My wife flew home from London in late February 2020 on a flight on which a passenger was later diagnosed as having contracted the novel virus Coronavirus, later to be known as Covid-19. We had already decided that she should quarantine on the off-chance, because if you’re going to catch anything, one really good time to do it is during air travel. We planned to give it three weeks, as the incubation period of the virus was put at 14-28 days back then, though later they stuck to 14, but by the time the three weeks were over the government had ordered us all into precautionary behaviour, and us in particular into what they call “cocooning”, 24/7 house arrest for the vulnerable groups (we fall into two, old and underlying decrepitude), and so here we are, living in splendid isolation on the South West Atlantic Coast of Ireland, quite content.
The truth is, my wife and I have been living like this for years. We see each other in the morning and in the evening, only meeting if we go for a walk or shopping or some other engagement. Otherwise, we have our separate places to work or just while away the hours, whatever we choose. The key to any good relationship is surely the security of knowing that you can be alone when you want to be, a mutual respect for space and privacy, and this goes for corporations as much as for couples.
The only serious changes in our daily routine, such as it is (which is not very routine), have been the end of long walks on the beach (getting fatter) and having everything delivered (no petrol expenses or trips anywhere for two months). We live on a farm, so there is a general routine of exercise, stuff to do in the garden, a walk across the fields (about a quarter of the walk on the beach). We both work from home in our semi-retirement, really more pursuing hobbies than jobs, though we do get paid sometimes. In our cocoonment the support of strangers, the volunteers delivering stuff, as well as friends running errands has been humbling as well as gratifying. I love the Irish, their immediate instinct to look around and see where they can help their neighbours even as they make sure they are all right themselves. As demonstrated back in 2008, they’re great at saying, “Well, that party’s over, better clear up the empty cans and get back to work”. In the 1980s we used to say the party is still going if there’s half a can of lager left. The result is that the ranks here closed quickly when the financial collapse happened, the economy got through its troubles in double time, and now we have managed to suppress the virus with equal vigour and efficiency, though of course, the battle is far from over. In fact, I don’t think it ever will be again. We are living in the time of novel viruses.
A lot of the domestic distress that is reported during the current lockdown must be due in part to the unexpected shock of everyone being in the home all the time, every hour of every day, children in the sitting room, husbands in the kitchen, wives trying to work or just wanting to be alone while being nagged to service the household, because truth to tell, most of us are still putting most of the housework on the woman of the family. But it must also be true that lots of people found a new way of being at home, and have grown to like a lot of the effects. It is a common misconception that Darwin’s theory of evolution is based on the idea of the survival of the fittest. What he wrote is that the survivors are those who most readily adapt to change. The effects of the pandemic will be social change, but what and to what degree is open country right now, all futures remain possible until they happen, though we may wonder about it just the same.
Though my wife and I may joke that we have always lived in isolation, we haven’t. Last week they released the cocooned back into the wild. We went for our first beach walk in months on Tuesday. Thus we are beginning to go back to our earlier life, or as much of it as survives the changes wrought by this experience. We can now go out of our gate for journeys up to two kilometres and soon we will be allowed to go five kilometres from home for no better reason than to get away. We may even be allowed to mix with friends and family. If we have better reasons, so-called essential journeys are allowed, and I was told recently that includes buying a newspaper. Food is also an essential journey, but we will keep up the grocery deliveries until they tell us to get off our lazy arses, which will be when the R is 0 or possibly sooner, though I think I’d rather wait for an all-clear. We shall see. Perhaps they will keep the service going, now that it has proved so popular. Anything that reduces use of cars should be encouraged.
But all of this begs the question, what comes next?
One of our daughters shared a video of a young man reading a children’s book to his son set a few decades in the future. It was a charming if naive vision of a great lesson having been learnt, but it is the tragedy of humanity that it is the biggest bullies who run the system, and though capitalism has vastly increased the political and economic power of the Consumer i.e. the majority, it is still the oligarchy that holds crucial decision making powers. They will do their best to get us all back to the world as before, where they were getting ludicrously rich and powerful. Nevertheless, it must be assumed that there will be a social, political and economic effect of the lockdown over the next decade. In many ways it is only an acceleration of something that was already happening, the move to communications technology in the work environment, but it is also bound to have changed people’s perception of the life they live, used to live, and now intend to live.
I expect this new virus to recur every coronavirus season, perhaps remaining ten times more lethal than general ’flu or perhaps reducing, as each dose dissipates the future potency of the virus. I don’t know. It has managed to get around the world fairly rapidly and these things don’t fade away unless they literally run out of hosts. This can in theory be achieved by extreme lockdown. A lot depends on whether catching it means gaining life long immunity, but that would make it unique among coronaviruses, or so I have heard, but please comment if there are some coronaviruses that provide total immunity after one dose, like chicken pox or measles, which I believe are a different class of viral infection (with the same proviso, I’m not a doctor and I’m too lazy to Google all this). Probably more to the point is the fact which this pandemic only serves to emphasise that such novel viruses do occur, and they can spread very fast if we don’t trap them quickly. How to do that will preoccupy all governments after this.
Supposing that there will be a seasonal continuation of the infection, I expect we are not going to go for total lockdown next time around, or at least, according to how it persists, we will refine our behaviour to deal with not only Covid-19, but Covid-25 or 30 or whenever the next novel virus escapes. We have all learnt the lesson that George W. Bush learnt back in the early 21st Century and started the planning for dealing with a pandemic, an international network of early warning lookouts, expanded by Obama, but unfortunately for us all, dismantled by Trump a couple of years ago.
We have to face the fact that pandemics will happen, and we need a cogent way of living that allows for that and limits the effects. Compared to the Spanish Flu of 1919, we have done extraordinarily well so far with what will undoubtedly become known as the Chinese Flu of 2020, though we won’t have any proper grasp on the extent of this pandemic until the end of 2021 or later. Fortunately for us in Europe, we have the benefit of a Control experiment, because Sweden alone decided to go for the “herd immunity” path, while all the rest have gone for the lockdown and flatten-the-curve approach. The result this year has been that Sweden has had a death toll several times more than the rest of Scandinavia put together. They calculated that they could handle the medical impositions and that herd immunity would provide a better long term result. Their hope is that next year they will have far fewer than any of the other Scandinavian countries when they realise their economies can’t handle a lockdown every six to eight months and seek ways to keep the economy going without lockdown.
Coincidental to these events there has been a movement in the G7 economies to take a look at the priorities of capitalist business. The current ethos of capitalism is that the business serves its investors a.k.a. shareholders first and foremost. Put bluntly, they only do this to make money, and if there was a better way to make more they’d do it. A few years ago the CEO of a pharmaceutical company raised the price of one of their pills by 400% because, he said, “it is our moral duty to make money when we can.” There is no social connection, no empathy in this outlook. One can only wonder at his use of the word moral, but for him the process is a moral obligation – make money.
However, the higher powers of capitalism are aware that all business is dependent on the Consumer, and this I suspect is one reason why they have considered reordering the list of their obligations, starting with their customers, then society as a whole, and lastly the shareholders. According to Private Eye, a British magazine, in 2019 CEOs of 181 of the world’s largest companies declared “a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and shareholders.” Presumably the shareholders of significance are considering this from their position of dealing purely with money, a commodity with only one value for human life, it is the Esperanto of exchange, the instrument by which we conduct trade, and thus provide supply according to demand. And so the world goes round etc.
But now the Consumer – i.e. you and me and all us ordinary taxpaying citizens of the world – has just been through the pandemic experience. What will happen to us as we face into this new future potential that has been writ large though it’s been there for decades. Terry Gilliam’s wonderful 12 Monkeys is all about a pandemic in the age of 24 hour international travel and crowded spaces, and that is only one of a number of films that considered the possible effect of a novel virus getting into the population. Scientists have been trying to get the attention of government for decades. Well, now we have all been forced to confront the reality and that is bound to affect the way we deal with this and future novel viruses.
I expect we will keep up social distancing, or physical distancing as the Irish government more accurately, more kindly call it, and like the Japanese, we will get used to wearing masks in public, keeping our groups physically distanced, no more sitting elbow to elbow with strangers, everyone wearing masks, and finding disinfectant or hand washing facilities everywhere. Social events like cinema and restaurants and theatre will have to adjust the budget to deal with a general desire to keep a wider personal space than before. Gloves, they say, are less necessary as the virus isn’t getting in via your hand but when your hand, glove or no glove, touches your face and the little buggers go up your nose or into your mouth (or down your ear? Why not?). Viruses are a marvel of survival instinct, it’s their only motive for living. They look like World War 2 sea mines as they hunt down our cells and destroy them.
And then there is the world of work. I wrote an article a few years ago on “disruptive technology”, a term that refers to the technological innovations that have so thoroughly transformed the way society works since the 1980s, growing in social influence exponentially (though of course, history is full of disruptive technologies, it’s just that this one is ours). Alternate-States discusses current research plans and developments in an attempt to look into the future of what are known as Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Mixed Reality technologies (VR, AR, MR). The use of computer technology to add to or reproduce or create in an artificial environment reality.
Within this decade I predict we will see cinema quality graphics in all the virtual reality technologies, such as will encourage a significant shift to virtual experiences. Instead of sitting in a crowded theatre you sit at home with a headset like a pair of sunglasses and you think you are in an audience watching a play or a concert, while actually you’re home with a drink in your hand. Instead of flying with all of the infection risk of air travel we have secure virtual meetings for a large proportion of business and other meetings, in particular international political and business meetings, until face to face meetings are as rare as Government Summits. The main problem for now is the graphic quality, which is still poor and would make participants wary of trusting too much to the event, but new methods for delivering the internet and computer speed will conquer that certainly within the next thirty years, but I suspect the quality will be solid in ten years, not least because now we are going to put much more pressure on the technology to meet the demand of less social engagement.
The Consumer will make it happen. Imagine the time it took to go from the first horseless carriages to an economy and social process almost entirely dependent on motor transport, or the time it took to go from mobile phones as big as house bricks that only Wall Street actors carried around to the most essential internationally utilised social tool of the 21st Century?
I have no idea if we will slow down socially, but I expect we will if only because the economy will. The economy will slow because most of it is based on the local society’s need for supply, services and jobs. Businesses in future will need to accommodate pretty much permanent physical distancing, at both ends of the deal, with their staff and their customers. Turnover and margins will go down. Types of demand will change, with for instance, people more inclined to order in to the point where even the top restaurants provide a delivery service, with the rarity of table space chez le Chef driving up restaurant prices to compensate for the lack of footfall. Businesses will save on reduced premises costs, renting time in shared office buildings for the occasional week or two of working together, test kits at the door.
Cinema will become an event like theatre, both will have to cope with a shrinkage of seat space, and theatre will follow cinema in streaming productions in an effort to generate income. Theatres could multiply their output, because each production need only run live in studio once or at most a minimal number of times to provide a cycle of nuanced differences in performance before it is exclusively available online, and for both cinema and theatre, like restaurants, the in-house experience can be priced for rarity.
Commerce will always find a way to make money. They just have to adapt to changes in demand.
I can’t see how music venues can avoid crowding, so people will develop all sorts of fashion responses to the need to wear masks, and all of us will get used to a lot more washing and dancing if it isn’t disconnected enough already, will become a solo thing you do unless you know who you’re with, and anyway, that generation will mostly just hope they’re not the one that’s going to get it. I can’t see banning clubs, it will just go back ot the old rave scene, popping up all over the place. Social media, yay! Maybe they’ll have saucy unisex wash and/or shower rooms so the clubbers can wash before going home! There’ll be a lot more fainting (the masks constrict breathing, and you’re breathing in your own out-going breath), there’ll be special breathing spaces where you can sit and take your mask off, maybe pump extra oxygen in.
But more importantly, consent and trust will be ever more cautiously attained, so there could be a tendency for relationships to slow down (though lust will always be with us, of course). We might even go back to the long courtships and polite introductory periods of the last time society moved at these speeds, the 1950s or so and ever more so the further back you go. Some of the Right wing dreams of going back to the fifties might even come about. Politeness, kindness and patience are regularly concomitant with a slow lifestyle.
Of course, a lot depends on how people have taken to this time of living at home, of reduced social interaction, of self reliance and self entertainment. With or without work to do, it is a huge change from the usual run of life for the great majority of people in west Europe, where I live, when one or usually both of the adults in a family are out at work for eight or more hours five days a week. Did they enjoy these weeks of being at home, did they find a new look at life, or did it drive them crazy, and exhaust them? Children aside, because they will go back to school, masks on, the adults working at home will have the possibility of focus without travel. Some will build office sheds at the end of the garden so there is a walk to work, and some might even share a local space with other online workers, instead of going to company head office. Businesses might be able to reduce their office space, or share it as said above. There could be a change of use bonanza with office buildings converting some of their space to cheap flats, a help towards solving the housing problem.
I expect air travel will involve some sort of health clearance at the airport, during the security check, hopefully a highly efficient test system, and of course, we hope for a vaccine, but unless someone discovers a universal vaccine for all variations of the species of coronavirus I think we will continue with physical distancing and mask wearing, and a lot of work will go to home workers, a shift to AI manufacturing processes, and long distance goods transport. I hope to see a cleaner world, more quiet, less demanding.
As my wife said to me this morning, think how quickly we all adjusted to the 9/11 effect, from strolling up to the gate with ten minutes to spare, to queueing for hours at airport security, belts and coats off, laptops out, liquids in a bag, and lengthy queues. We all adapted.
Remember what Darwin said.