It is no exaggeration to say that the last 12 months have been… challenging. And that really is putting it mildly. The high fatality rates across the world, together with all the suffering, angst and existential dread have been bad enough. But Covid has also brought an unprecedented amount of ennui into our lives. There is only so much Netflix that the average human being can take…
January 2020 began with all the customary resolutions, hopes and projects. But instead of realising them, we spent ridiculous amounts of time squirrelling away toilet rolls, eyeing up other shoppers with suspicion in Sainsbury’s and watching Matt Hancock squirm and stutter on Newsnight.
So is it insensitive and provocative to suggest that somehow, it has not been all bad? Sure, every day has brought with it calamitous news and many people across the world have endured untold sorrow. But dig a little deeper and you will see that some of the shifts that are under way are not wholly negative. We are – after all – very fond of reminding ourselves that a crisis is just an opportunity in disguise. And in many ways, a number of exciting opportunities have already emerged from this period of utter turmoil. So much so that the future might not just be about recovery: it might actually be about finding better ways to live.
Think about the hobbies we have taken up. The lockdown has made getting hold of a plumber or an electrician extremely difficult, so DIY has made a huge comeback; the most unlikely people have embraced arts and crafts (knitting, crocheting…); and we have all become expert MasterChef contestants.
Then there are the companies that have benefited. Beyond the obvious ones like Amazon and Netflix, there are the slightly more unexpected winners. When we finally return to the office, we may find that our workplaces have been kitted out with non-invasive, no-touch temperature screening devices as part of the collective drive to keep us all safe. And while we’re away from home, we are going to want to invest in some tech to keep an eye on our pandemic puppies: the market for pet monitoring and automated feeding solutions was worth an estimated US$63.5 million before Covid and is thought to have doubled in the past 12 months.
Just consider how our patterns of work have changed over the past year. Until Covid, working from home was seen by many as a chance to skive off. But if the world’s economies have survived, it’s because our information and communications technologies are now robust and mature enough: we have successfully made the transition over to remote working, and the stigma has fallen away from it as we have done so.
“The old 9-to-5 office regime is dead,” says Investment Quorum’s Chief Investment Officer Peter Lowman. “Before Covid, many companies aspired to providing their employees with more flexible ways of working, but did not really know how to go about it. Fast-forward twelve months and we now know that in most sectors, it is wholly achievable. Indeed, many major companies – HSBC included – are looking at massively downsizing their offices to save money”.
Historically, recessions would often lead to periods of “presenteeism” – people were desperate to be seen to be working longer hours in a bid to prove their worth. We are still in a transition period of sorts – people are scheduling a lot of unnecessary Zoom meetings, for example. But once the dust has settled, we are going to be left with a very different work culture. One that might actually involve drastic improvements in work-life balance, but without compromising on productivity.
“Most companies understand now that you can set targets and let people get on with the job much more flexibly”, says Peter. “Many young people may still want to be in an office. That social element is still important… and they’re keen to learn, they need mentorship. So the office is not yet a thing of the past. But the shift is real”.
There are, needless to say, obvious Covid losers, and a stroll through any city centre will flag them up immediately: station terminus cafés have closed, the Evening Standard’s circulation has halved and the prices of city centre property and office real estate have slumped. But the pandemic has catalysed the emergence of infinitely more efficient and sustainable ways of commuting.
We have been walking and cycling a lot more. We have started exploring our own neighbourhoods and the green spaces closer to where we live. We have all enjoyed cleaner air and the return of birdsong – the sounds of nature that had previously been drowned out by traffic and aircraft noise.
Is this a permanent change, or will the din of carbon-intensive modes of transport return? Analysis by Global Carbon Brief (GCB) shows global CO2 emissions fell by 7 percent in 2020 as a result of global lockdowns. Emissions levels will – of course – rebound as the world literally gets moving again, but perhaps some of the changes in how we travel will linger. There are certainly signs that our recovery from the pandemic could be an opportunity to push the reset button and start from scratch, hardwiring greener policies into our practices. The fact that so many governments have so publicly stated their commitments to carbon neutrality is evidence of this.
As far as addressing the climate emergency is concerned, it is still too early to tell how much lasting, useful change this crisis could help to deliver. But there are reasons to be hopeful.
“Most of the emissions reductions have been in the transport sector”, says Peter. “And this is definitely the sector where some of the changes might endure. “It’s just possible that global business will realise that travel can – to some extent – be avoided, which will keep emissions in the aviation sector down. And maybe people will understand that cycling to work is actually a better alternative to being crammed into a train like sardines every morning ” (Brompton sales have exploded over the past 12 months).
The global community already appears to be using the recovery to push through green policies and support packages favouring renewable technologies. “It is encouraging that fossil industries have been hit harder than renewable industries”, says Peter. “Perhaps this will give policymakers the confidence they need to push funds in a greener direction”.
When it comes to the virus itself, the vaccine’s arrival means the picture is significantly brighter than it was at the start of the pandemic. Although health authorities the world over face a momentous task in rolling out vaccination campaigns – and an enormous backlog of patients waiting for other treatments – health experts believe that vital lessons have been learned.
In the UK, for example, the NHS, the wider public sector and voluntary bodies up and down the country have been working together more effectively than ever before. Rolling out the vaccination has taught us to break down unhelpful barriers and do away with ineffective hierarchies. And the valuable relationships that we have built should stand us in good stead for the future.
Although nobody would claim that Zoom is the perfect replacement for a visit to one’s GP, the health service has adapted remarkably well to remote consultations. Telemedicine was already on its way to becoming a reality before Covid – it’s just another one of those fields the emergence and development of which have been catalysed by circumstances.
The pandemic has offered a visceral reminder that experts – including the ones who keep us alive – are not the enemies of the people.
However difficult the past 14 months or so have been, and however difficult the months ahead may be, the recovery is the perfect opportunity for us to reshape society. This may be the best chance we get for some time.