vulnerable neighbours and remember our positive values. We clap the NHS and remember how international the professionals are who look after us; the same holds for delivery drivers and manufacturers. We look with concern and exchange knowledge with our neighbours in Europe, whilst the situation in the U.S reminds us of what unfettered private interest might look like in the age of a pandemic. Meanwhile, our new UK Government parks Brexit priorities for hitherto unthinkable left of centre policies to support the economy. Is this an opportunity to bring political discourse back to the centre, to recognise the huge contribution of non-UK residents and immigrants, and civil service brains? There’s no doubt that austerity measures will return and those usually hit the hardest will be hit the hardest but will Coronavirus also be the thing that brings the country back together and sets us on a different and softer political trajectory?
- The narrative of low-paid workers equalling low social contribution will be challenged
How many memes have proclaimed the stamina and expertise of the teacher as we embark on our first hour of home-schooling? How many of us have realised the immense contribution of postal and delivery drivers, of Amazon warehouse workers, and supermarket shelf stackers, of healthcare administrators and care-home workers “on the frontline” in this pandemic? We ask the most of those who we repay the least; the ultimate sacrifice for minimum wage? Perhaps Coronavirus will change things; Marks & Spencer have promised staff an extra 15% pay, while Aldi, Sainsbury’s and Tesco have pledged 10%, and Morrisons has rewarded workers during the coronavirus crisis, with a threefold increase in bonus for the next 12 months. There is already public support for better remuneration for our teachers and our nurses. At the same time, the Government has had to recognise the 15% self-employed that now make up our workforce. Crucially, we don’t all fit into the traditional system of office employment and taxation, and offering support for the self-employed may be the first step in recognising the flexible contribution of freelancers and sole traders in this country. Again, societal value cannot be boiled down to economic unit. Experts are moved to the front; essential workers – our engine – in the middle, and loudmouths at the back.
- We will be well versed in identifying fake news
Remember those early days of Coronavirus where you were so desperate to do what you could to protect your loved ones from harm, that you’d pass on those messages about drinking, sunbathing, avoiding ibuprofen, and holding your breath for ten seconds? Amazing how uncanny it was that the same message – from a friend and invariably with CAPS LETTERS at some point – would be shared by four people in one day. If Coronavirus has taught us anything it is to identify the rhythm of fake news; messages swapped easiest in the earliest days of uncertainty, before the questions and longer-term verification kick in.
- We will remember how to pause, but will we forget again?
It is well documented that air pollution has improved due to our lack of fossil-fuelled activities over the past four months. Animals have taken to the streets buoyed by our removal. Humans have had a chance to reimagine completely normalised systems; financial, health, societal, energy. But will we take this chance to take stock, to write our “King Lears” and embrace new paradigms or will we hit the tarmac harder than ever when the chance comes, burning out to new lows? We’re bailing out the supermarkets, the airlines; are we incentivising the new? Will we remember to pause, only to forget again? Only time will tell.
Our thoughts are with the victims and families of COVID-19.