What will we take from this year?

What will we take from this year?

Few events try as hard as the Olympics to alter our behaviour. Before the London games in 2012, the organisers promised that millions of Britons would take up exercise and “change the way they live their lives”. Foreigners would be attracted to work and invest in the UK, helping to turn six weeks of sport into “six years of business benefit”. And while the Olympics lasted, they really did seem transformational. The opening ceremony showed a confident, multicultural Britain, ready to lead the world on the track and off it. 

But the legacy of London 2012 melted away. Public participation in sport didn’t increase. Some heroes of the games, Bradley Wiggins and Mo Farah, lost their lustre. The image of Britain at ease with itself was shattered by the referendums on Scottish independence and Brexit. Perhaps the Olympics’ largest legacy was to accelerate the gentrification of a part of east London that would have happened anyway due to its proximity to the banking industry. 

Is it possible that the pandemic’s legacy will prove similarly ephemeral? From baking sourdough to backing a state-subsidised economy, we have embraced change in 2020. But now with the end of the pandemic almost in sight, what many people seem to crave is not to rethink their behaviour further, but to snap back to normality. 

In March, before European countries had locked down, I wrote an essay entitled: “Will coronavirus change how we live?” I suggested that, in the medium term, the pandemic would reduce business travel, increase handwashing and change China’s live animal markets. OK, I did not foresee the revival of QR codes.

But I went further, and argued that coronavirus might lead us to accept our own fragility. We would better understand risks such as antibiotic resistance, US-China conflict and ecosystem breakdown. The experience of hardship during the pandemic would make us more likely to accept restraints on our lives to minimise future problems. I had in mind the altered diet, consumption and political outlook necessary to fight climate change: “If the shock of coronavirus disruption isn’t enough for us to recalibrate, what will be?”

Now I wonder if I was over-optimistic. Imagine if, by late 2021, much of Europe and the US has been vaccinated against the disease. Those people who haven’t lost their jobs have amassed savings. Imagine their desire to make up for lost time: parties, festivals, travel. What if the new normal looks quite like the old normal? 

Sports fans have already started to return to stadiums; retirees are back on cruise ships. Some parts of the pandemic that seemed momentous — the clap for carers, the YouTube exercise routines — have become distant memories. Carlo Rovelli, the best-selling theoretical physicist, points out that, when his native Italy emerged from the first wave of the virus, good intentions made during lockdown were “forgotten and disappeared in two weeks. Everything was remarkably exactly as usual”.

Other thinkers draw analogies with the 1920s, when, after a world war and an influenza pandemic, Americans flipped into a decade of consumerism and decadence. “If history is a guide, it seems likely that consumption will come back with a vengeance,” writes Nicholas Christakis, a Yale sociologist, in his book Apollo’s Arrow

A woman dances in the 1949 film version of ‘The Great Gatsby’, which came to symbolise the excesses of the Roaring Twenties. Some sociologists expect a burst of consumption after the coronavirus pandemic © Getty Images

F Scott Fitzgerald, the chronicler of 1920s excess, was in an army camp in Alabama as Spanish flu gripped America. Soon after hearing that his close friend, a Catholic priest named Sigourney Fay, had died of the disease, Fitzgerald declared: “This has made me nearly sure that I will become a priest”. 

But of course Fitzgerald did not become a priest when the pandemic ended. He became pretty much the opposite. He plunged deeper into a slightly debauched romance with his future wife, Zelda. Biographers explain his outlook in terms of his unfulfilled desire to fight gloriously in the first world war; they don’t mention the flu.

Few people have probably vowed, during the pandemic, to become priests. But many of us have often seen life differently — and vowed to become a more wholesome version of ourselves. When the vaccine arrives, will we remember, or will we do everything possible to forget?

No one doubts that coronavirus will leave some kind of impact. It would have changed history even if its only effect had been to swing 42,918 votes in Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona, by which Donald Trump missed out on re-election. The effects of increased public debt and scientific investment are likely to be large. But will coronavirus lead us to consciously change our behaviour in search of a better world? 

There are two types of pandemic behaviour that are likely to endure: where we have removed inertia, and where we have sunk investments. 

Working from home fits into the first category: tradition meant it was rude for someone not to turn up in person, now that has been removed. Nearly four in 10 employed Americans say that their job can mostly be done from home; half of these say they intend to work at home mostly or partly in future if they can, according to the Pew Research Center. (Working from home has meant working longer hours, but this need not endure once socialising is competing for our time.)

Charts on the transition  working from home

“My prediction would be that over 50 per cent of business travel and over 30 per cent of days in the office will go away,” said Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates last month. Medical appointments, court hearings and parliamentary debates have worked passably well online. One group of academics even predicts “the equivalent of a Cambrian explosion in the field of conferences”, now that people no longer have to travel around the world.

There are moderating factors. One is that physical presence still adds value in terms of offstage conversation and serendipity. You don’t need to travel for a one-to-one, but you might for a one-to-various-groups. Another is that the lack of audience feedback makes presentations less exciting for speakers. “When you’re on Zoom, you understand how repetitive you are,” says Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian political scientist and author of the essay Is it Tomorrow Yet? about the effect of the pandemic. 

Inertia has disappeared elsewhere with the take-up of online shopping and TV streaming. Research suggests that it takes several months — perhaps 66 days — for daily activities to become habits. If that applies widely, there may be no coming back for the high streets, the cinemas and linear TV. We probably won’t return to paying in cash either. 

The second category of enduring behaviour is where we have sunk costs. If you have, in lockdown, bought a Peloton bike or adopted a pet, you may find it hard to go back. Likewise, if you have taken a career decision, or been forced to. 

Rovelli took early retirement during the pandemic. “I’m in my 60s. All through this Covid thing, I’ve been thinking I could die — it’s a concrete possibility. [Covid] has increased my sense that life is now, it’s not tomorrow.” He works, but no longer teaches. “I’m so happy.” Perhaps it is those who have felt most vulnerable to the virus who will change most radically; then again, the white-collar workers moving to homes in the country are not doing so because they felt vulnerable.

What about pandemic behaviours that do not bring immediate benefits? Coronavirus has raised our standards of hygiene (at least when it comes to spreading infections). People now know more about how respiratory diseases travel. Will we reshape our social norms? It might be less acceptable to go to a restaurant if you have a cold. Wearing a mask, or socially distancing, might become normal in flu season, even if it’s not compulsory. 

“Do I think there will come a big moment where we have a massive party, and throw our masks and hand sanitiser, and say, ‘that’s it, it’s behind us’, like the end of the war? No, I don’t,” Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, told a press conference this month. “Those kind of habits that we’ve learnt from, that clearly stop the spread of other respiratory viruses such as flu, will perhaps persist for many years.”

To which UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, with his sense of the popular mood, replied: “On the other hand, we may want to get back to life as pretty much as close to normal…”

History provides evidence to support both Van-Tam and Johnson. After the flu pandemic, spittoons died out across the US, notes Nicholas Christakis in Apollo’s Arrow. Spitting’s downsides had long been known: New York’s sanitary police had been arresting and fining people for years for “the filthy habit”. The pandemic helped it on the way. 

Nonetheless, our desire to fight disease has limits. In December 1920, when it was clear that a third winter of Spanish flu was unlikely in the US, the surgeon general complained that it was “unfortunate” that Americans were interested in “spectacular epidemic outbreaks of disease”, but not by the “daily occurrence of preventable death”, such as diphtheria and smallpox. Just because we can prevent death it does not mean that we will, if we no longer feel at risk. 

Former US President Barack Obama, left, greets US President-elect Joe Biden with a socially distanced elbow bump in the last days of the campaign in October © Getty Images

Western medical figures have suggested coronavirus could permanently change how we greet each other. “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again,” said the US’s top infectious disease official, Anthony Fauci, in April. The World Health Organization has suggested eight alternative greetings, including the wave, a bow and namaste.

“What [the handshake] shows is, I trust you enough that I let you put your germs on my hand,” says Susan Michie, professor of health psychology at University College London. Given how much people crave physical contact, maybe the balance will be handshakes plus handwashing. 

In the US, 86 per cent of adults say there is some kind of lesson for humanity to learn from the pandemic. One-third think that the lesson was sent by God. Believing there’s a lesson is a way of comforting ourselves: otherwise we are just going through this crap for the sake of it.

But it is also correct. There is a lesson in coronavirus: if you mistreat the natural world, it will bite you. Covid-19, like Ebola, Zika and various other outbreaks, can be linked to how we treat other animals. Our degradation of ecosystems and our livestock farms will continue to create pandemics unless we change what we eat and consume.

If Homo sapiens were a rational, centrally governed species — able to plan our own future — then we would tackle not only the causes of pandemics, but the causes of other risks like climate change that promise similar disruption. (A warmer climate also increases the risk of pandemics, by allowing vectors to expand their geographic range.)

Toby Ord, a British philosopher, argues that one of the most likely and important changes brought by the pandemic will be “a kind of societal immune response”: “It will open a window of time in which we actually take catastrophic risks seriously, and are willing to pay the costs required to develop protective measures before the next catastrophe strikes.” He envisages new legislation and ringfenced funding, which endure after the memory of coronavirus has faded. 

You can imagine some scenarios in which this will occur. Health ministers around the world will be fearful of being caught out again — they are unlikely to let stocks of personal protective equipment run low; they won’t skip strategy meetings on pandemic planning. But for all the talk of “Build Back Better” in the US and UK, the scale of rethink is in the balance. Even if people are motivated to change their behaviour, it is up to governments, employers and others to provide the opportunities.

Moreover, there is no shortage of problems: the pandemic has exposed racial health inequalities, poor housing, and the digital divide, and it has worsened school performance and income inequality (the UK’s former “troubled families tsar” Louise Casey has warned of a coming “period of destitution”). After the bailouts of the past year, it is hard to argue that we can’t afford to do these things. There may, however, be a shortage of energy.

If this were the end of a war, perhaps politicians would be able to steel the public to tackle these challenges. It doesn’t feel like that. Unlike the end of the second world war in Europe, our cities do not need physically rebuilding. We can look around us, and imagine the pandemic never happened. The British government is allowing families to mix indoors for Christmas — which doesn’t suggest it thinks that people are ready for further sacrifices. It decided against a pay rise for the very nurses and doctors applauded during lockdown. 

Because the pandemic has worsened inequalities, it may be harder for states to call for restraint or behaviour change. “Everything has to be handled really sensitively,” says Michie, who sits on the UK’s scientific advisory group, Sage. “The government needs to think about how to rebuild social solidarity.”

What’s more, we do not seem to have come together, at least in the west. Only 19 per cent of Americans and 22 per cent of Germans say that the pandemic has increased social togetherness.

Chart showing respondents’ views on social togetherness, compared with before the pandemic

The pandemic has not just been politically divisive, it has been an individualised experience. It is hard to know even what your friends and acquaintances are going through. Wars throw people together; pandemics keep them apart. We haven’t had the conversations that would help nudge us to reassess our society. Maybe this will change as the vaccines are rolled out. 

Internationally, too, the pandemic has been a lost opportunity so far. Managing the risks that face us requires effective international action. But the pandemic has been marked by national responses (and global, non-governmental efforts like the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine). 

For all this, I don’t quite believe in a rerun of the Roaring Twenties. The 1920s roared partly because of the emergence of affordable consumer products, including radios, phones and cars. The 2020s come after a two-decade long consumer boom, enabled by Chinese manufacturing. The 1920s signalled America’s rise; the 2020s will signal China’s. 

What I do fear is that politicians will fail to use this moment. In his essays, There are Places in the World Where Rules are Less Important than Kindness, Rovelli talks about how the Italian radicals of 1977 saw their vision of an egalitarian society fail, and then moved on: “the big dreams founder against the force of daily life.” I have heard lots of people say how much they are looking forward to the end of the pandemic; I have hardly heard any say that we must make sure we never face such disruption again.

Normality is something to strive for; it is also something to regret. We have no reason to think this will be the last pandemic of our lifetimes. In climate change, humanity faces arguably the biggest collective problem it has ever faced. If the biggest lesson that we take from 2020 is that it’s possible to work from home two days a week, then we have fallen short. The pandemic’s legacy will have underwhelmed as much as the Olympics’.

Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer

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