Don’t fear the reaper. How Covid-19 will change us

Don’t fear the reaper. How Covid-19 will change us

It’s coming. A month ago, Covid-19 was just a news story from China. No longer. It is rife in Iran and Italy, the USA seems barely to have a handle on the scale of the problem it is facing and there have been cases on six continents.  Britain has had its first deaths from the disease. It is practically certain to see many more.

There is good news.  It doesn’t seem as though we’re all going to die.  Not of Covid-19 anyway. In fact, if you’re in decent health and below the age of 60, your chances of dying of Covid-19 seem fairly low, though it certainly doesn’t sound like a fun experience.  It’s a little surprising that there has been no public discussion about putting in place special measures for the especially vulnerable rather than have the full spectrum approach that has been adopted to date.  Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.  

So at least as important as the medical implications are the social implications.  The world is changing rapidly. In some ways countries are cooperating more than ever, as they seek to control the virus.  In other ways, shutters are coming down. Japan is quarantining new arrivals from South Korea and China – Japan has a scratchy relationship with both of those countries, and this move has caused further friction all by itself with South Korea.  Fear of outsiders in many countries is likely to increase.  

Supply lines in many industries look to be under great strain, and many companies are looking to see how they can build alternative supply lines, often much closer to home.  

Travel is coming to a halt. Holidays are being cancelled, conferences and meetings are hastily being repurposed as video conference calls and webinars.  Sporting events are being postponed or being held behind closed doors. We can expect theatres and cinemas to start to suffer too.  We are entering a cultural winter, for live events at least.

Economic activity is slowing rapidly, so rapidly the markets are struggling to work out what is going on.  There’s been a lot of focus on the drop in stock market valuations. You might want to be more concerned about the pummelling that corporate bonds have received.  That reflects worry that bondholders won’t be paid back in full.  The implication is that some companies are thought to be in serious trouble. 

So on two levels, when China sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold.  Fernand Braudel hypothesised that crises such as the South Sea Bubble and the Wall Street Crash marked the passing of the baton from one dominant economy to another (importantly, with the crisis taking place in the nascent dominant economy). Perhaps this is our century’s relay crisis.

Enough of the now, what of the next?  The next few months look set to be grim.  In a society used to relative ease, this is going to be a huge shock. We can expect to be a society marked by this harrowing afterwards.

We look set to embark on a major shift in working practices.  A lot of people are probably going to be forced to work at home as their employers decide that they need to take precautionary measures.  For many years gurus have brayed about agile working and remote working, and many office models have been heading in that direction, particularly in the many service industries where face-to-face contact is an add-on rather than a prerequisite.  This is now going to get a rocket boost.

In many ways, the timing is opportune.  The technology is there and widely used.  You can log onto company IT systems from anywhere as if you were sitting at a desk in the office and get IT support from anywhere too.

If this goes on for any length of time, we will all get used to the new normal.  And then the genie might well be out of the bottle, especially if, as I expect, socialising no longer holds the same appeal that it used to in a society that has been drilled for months that contact can mean infection.  If so, offices will no longer be a home for work but perform a much more limited role as a convention centre for meetings, training and networking.

This type of change would have profound social consequences.  Companies may find it harder to make the connections necessary for developing new work.  Within a company, social bonds would be much weakened. Bosses would be more remote from their underlings, juniors would find their learning inevitably formalised.  This must increase the risk of mistakes both being made and being uncovered late. Companies may see short term savings on office space but they will need to think about the long term damage they risk to corporate ethos and its consequences.  Few employers give much thought to that.

Of course, if employees are working from home, the responsibilities for finding and maintaining office space are passed directly from employer to employee.  If employers can pull that off, that’s a sensational cost saving for them.  

It’s not so good for employees though.  These responsibilities and their associated costs are substantial.  Quiet space will need to be found at home. Something serving as a desk and chair will be needed.  That space will need to be heated and it will need an adequate internet connection.  

An astute opposition would be all over this like a rash if such a move in employment practices emerged.  Are Labour thinking about it? There’s no real sign of it.

Within the home, life would change.  Most working adults spend relatively little time with their other halves.  That probably works well in many relationships. Retirement is often a jolt for many relationships: “I married him for richer for poorer, but I didn’t marry him for lunch.”  There has been an immediate uptick in divorce rates in Xi’an following extended periods of enforced marital time.  Picking a partner is going to need subtly different priorities.  Parents working from home would be more present for their children, which must be a good thing. On the other hand, those working from home are physically isolated.  There may be mental health consequences.

Towns and cities will change too if offices become less important.  Office rental values would decline and high streets would become emptier, and all this at a time when there is already much consternation about the decline of town centres.  We look set to lose still more of our public spaces. Perhaps this reflects the move of our life online, where public space is diverse and growing. But you can’t touch a pixel and society looks set to become more stratified online and atomised in real life.  The most profound changes wrought by Covid-19 may well have nothing to do with its pathology.

Alastair Meeks

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