The pandemic will forever transform how we live

From homeworking to healthcare, Covid-19 has forced society to adapt in ways that should endure

Journalist: Simon Kuper

“It’s as if we’ve gone from 2020 to 2030 in one weekend,” Dutch educational innovator Christien Bok told the Volkskrant newspaper. Below I’ve tried to capture some of the transformations in western societies since March.

What follows isn’t a catalogue of utopian dreams (though we need those), or shortlived moral awakenings. Rather, it’s a list of changes that have actually happened, should last, will save time or money and can mitigate horrors such as carbon emissions, loneliness and homelessness.

  • Working from home. For a week it’s an experiment, but after nearly a month it starts to become institutionalised, even in professions that had never contemplated it before.

The British cabinet now meets on Zoom, court hearings have shifted online and bank staffers are executing transactions from home over secure systems. All this has happened unplanned, while many employees are looking after children all day. Homeworking will be easier after the pandemic.

If white-collar employees end up working from home just half the week, the fall in commuting would slash emissions, pollution and rush-hour traffic while boosting national happiness.

When psychologist Daniel Kahneman and economist Alan Krueger asked 900 Texan women in 2006 to rate their enjoyment of ordinary activities, sex ranked first and commuting last. Morning commutes appeared “particularly unpleasant”. Ex-commuters would save fortunes on cars, and free up time in manifold ways.

Most lowly-paid employees — such as cleaners, cashiers and waiters — can’t work from home. But if white-collar workers shift their activity from city centres to residential neighbourhoods, support jobs will follow. Anyone still commuting to downtown will find roads and trains emptier.

  • Telemedicine. The pandemic has sparked an almost instant time-saving revolution in medical care. Telemedicine works “for most medication refills… urinary tract infections, colds and rashes, diabetes and hypertension follow-ups, lab results, post-op visits, birth control and fertility, and mental health,” says the website Medicaleconomics.com.

Older people — many of whom have undergone an involuntary crash course in videoconferencing — will spend less time in germ-filled waiting rooms. Their children (generally daughters) can sit in on the calls instead of ferrying parents to and from appointments.

  • Better hygiene. Coronavirus contrarians always point out that the ordinary flu kills thousands too. That’s true. However, it isn’t a good argument against lockdowns during far deadlier Covid-19. Rather, it’s an argument for reducing flu deaths (and misery, and lost working days) in normal times.

We now know how to do it: more handwashing; masks and self-isolation for infectious people whenever possible; and better availability of flu vaccines.

  • Volunteering. When the British government asked for 250,000 volunteers to help the National Health Service during the pandemic, three times that number applied.

Some argue that a state service shouldn’t need volunteers, at least not in normal times. But we live in a century of unprecedented leisure (chiefly among the over-sixties) and a waning sense of community.

Many people would rather help their society than moan about it from the sofa. Volunteering is a way to convert leisure into community. It also reduces loneliness, including among volunteers.

  • Checking on the elderly. Even before lockdowns, many older people often went days without speaking to anyone. Now countless WhatsApp groups are reaching out to isolated neighbours.

In my building, there’s a sign downstairs asking if anyone wants help. In Ireland, postal workers have begun checking on the elderly, asking whether they need food, a pharmacy or a way to send messages. After the pandemic, these cost-free systems could allow more people to grow old at home rather than in expensive and often depressing retirement homes.

  • Curbing domestic violence. Lockdowns have worsened domestic violence, but have also alerted countries to an eternal plague. Better late than never, France has hurriedly enabled victims to seek help in pharmacies (using code words if necessary) and shopping malls.
  • Emptying American jails and housing the homeless. Since the 1960s, the US has created a vast government-funded prison-industrial complex to control poor people, many of them African-Americans.

The US incarcerates more inhabitants per capita than any other country, yet still has high rates of violent crime. Now that prisons have become virus incubators, many states are releasing nonviolent and elderly offenders, and arresting fewer new ones.

Meanwhile, California has begun using federal funds to house some homeless people in hotels and motels. It’s also considering buying rooms for the long term. “This was the crisis we needed to address before the Covid-19 crisis,” says the state’s governor Gavin Newsom. For plutocratic San Francisco to have 8,000 people living on the streets and in shelters was a choice.

Even leaving aside morality, it’s easier for people to deal with addiction and find work once they have a place to live. And the new policy should save California money, given how many emergency-room visits the homeless make. Some good ideas really were just lying around waiting to happen.

The content in this article was relevant when published on 9 April 2020. Current views may differ. 

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Coronavirus could help push us into a greener way of life

For all its horror, the pandemic may change our habits when nothing else could

Journalist: Simon Kuper

By the time this horror ends, it might have changed our way of life. Already, the coronavirus has achieved something that government policies and moral awakening couldn’t: it is pushing us into green living. 

The nature of work, commuting and shopping changed this month. If that transformation sticks, then one day we’ll have happier and more productive societies, and we’ll look back on December 2019 as the all-time peak in global carbon emissions. 

First of all, the pandemic may show that offices are an outdated way to organise work. This is something I have suspected since my three-year office experience in the 1990s. I was amazed at the inefficiency of the set-up: people spent much of the day distracting each other by gossiping, flirting, bitching about the boss or complaining about that morning’s commute. I’ve worked happily alone for 22 years now. 

Offices exist largely so that bosses can check whether workers are doing the work (or at least putting in face-time). But nowadays, data can do much of the monitoring. Meanwhile, improved workplace software such as Slack and Zoom lets employees collaborate from home. 

The tech may actually outperform real life: a professor who has hurriedly learnt Zoom told me he liked the way the software can instantly create small break-out groups of students to work on a problem. In an auditorium, everyone has to pack their bags, find a room and grab a coffee on the way. 

Now that entire countries are learning to work from their bedrooms, many employers may end up concluding that they can ditch expensive office space. That wouldn’t merely reduce emissions, and liberate metropolitan workers from ghastly commutes (the daily round trip averages well over an hour in cities such as New York, Chicago and London). 

The shift would also reduce urban house prices, as some offices get converted into homes, and some workers are freed to leave the city. In the next year or two, virtual-reality software will let the boss (or at least the boss’s avatar) step into underlings’ home-offices to root out shirking.

In short, work could follow dating, shopping and game-playing in going virtual. That would make life greener but also more isolated. To compensate, neighbourhoods will need more communal spaces. Already the death of bricks-and-mortar retail has allowed coffee shops and co-working spaces to take over high streets. But we’ll also have to build more playgrounds (with some for adults), community centres and parks.

Another benefit: the pandemic may help stop the decades-long rise in business travel. I discovered last week that each time a trip was cancelled, I mostly felt relief. I know the benefits of business travel: the two books I’m currently writing both came out of meeting someone while at a conference. So did my previous book. 

However, most trips probably cause a net loss of productivity. While you search for the one or two useful people to talk to amid the 300 carbon-emitting duds at a disappointing conference, you’re missing work at home. Moreover, most conferences feature a lot more wannabe sellers than buyers. 

Nowadays it’s quicker to find the perfect counterpart on LinkedIn. As for content, well-made virtual conferences could be as compelling to watch as good TED talks or TV — and more so than the endless panels of executives talking their own books. 

As for shopping, even before the coronavirus we were shifting towards a world where the shop comes to you. That movement just accelerated, possibly for ever. It’s much greener for a supermarket to send an electric van (or a cargo-bike) to 100 homes in a neighbourhood than for all those people to drive to the supermarket. Some could ditch their cars. 

Even in the very short term, the green lining to this pandemic is surprisingly large. Air pollution kills about 1.1 million people in China alone every year. The fall in pollution during the country’s lockdown in January and February “likely saved 20 times more lives in China than have currently been lost due to infection with the virus in that country”, calculates Marshall Burke of Stanford University’s Department of Earth System Science. He adds: “The fact that disruption of this magnitude could actually lead to some large (partial) benefits suggests that our normal way of doing things might need disrupting.”

That’s particularly true since climate change makes pandemics more likely. It expands the natural habitat of infectious insects such as mosquitoes, while reducing the habitat of animals, with the effect of pushing both into closer contact with humans. 

Governments need to make good use of the current pandemic. Many states are preparing a fiscal stimulus. Donald Trump wants to bestow much of it on the carbon emitters that could go bust in the incipient recession: airlines, cruise ships, oil producers and his beloved hotel industry (which lives off travellers’ emissions). Forward-looking governments will instead prioritise green industries, while helping workers who lose their fossil-fuel jobs. 

It turns out that developed countries (except possibly the US) can still do collective government-led wartime-style mobilisation. It’s a muscle we’re going to need.

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