History turns as much by chance as by design.
For every meticulously planned revolution, there is the daring shot that triggers a world war. The coronavirus pandemic is more than a medical emergency; it is a contagion that will spread to every cell and tissue of our lives. The way we live is going to change drastically in the coming months but the transformations could end up outlasting the virus itself.
There are obvious alterations we will have to make. Gym-goers will have to content themselves with a brisk jog round the local park. Takeaway aficionados will have to rummage around for that old Delia Smith cookbook they got for Christmas years ago and teach themselves how to boil an egg. Like it or not, you will have to forgo pubs, clubs and cinemas in favour of — brace yourselves — spending time with your loved ones. Romantics predict a coronavirus baby boom; I suspect divorce lawyers will do a rare trade too.
These are mere minor irritations. Coronavirus will disrupt the very assumptions upon which much of modern life rests. Individualism, personal choice, free movement, convenient consumption, universal healthcare and a passive state — each will be significantly tested or upturned. Lives and money are what matter most and what concentrate minds in Downing Street.
Values hitherto seen as immovable will shift abruptly out of necessity and survival instincts. There could not be a more illustrative example than the latest pronouncement of a senior Iranian cleric. Iran does not recognise Israel — except when it is threatening the destruction of ‘the Zionist entity’ — and its citizens may not openly trade with Jerusalem. However, Israel’s legendary medical research labs are reported to be working on a coronavirus vaccine. So, last Wednesday Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi declared that, while it is ‘not permissible to buy and sell from Zionists’, an exception would be made if they produced an antidote to the infection. The pandemic has forced Tehran to recalibrate its priorities: Death to Israel (terms and conditions apply).
In the UK, priorities will also be recalibrated. There is going to be a sustained period in which the NHS will not function as we know it. GP appointments will be done via Skype and Facetime; elective and even some non-elective surgeries will be postponed; patients will be urged to attend Accident & Emergency in only the most urgent scenarios. If this spurs us to recognise our over reliance on the health service, some of these behaviours might carry over to post-coronavirus Britain. Video appointments could become the norm, allowing patients to consult their GP without having to travel across town to the surgery. The graphic reality of misuse of A&E could prompt some soul-searching about what constitutes an emergency, though government would have to meet patients half way by giving more responsibilities to pharmacists and building more minor injuries units.
We are also embarking on the biggest ever experiment in remote working. In many sectors, physical workplaces are an anachronism thanks to advances in technology and the availability of wifi and high-speed broadband. The workplace meeting can be replaced by the video conference, the cluttered desk and broken chair by a comfy sofa. Firms could reduce overheads such as rent, utilities and furniture and use messaging apps to keep track of progress and troubleshoot any problems.
According to the TUC, more than four million Britons already work from home but a further four million would like the option. Understandably, some employers would be resistant on the assumption that at-home workers are less productive, but research shows the opposite. Employees appreciate the trust and freedom — as well as skipping stressful commutes — and report higher levels of motivation and productivity. Remote working isn’t just good for your staff’s wellbeing — it’s good for your bottom line, too.
Moving to remote working could also play a meaningful role in the fight against climate change. Research shows that Britons spend on average 10.5 days a year commuting to work and that, by doubling the number of remote workers by 2025, CO2 emissions could be dramatically slashed. In Scotland alone, it would mean the average person creating 1,248kg less CO2 every year. Save the planet, work from home.
Science and technology won’t be our only saviours in this crisis. A return to lapsed values including respect, neighbourliness and compassion would go some way to easing this public health emergency. Grim though it is that it would take such an event, but the imminent deaths of a significant number of elderly people may traumatise us into rethinking our attitudes towards the over-65s. Scarcely a referendum or election goes by now without embittered activists from the losing side stigmatising older voters and even taking succour in their impending demise.
On social media, Generation Z has rebranded Covid-19 ‘Boomer Remover’, a provocation that would carry more force if it weren’t issued by people who begin weeping when anyone calls a virus that originated in Wuhan the ‘Wuhan virus’. The reality has not yet dawned on post-millennials that their grandparents are the boomers who will be removed.
If anything positive comes of this virus, it might mark an end to our callousness towards senior citizens and a revival of respect and social responsibility. Neighbourliness used to be popping round with a cup of sugar or taking in next door’s children after school. Today, there are stories of neighbourhoods in London where younger residents are using WhatsApp to coordinate grocery and medicine drop-offs for elderly neighbours. Total strangers are drawing up rotas for checking up on vulnerable locals and those who live alone. Neighbours are sharing hygiene supplies and keeping each other updated on the latest health advice.
Trends in population, housing, income and attitudes have made for a more fragmented Britain but coronavirus is already rekindling an old-fashioned spirit of community and reminding us that we have a moral duty to others.
By coincidence, the rabbi and philosopher Lord Sacks has a new book out, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times. It is about the virtue of a ‘we’ society in the age of ‘I’. Asked last week if his book was pertinent to the impact of coronavirus, Lord Sacks said: ‘If we purchase our freedom at the cost of someone else’s, the result is not freedom. So I think coronavirus is going to test our capacity to work for the benefit of others. This situation of putting up with personal inconveniences for the sake of public safety is going to challenge and force us to realise that selfishness is not going to protect us.’
Selfishness won’t protect us; indeed, it will only make things worse. The more the fit and healthy panic-buy loo rolls and hand gel, the more sick and elderly people will contract the virus, the more the contagion will spread, the more pressure it will put on services, and the more prolonged the outbreak will be. It’s a vicious cycle, and a heartless one too. We are social beings, not just matter in motion.
Ostensibly, coronavirus seems like a corrective to globalisation and free movement of people and goods. If we didn’t have relatively open borders, some may argue, this contagion would never have spread. This is wishful thinking. Deadly diseases swept the world long before the Common Market or the invention of the airplane. In fact, coronavirus makes the case for more globalisation, more trade and more opening up.
In the naive Nineties, drunk on technology and optimism, we told ourselves the world was getting smaller thanks to global trade and instant communication. In fact, the world has grown more divergent and only the circles in which we travel have shrunk. We have retreated into tribes, online and offline, and cultures and identities have become hopelessly fractured. An event like coronavirus may make us fear a wide open world but it reminds us too that trade, cooperation, sharing knowledge and global neighbourliness are the way forward.
The state will be more active in the next few months than we have seen it in generations. We would be wise to keep a watchful eye on such developments but for now coronavirus has paralysed party politics and put the national interest ahead of partisan positioning. Politicians will be no less ruthless, ambitious or self-serving but they will have to tame their instincts and pursue the common good for the time being. Lives and money depend on it.