How might Covid-19 affect our ways of thinking and living longer-term? We can only hypothesise
A flu pandemic was predicted by Bill Gates in 2015 as one of the major threats the world faced. There has been extensive coverage since then of our preparedness levels, and what we would need to have in place to be better equipped for the virus, whatever form it might take, whenever it might hit.
Still, the speed at which Coronavirus has spread has shocked us, and the myriad major impacts on our societies around the world have rocked us.
Anyone who tries to predict what the lasting legacy will be is talking nonsense. We’ve never faced anything like this before. Parallels with previous pandemics are challenging for a wide range of reasons.
We don’t know how long it will be till a vaccine is found, and what the scale of devastation will be between now and then. We can scenario-plan, and envisage different possible outcomes, but naturally there will be many hypotheses baked into these visions of the future.
We also cannot, at these still very early stages of what could be a period of global disruption that lasts in some form for well over a year, accurately anticipate what changes to our ways of living will stick in some form, and which may be forgotten in time.
But based on what we can see now, while we cannot credibly imagine the practical, tangible ways in which our world will change (because these will be shaped by factors such as how long it takes for a vaccine to be found), we can reflect on the ways Covid-19 has already started to alter our cultures, and consider how these shifts might evolve.
Below are three areas of particular interest at present. There will be another set of themes shared in the next post in this series.
Food supply resilience and self-sufficiency
In the past year, the main issue we’ve been focusing on as we have gone about our food shopping has been plastics in packaging. Alongside this, reducing our meat consumption has been a hot topic, with veganism and forms of flexitarianism growing. Both plastics and meat consumption are issues that are closely aligned with building a more sustainable future.
With these areas in the spotlight, we’ve been paying less attention to previously established considerations such as seasonality, food miles and chemicals in food production.
And so we (or some of us, anyway) have been getting irritated about plastic wrapping on our avocados, but not worrying so much - relatively - about where they came from or how they were grown.
But it’s evident that Covid-19 is triggering us to think a bit harder about our ways of shopping. Because we have no choice. Most of us now can’t breeze into the supermarket to pick up whatever we want, and it’s not easy to get online deliveries either in many locations. Or we may well be able to buy food in the shops but feel uncomfortable about how we achieve this while maintaining distance from others.
We’re feeling vulnerable, hence the siege mentality that has been evident across the United Kingdom prior to supermarkets taking control measures.
And now, UK growers said this week they were facing a "serious labour shortage" that could risks millions of tonnes of fruit and veg failing to reach consumers. And Italy has now issued foodstamps worth 400 million Euros.
The logical conclusion to this anxiety is to take more control into our own hands, if we can - whether through baking our own bread (how many loaves have you seen on Instagram?) or growing our own produce.
Across markets, getting creative in the kitchen (with whatever supplies we have in stock or can source easily) is one response to the situation. We cannot buy and eat whatever we want (assuming money is no object) so we need to get imaginative with what we have. In the UK, chef Tom Kerridge has created a series called Tom Kerridge Lock Down Dinners, offering inspiration to make meals using up leftovers. And in Italy, Massimo Bottura is live-streaming his family dinner prep from his kitchen every night - #KitchenQuarantine
Meanwhile, back in the UK The Royal Horticultural Society and National Vegetable Society have reported a substantial increase in people starting to grow their own veg for the first time.
The beauty of growing our own produce is multi-faceted in a period of lockdown – should we have the benefit of our own outdoor space (which is a particular privilege in these times), gardening exposes us to sunlight for vitamin D production, and time spent productively outdoors has physical and mental wellbeing benefits. We may recognise and start to appreciate these benefits.
Taking a wider-lens and commercial view, studying more closely the resilience of food supply chains is a necessary sub-set of interrogating the viability of our cross-border supply chains, across sectors, in a fragile world.
So might any of this stick? The odds are high that we’ll revert to our previous food shopping habits in the main, but we may wish to continue to exercise new cooking skills we’ve picked up and we may well see an enduring cohort of new home vegetable growers. We may start to put more emphasis on cooking with cupboard staples.
Beneath this, let’s not forget that in the paradigm of modern food shopping - the on-tap access many have had to buy the food they want at any time of year - has been ripped apart, and the impact of this will be worth further attention.
Prior to the lockdown we were growing increasingly concerned about the influence of our technology usage – and in particular social media – on our wellbeing. Whether it’s adults fretting about evening screen time affecting their sleep, or worrying about the toll social media is taking on teens’ mental health.
Now we have been thrust into a situation where communications outside of our households overwhelmingly must be conducted via social media. Houseparty, Whatsapp, Facetime, Zoom, Skype… Sharing endless memes, playing games.
Children are being home-schooled, where schools and parents have the resources to facilitate this, through heavier reliance on the computer than they are used to in the traditional educational setting.
And let’s not forget the news – the exhausting cycle of updates on the number of infections and the death toll, and how well or not our health systems are coping so far. It’s hard to stay connected and manage news consumption well.
On Sunday, iPhone users received their weekly Screen Time alerts, prompting an increase in social media posts globally about the knock-on effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on our technology ‘addiction’, both joking and more serious.
The rules we might have set ourselves or methods we might have developed to manage our screen usage – out the window. What the legacy will be – hard to predict. It’s likely some of us will develop a more sophisticated understanding of our technology usage, and consider more deeply what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘less good’ screen time.
When we rely totally on our phones, laptops and tablets to work, educate our children and to stay connected to our friends and family, we are triggered to reappraise fundamentally the benefits technology brings to our life, when managed well.
Our sense of financial security
So much of what we thought we could be confident in has been upended by Coronavirus.
How many people thought that the economy pointed towards this being a reasonable time to move jobs, buy a bigger house, ditch their job for a career break or pivot, retire imminently, or start a new business? How many businesses felt confident that they were on sure footing but are now grappling with stark new commercial realities?
How many have cancelled their holidays? How many are taking mortgage holidays, drawing on savings, borrowing from family?
Coronavirus risks wreaking utter havoc with our confidence to make consumer choices, to make major life choices. This is a complex and potentially far-reaching implication from the crisis, which could reach deep into our behaviours in financial services (savings, insurance products, even mortgages, loans and other debt vehicles, investments); our careers and our leisure (how we plan for and book holidays, for example).
When we recognise we’re living in a fundamentally altered reality in which our ways of living can be dramatically altered in a matter of weeks (and for an unspecified period), there is potential for lasting impacts to our ways of planning for the future, in our work and personal lives. Because for many of us, the future may feel harder to picture with confidence than it ever has done.
We may well go back to many of our old ways of living before long and adopt the mindset that this has been a blip. We may choose to think this way as a coping mechanism – to put this behind us and believe that life can move on. But more realistically, the impact of the virus will stretch for some time. There will be enduring overt outcomes (business closures, economic damage, job losses) and a range of cultural shifts, some more evident and many more latent.
In the next post, we’ll look at a different set of themes. Feedback welcomed in the comments section.