The Pandemic One Year Later
A year ago this week, the UK went into its first lockdown. A couple of weeks before that, I went into isolation. Our world changed in an instant, and many of us are wondering which changes will be permanent.
“Restaurant menus are gone forever.” My daughter was chatting to me about what might change permanently as a result of the pandemic. She explained how restaurants near her college had done away with menus as a way to increase the safety of diners and staff. Tables instead had a QR code, which you could scan to read a menu and, in some cases, order straight from your device.
Who’d have thought that restaurant menus would be a casualty of this pandemic? Or that QR codes would suddenly become indispensable?
Nearly a year ago, I wrote about what a post-pandemic world might look like. It’s time to reflect on how things have changed.
As I write this, I still haven’t been vaccinated. And given the UK has taken the political decision to space out their first and second vaccine doses, I won’t be fully vaccinated until well into the summer. This tempers any prediction about how and when all this will end. Summer 2021 will be more like summer 2020 than summer 2019.
“East Asian states that had lived through the SARS and MERS epidemics reacted quickly when threatened by SARS-CoV-2, spurred by a cultural memory of what a fast-moving coronavirus can do.”
– Ed Yong
Here in Europe, the prospect of a third wave looms. In North America, the situation seems a little better. The risks are far lower in most of Asia, but there’s uncertainty when international travel will resume.
If this is a three-act play, then we’re still somewhere near the end of the second act.
A recent survey found that 41% of employees are looking to change jobs as a result of the pandemic, and 46% are looking to change where they live.
Forcing employees to work from home has disrupted established ways of working. This was something we thought might happen. Many people have enjoyed the flexibility that comes with working from home, the ability to organise work around family, exercise, or time in nature. Increasingly, the ability to offer work from anywhere, where employees chose their location, will be desirable.
Not everyone has benefitted from this trend. For some people, the lack of separation between work and home, especially the responsibilities of parenting, has been exhausting. And not all employers have adjusted well to distributing work fairly or keeping all employees feeling engaged, supported and informed.
We’ve been through a harsh and sudden sorting process. For some, life is better than ever. For others, the future feels bleak.
Some businesses have flourished. The online food suppliers I shop with have grown and evolved spectacularly in the last year, with better service and a larger range of quality products.
But when the high streets open again, many shops won’t be lifting their shutters. And while my football club is about to start selling season tickets once more, some fans will not be there to retake their seats.
On the level of mental health, it’s been a trying time for all of us. This is natural, a result of dealing with uncertainty, stress, and grief. Unfortunately, mental health has often been weaponised, especially by those who want to deny the seriousness of the pandemic, or the need for lockdowns.
Thankfully, this has been met by a countervailing force calling for kindness.
Everyone I speak to has cut people from their professional and social world. We got a once-in-a-lifetime window into people’s souls. People couldn’t hide their harshness or selfishness, and empathy shone through from those folks who were compassionate and understanding.
The angst of this moment has also made us increasingly impatient with other forms of injustice. In particular, we’re seeing a focus on injustice that manifests as violence, especially racial violence and violence against women. We’ve reached a point where people will, quite rightly, be satisfied only by a systemic change that is demonstrated in different legal and political outcomes.
Of course, there is resistance – often fuelled by populist politics – which argues these changes are not needed.
When we look at the demographics for that claim, that men don’t need to change their behaviour, that racism isn’t that big a problem, it does seem to overlap with those who also deny climate change and also don’t want to wear a mask.
What they have in common is an inability to see themselves as a vector of danger. It’s the social equivalent of the drunk driver who can’t see how their enjoyment of alcohol poses a threat to others.
“Broadly, we find that men and women who embrace masculine norms of toughness are equally likely to feel negative affective responses toward the idea of wearing masks, even after accounting for other predictors such as partisanship and ideology.”
– Carl L. Palmer and Rolfe D. Peterson
At this point, the lazy move would be to flex against social media and its pernicious tendency to sort us into ideological silos. But I’m more optimistic about social media than in a long time.
In particular, I’m thinking of the rise of social audio, very much a product of the pandemic. Our isolation has spawned a powerful corrective to the algorithm-driven ills of the internet.
What we find in social audio is people longing for connection, the warmth of the human voice, and the way the human voice often reveals a person’s heart more than their words and images.
Twitter cancelled its troll-in-chief. Late in the day, and perhaps after the damage had been done. But the effect was nonetheless palpable, like an overgrown garden that was suddenly and aggressively weeded.
Misinformation still abounds. But we’ve fine-tuned our approach to news, driven by the need to get accurate information about the pandemic. We’re demanding more accurate information in other parts of our lives as well.
“Clear distribution of accurate information is among the most important defenses against an epidemic’s spread.”
– Ed Yong
And this includes accurate representations of people’s lived experiences. History is course-correcting again towards authenticity, earnestness, and kindness, again.
It’s been a year without so many things, including colds, sore throats and upset stomachs. As we began to understand how the diseased moved in different spaces, we started to wonder about the health of living and working with poor air circulation. Now every space has a question mark hanging over it.
We’ll return to some spaces more quickly than others. Some may be redesigned b the time we return. We’ve already learnt to appreciate parks again. We’ve had a year without pubs, and that might make us reconsider the role of alcohol in our social life. We’ve learnt to cook for ourselves like maybe never before, and the delivery of dining experiences to our home is more satisfying than takeaways ever were.
We’ve deepened our relationships while also pruning our social world. Many people rejoice at the demise of networking events and office drinks and the freedom to use that time on relationships that matter more.
And while facing the morning commute after a holiday was a thing to joke about, facing a commute after a year of working from home might be the most unfunny of shocks.
There’s a lot we’ll have to adapt to. It might feel uncertain and scary at times. And we’ll be armed with a deep experience that tells us it doesn’t have to be the way it was. We can live and work differently, maybe even radically differently. Within this truth, there is great freedom.
The worst thing we can do is go back to normal. We’ll get normality rammed down our throat, especially by marketers wanting to sell us products from companies that didn’t (or couldn’t) adapt to changing consumer preferences. But normality isn’t something we should strive for.
Our world was broken, unjust, unsafe, and headed for climatic catastrophe. The pandemic lifted the veil on all of this, gave us time to pause and consider, and narrowed the world so that we had to talk to our nearest and dearest about what mattered the most.
We must remember the successes and the failures, and make time to grieve and remember the suffering. Our cities are full of moments to fallen soldiers and heroes of past wars. But, more civilians died here in the UK during this pandemic than in all of World War 2. They deserve a monument. And, we should name buildings and streets after the scientists who created our vaccines.
What we need right now is optimism and openness grounded in compassion and understanding. Many of us have spent the past year rethinking our lives – now it’s time to redesign the way we live.