18 June 2020
The New Normal
Or same old?
By Lynda Goetz
Many are hoping that somehow our post-Covid-19 world will be an improvement on the old one; that somehow this pause moment of lockdown will allow for a resetting of some of the less desirable aspects of human society and behaviour. History suggests that although changes will result, they will owe little to ideology and far more to circumstances and practicalities.
The Black Death which ravaged society in the 14th century (1349-52), caused massive changes. These were the outcome of the scale of the disease and resultant deaths. Roughly a quarter of the population died. The highest proportion of deaths were amongst the poorer members of society who lived in much closer proximity, (plus ҫa change…) allowing for a greater and more rapid spread of the disease (a mixture of septicemic, bubonic and pneumonic plagues). This decimation of the population led to the effective end of the feudal system, as well as a number of other real and fundamental changes to society (see Ancient History Encyclopaedia Foundation article), including changed attitudes to medical knowledge, the Church, women and certain minority groups (including Jews).
The Great Plague of London in 1665, (another outbreak of the bubonic plague which had been around since The Black Death; so a pandemic lasting several centuries!), followed, and brought to an end, by the Great Fire of London in 1666, likewise killed about a quarter of London’s population. This too had massive immediate and longer term effects on society, but essentially things eventually got back to ‘normal’ and the march of progress continued. Although London was rebuilt with a greater emphasis on sanitation and control over the design and construction of buildings, this had more to do with the destruction wrought by the fire than by the plague itself.
Closer in time to us, what about the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (or GFC as the Australians always call it)? Despite all the calls for and indeed expectation of change, much has remained the same and those changes which have happened have been largely in support of the large institutions and have worked against individuals and smaller investors. A Wall Street Journal graphic article very simply illustrates how little has really changed. This not only applies to the U.S, but to other countries as well.
In a Guardian long read article, entitled, ‘We can’t go back to normal; how will coronavirus change the world?’ published on 31st March, Peter C Baker analyses the various and opposing responses to crises around the world. Writers and thinkers study crises and the effects they have on societies. Some are pessimistic about the outcomes of such events, (whether they be ’Acts of God’ e.g. earthquakes; manmade e.g. the financial crisis; or something in-between like a pandemic and our subsequent actions and reactions in response to it), others, like American Rebecca Solnit or Canadian Naomi Klein, take a more optimistic view. They and those who share their vision hope that as a result of crisis many more people might see the world differently and understand that ‘the logic of the marketplace should not dominate as many spheres of human existence as we currently allow it to’. They are hoping that the feeling ‘we are all in this together’ will prevail, that we will all be prepared to tolerate more state intervention in our lives (for the greater good of course) and lead to better understanding in other areas – in particular the crisis of Climate Change.
The problem with this school of thought is that, unlike Covid-19, Climate Change is a (relatively) slowly looming impending disaster for the human race, not one which, in the eyes of politicians or most of the population, requires speedy responses, quick decisions or urgent implementation of new laws. No-one is going to die immediately because of Climate Change. We have, remember, been talking about this for over 50 years now. Little has changed and the little that has has frequently resulted in unintended consequences (eg more greenhouse gas emissions from certain environmental regulations; effect of cotton-growing on water usage) of the one step forward, two steps back variety. Global cooperation will be required. Sadly, as was perhaps not apparent at the time of Peter Baker’s article, there has been little evidence of that during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Like the pandemic, Climate Change demands changes in behaviour now, to reduce suffering tomorrow. As at 31st March, it might have appeared that people fundamentally accept that where there’s a present danger they will obey orders and government regulations to ‘stay safe’. What has become clear since then is that there is a distinct ‘use by’ date on such acceptance. There is clearly a limit to the amount people are prepared to put up with in the present for a ‘better’ future – particularly a future that they themselves will almost certainly not be here to see.
During the Second World War a great many sacrifices were made and even after the war rationing was accepted as unavoidable and necessary. A sense of relief and solidarity prevailed after all that people had been through. Now, however, MPs are concerned that even talk of removing the ‘Triple Lock’ on pensions could be a problem amongst elderly voters – evidently assuming that those voters would revolt against any sacrifices to create benefits for younger generations who will suffer the economic after-effects of the Covid-19 lockdown. They may be wrong of course, but if they are right and older people as a group are that selfish, then there is little hope for concerted action and support for continued state intervention to provide for a better unforeseeable future.
Of course, it is not only likely to be the populace who cannot see longer term. Politicians, particularly in democratic systems which require them to be voted in (or out) every 4 or 5 years, are notoriously averse to long-term strategies. The view of former psychologist and head of Climate Mobilization, Margaret Klein Salaman, that somehow ‘emergency mode’ can be kept activated about climate is, I fear, completely at odds with human behaviour. The very fact that the minute McDonalds reopens there are queues around the block which require the suspension of residential parking in some places and police supervision in others, and the fact that on the day Primark is open for business some people are queuing at 4 am, suggest that the ‘pause’ of several months has not caused people to re-think their behaviours or their ethics and that the urge to continue ‘as normal’ is probably very high.
It is highly likely that for several years to come fewer people will fly as far or as often. This will not be because of a desire to ‘Save the Planet’, but because of the cost and the inconvenience. Businesses will probably run far fewer, if any, training courses in far-flung places, not because of the environmental cost of so doing, but because they have discovered that this was an expense on the books they can no longer afford and no longer need, as they have worked out cheaper virtual alternatives. Large commercial buildings in the centre of cities may empty as firms reorganise their workforce to spend more time working from home. However, this will not lead to there being fewer cars on the road (although those that are will increasingly have to conform to more stringent emissions tests; a trend in place before coronavirus anyway), as people will probably use public transport less. Fear of catching something (anything) will have increased; provision of public transport will not have improved, so overcrowding will be an ongoing issue.
There will, in almost all probability, be fewer children educated privately. This will not be because of any ideological opposition to private schooling, but simply because fewer private schools will exist, having failed to survive the financial crisis resulting from the pandemic lockdown (probably the last straw after rising pension costs for staff). Fewer foreign students will be able to attend and prop up the annual cost of running such schools. The same will hold true for universities, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your views on the majority of the population studying more for the ‘whole experience’ than the learning.
The use of cash will almost certainly be a longer-term casualty of the coronavirus crisis. Many places have banned its use in favour of cards because of the fear of transmission of the virus on the surface of the physical coins or notes. Although the government in this country published an ‘Access to Cash’ review in March last year and put its weight behind the recommendations, it has been acknowledged generally that one of the lasting effects of the pandemic could be the faster demise of cash and the resultant difficulties for those in the lower echelons of society without access to bank accounts.
Many children and young people will be affected by the lack of contact with their peers as well as the lack of guided and directed learning. Two separate studies* published recently showed that millions of children were doing little or nothing at home during lockdown. This is, unsurprisingly, directly related to the education levels and financial status of parents, meaning that those who are most disadvantaged already will suffer most.
Very few of the above outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic were planned or intended; very few suggest a better or brighter world, rather the opposite. There will be changes as a result of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, some perhaps as yet unguessed at. It does not look as if human behaviour will change dramatically as a result. Humans seem to prefer any change to be slow to give them time to adapt to it; although the pace of change has increased dramatically since the turn of the century. Many accepted norms have been overthrown in the last twenty years. The new normal will evolve from the old, as it always has done.
*One by the National Council for Educational Research and the other by University College London.