The way that we live and work is changing during the Covid-19 outbreak. Meetings and conferences are moving online. People are flying less and flights are being cancelled. We have long needed to change the excessive consumption of our society. To manage business, travel and tourism in a different way. We must do that to tackle the climate emergency alone. Will the arrival of coronavirus change the way we live our lives? Or will it be business as normal as soon as the spread and fear of the disease fades?
Nothing can or must distract from the threat of coronavirus, which is killing people, shattering families and weakening economies. But it is timely to consider what changes this disease might bring to our society. And whether those will eventually be for the better or the worse.
This is a long read for the weekend on the topic of the moment.
It had been a long discussion in the council planning committee earlier this week. But we finally approved a couple of tree houses in rural south Shropshire for tourists. While committee members took a comfort break, I glanced at my phone. The headline ‘first coronavirus case in Shropshire’ leapt from the screen. The only surprise was it hadn’t happened before.
We were jammed into a committee room. Shirehall is a workplace for several hundred people. A major conference was underway in the council chamber. The first thing that came to my mind was the tree houses would be an ideal place for self-isolation or just to escape any future epidemic. Will fear of crowded places change our holidaying habits permanently? Avoiding cruise ships and crowed resorts in favour of rural isolation thereby boosting the rural economy?
Will we change how we work?
There are major concerns for the effective operation of government at all levels in the Covid-19 outbreak. Health Minister Nadine Dorries has tested positive. How prepared are councils and government departments for the closing of crowded offices? Agencies also. Public Health England? The Environment Agency is essential to Shropshire and elsewhere with continued flood threats. We councillors have not yet got an answer to our question of what happens if a Shirehall staff member or councillor is tested positive for Covid-19. And will waste and recycling be collected if bin lorry workers are in self isolation?
I recently met with a neighbour and declined his handshake. We made a ‘low five’ in a friendly gesture, fine for friends. It’s a bit blokeish. In professional circumstances, I prefer namaste. That change of habit began ten days ago. I’ve stopped hugging too. Not for being scared about catching Covid-19 but for concern that I could be an unknown carrier and might pass it to someone else. Will the refusal to give handshakes and hugs, which we must endure for at least a year, be a permanent change? How will that affect other countries where hugging and kissing are centuries old forms of greeting?
Stocks of some convenience goods are running out. The panic over toilet paper began in Australia. There is not a single loo roll in my local convenience store. Baked beans are being rationed in some local stores too. We Brits have always panic bought. It happens before every bank holiday. Will we now move from purchasing for immediate needs to keeping well-stocked cupboards and freezers? Would that be a wasteful habit or a welcome reduction in car and courier movements?
After health officials initially tried to hide the outbreak in Wuhan, China has been open about Covid-19 with daily updates. It shared the genetic code immediately, triggering urgent work by pharma companies on a vaccine. That at least is a positive outcome from Covid-19. We are a world of intertwined communities and must share information. Geopolitics must be put aside in world emergencies.
A friend born in China told me that Covid-19 was a biological weapon released on the orders of Xi Jinping. The nonsense of this theory is obvious. But conspiracy theories on the origins of this epidemic abound. It has even been blamed on 5G. Legends, conspiracy theories, fake news as it is now called, has been around forever. Falsehood was there in oral traditions, in the first printed newspapers and has pervaded broadcast media in the 20th century and beyond. Many people have always seemed to prefer conspiracy theories. But fake news has now become weaponised on the internet. Influencers, states, presidents and mavericks are all guilty. Fake news is always free but serious analysis is often hidden behind a paywall.
In the UK, public information broadcasts are being reinvented as we struggle to cope with Covid-19. Wash your hands to the tune of Happy Birthday, as Boris Johnson demonstrated. (Better tunes are available through the Wash Your Lyrics website set up by a Northamptonshire teenager.)
Can the government, NHS England and local authorities get the message across or have we become so immune to political and government propaganda that it just washes over us?
Community and sports events are being cancelled. The government is slowly shifting its position on banning mass attendance events. But many organisers are not waiting for Boris Johnson’s dithering. They are already letting people know events can’t go ahead.
Events, conferences, university courses and business meetings are moving online in reaction the outbreak. Companies are reducing business travel. Could Covid-19 trigger a paradigm shift in the way we conduct the way we work? It has long been predicted that the future of business will be online. Not just skype and conferencing software, but holograms too. What sometimes seems difficult today will be simple to a five-year old tomorrow. It would certainly help our ambitions to tackle climate change. But meeting people in the flesh is currently essential to our business culture.
The NHS has been splashed with political promises for as long as I can recall but its resources always seem to be drying up. Will our most vital public service cope as demand increases and staff fall ill?
Covid-19 is hitting economies across the world. China is beginning to return to normal after the isolation of Wuhan and beyond. But the disruption to production and world shipping trade is hitting the supply of car parts and sales. And a lot of other business. On a lighter note, the disruption in rubber duck supplies may bring welcome relief to cities like Amsterdam.
Italy is in lockdown, causing untold costs to the European tourist industry alone. Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced an economic stimulus package for the UK. The Bank of England did the same. We can only hope this will be enough. But I suspect we will need a bigger stimulus nationally and locally. That means Generation Rent will become Generation Debt.
Ludlow Spring Festival is not until mid-May. We need it for the economy of our town. Will it go ahead? No one can predict what will happen.
We are running a few weeks behind Italy on Covid-19. That means we may see a peak in early April at the latest. Shropshire is likely to be behind the national trend because our communications with the wider world are not that strong. That’s why we love our county! But there is a major challenge for people who live in rural communities once Covid-19 arrives in our rural towns and villages. Do we isolate whole communities? Or is it business as usual and hope for the best?
We are in very uncertain times. People shouldn’t panic. Covid-19 is more deadly that seasonal flu though estimates of the true mortality rate vary wildly because most of those affected don’t show any symptoms. But they will be carriers. The disease is mild for most people. We should all just take care.
In a couple of years, coronavirus could be all but forgotten by the media and politicians, though not by many families for a long time to come. But we must not forget there are lessons about needing to change the way we live and work. If we learn those lessons, we might be more resilient to crises in the future, including any triggered by climate change.