Western society is shutting down. Yes, people are complaining about people still being in cafes and pubs in London, but this is temporary. Whether the government shuts this down by legal means in the coming week or not – and I suspect they will – this behaviour will fade out as more people become ill. We are a week or so away from a virtual society; where everyone interacts online and nowhere else.
It is obvious to say that I never thought I’d see this happen in my lifetime. That it is an airborne virus that has caused this is daunting, particularly given it has demonstrated how unprepared our societies are for anything like this. Almost without any real discussion, a CoronaVirus Bill is set to be rushed through parliament as quickly as possible. It gives the government powers that would have been unthinkable even a few weeks ago. No one other than conspiracy theory types think this is being done to curtail civil liberties as a power grab. In fact, a lot of those who will be complaining about the powers this bill will give the government have been complaining for weeks already about how the government hasn’t been restrictive enough thus far.
The problem comes when you consider unintended consequences. Many bills placing emergency powers into the hands of a democratic government have been done with good intentions and still turn out to create horrible situations further down the line. When you make a society less liberal, for whatever reason, it becomes harder to make it liberal again later. Freedom is hard fought and not easily reborn. I don’t have an answer for this by the way. It’s clear the government needs to do something to avoid mass deaths of the elderly and people with underlying health issues. I’m just pointing out that it will be tricky to unwind later.
What if society has to shut down for another month? Two months? Six months? The results of this, social and political, are unknown and unknowable. The economics are easy: for all but a handful of industries that will actually benefit from the crisis, it is armageddon. I think the government had it right when it worried about lock down burnout and people’s ability to get frustrated and flout the rules eventually. If it were a strain of Ebola that had found a way to spread quickly we were facing, things would be different – a measure of fear over one’s own mortality comes into play on a widespread scale. But what happens when a significant chunk of society get tired of staying indoors because of “old and already sick people”. I mean, that’s horrible, but you only have to look at some of the reactions from British holidays makers, easily available online, to think that discounting this behaviour would be foolish. This could get worse as a lot of people get the virus and have a minor reaction and recover quickly. We’ve already seen how quickly people can become selfish in the midst of this crisis. I worry a lot about how this dimension of it will play out.
Will this change British society forever? How and in what ways? I obviously don’t know but my main worry is how the hell the government manages this crisis if it stretches on. Having draconian powers is one thing – having to use them is a whole other problem.
It will change society and in some respects it will be for the better. As more people discover that they can work froim home that will reduce commuting and the pollution that it brings. For many people there will no longer be the question about whether taking a job will cover the cost of childcare; the problem will be ensuring that the children don’t soak up the internet bandwidth. Yes, areas and countries that depended on tourism will be worse off, but there is no doubt that we have to wean ourselves off flying, particularly long-haul flights, if we are to get climate change under control.
The Chinese have a saying “a crisis is an opportunity riding the dangerous wind” (if you look at how the Chinese character for crisis is made up, these are two it comprises). We need to think more about the opportunity that the coronavirus pandemic gives us to change society than always looking at the downside.
As more people discover that they can work from home that will reduce commuting and the pollution that it brings
Actually I suspect that what will happen is that people (and companies) will discover that the grass on the ‘working from home’ side is not in fact greener at all; companies will see how much less efficiently things get done when people can’t talk to each other face-to-face, and employees will realise how good it is to have a real physical separation between work and home (what I like to call, as of just now when I thought of it after my first ever day of home working in my life, the ‘Wemmick factor’).
And I expect that when this is sorted out the travel, tourism and aviation sectors will have a bumper few years as people who have been cooped up (a) make up for lost time and (b) try to see everywhere they’ve ever wanted to go but put off to the future.