Life after Covid: will our world ever be the same? | Coronavirus

Cities

Here are some things that the pandemic changed. It accustomed some people – those whose jobs allowed it – to remote working. It highlighted the importance of adequate living space and access to the outdoors. It renewed, through their absence, an appreciation of social contact and large gatherings. It showed up mass daily commuting for the dehumanising drain on energy and resources that it is.

These changes do not add up to the abandonment of big cities and offices predicted by more excitable commentaries, not a future of rural bubbles and of tumbleweed blowing through the City of London, but a welcome shift in priorities. There will always be millions who want to live in cities and millions who want to live in towns and villages, but there are also those for whom these are borderline decisions, with pros and cons on each side.

These decisions might be based on life changes, such as having children. If you no longer have to go to an office daily, you can live further from the city in which it is placed. If the magic spell of the big city, which kept people in the tiny and expensive flats that now look so inadequate, is broken, then you might consider living in cheaper, more relaxed locations that hadn’t occurred to you before. Those ex-urbanites, still valuing social contact and public life, might seek towns and small cities rather than a lonely cottage in a field.

Such changes could help to address, without the pouring of any concrete or the laying of a brick, the imbalance in the nation’s housing that was at breaking point before Covid. On the one hand there are overheated residential markets in London, Bristol, Manchester, Edinburgh and elsewhere. On the other there are towns and small cities with good housing stock, an inherited infrastructure of parks and civic buildings and easy access to beautiful countryside, which through their location suffer from underinvestment and depopulation.

This is not to say that no new homes should be built, nor that there won’t be problems with such a shift. It could simply be gentrification, if done wrong, at a national scale. And this vision assumes that Covid passes, and that it is not one of a future series of equally vicious viruses. But there is at least a chance that the travails of 2020 could lead to a saner approach to the places where we live and work. Rowan Moore, Observer architecture critic

Interaction

The first kiss my baby niece blew me was bittersweet, because like so many pandemic interactions it happened not in person but on camera. Covid means that big chunks of her life have only been seen on a phone screen as she grows into a toddler. And I’m one of the lucky ones: I haven’t had to say goodbye to someone on FaceTime or break the worst news to someone over the phone.

If you live by yourself, you’ve made do without human touch for months on end; if you’re crammed into a small space with your partner, kids and your parents, you may have spent weeks craving time and space not encroached upon by other human beings. Totally different experiences of the same social earthquake: surely they cannot but profoundly change us for the long term?

I’m not so sure. Lockdown, then not-lockdown, then lockdown again have served as a reminder of just how adaptable we are as human beings. I was amazed at how quickly the idea of socialising with friends indoors became a fuzzy memory, then the norm, then distant again. The emotions I felt so acutely back in March – the sharp fear Covid could steal my parents, the communal endeavour of clapping for our carers every Thursday night – soon faded into a new normal, impossible to sustain even though many of the realities have barely changed.

Chatting over WhatsApp while watching Netflix doesn’t come close to the wonderful feeling of hugging. Photograph: Westend61/Getty Images

The pandemic has underlined the extent to which digital interaction is no substitute for the real thing. In some ways, I’m more in touch with people than ever thanks to the numerous WhatsApp groups that revived themselves into a constant source of company. But tapping away in a couple of group chats while absent-mindedly watching the latest Netflix offering doesn’t come close to the wonderful feeling of hugging a friend, or spending three hours giving someone you haven’t seen for ages your undivided attention over a meal, or of having a conversation based not just on words but physical cues. I doubt the pandemic will seed a long-term distaste for crowds; if anything, I suspect that, if all goes well with the vaccine rollout, summer 2021 will see a crop of riotous street parties and carnivals.

But a return to life as usual will not mask the emotional toll Covid will have had on so many people. People who suffer from anxiety and depression; women in abusive relationships; children experiencing abuse or neglect at the hands of their parents: they have had it the worst, and their experiences of isolation and loneliness during lockdown could have consequences for their personal relationships that will not magically disappear with a vaccine.

And that is before you factor in the added strain of the intense financial hardship so many are being forced to endure. As a society, recovering from Covid is about much more than antibodies: it cannot happen without support for those who have experienced its worst financial and mental health impacts. Sonia Sodha, the Observer’s chief leader writer

Science

Britain has had an uncomfortable year in its battle to contain Covid. Failures to test, trace and isolate infected individuals allowed grim numbers of deaths to accumulate while deficiencies in the acquisition of stocks of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) left countless health workers exposed to danger and illness. However, these deficiencies have been balanced by the manner and striking speed with which our scientists have turned away from existing projects in order to focus their attentions on ridding us of Covid. Their work has earned global praise for its swiftness and precision.

“The Brits are on course to save the world,” wrote leading US economist Tyler Cowen in Bloomberg Opinion about our scientists efforts last summer while the journal Science quoted leading international researchers who have heaped praise on British anti-Covid work. Science in the UK is perceived, correctly, to have done well in facing up to the pandemic.

A perfect example is provided by the UK’s Recovery trial, a drug-testing programme involving more than 3,000 doctors and nurses who worked with more than 12,000 Covid patients in hundreds of hospitals across the nation – from the Western Isles to Truro and from Derry to King’s Lynn. Set up within a few days of the pandemic reaching the UK, and carried out in intensive care units crammed with seriously ill people, Recovery revealed that one cheap inflammation treatment could save the lives of seriously ill Covid patients while two much-touted therapies were shown to be useless at tackling the disease.

No other country has come close to matching these achievements. “We had the people with the right skills and a willingness to drop everything else and contribute to the effort,” says one of Recovery’s founders, Martin Landray of Oxford University. “That made all the difference.” In a nation which had only recently reviled, openly, the concept of expertise, scientists like Landray have restored the reputation of the wise and the informed.

Fiona Fox, director of the Science Media Centre, also points to the willingness of our scientists to communicate. “Time after time, we have asked for comments from leading researchers, epidemiologists and vaccine experts on breaking Covid stories, and despite being inundated with work, they have taken the time to provide clear analyses that have helped to make sense of rapidly changing developments,” she says. “It has been extraordinary.”

And of course, the arrival of three effective vaccines against a disease that was unknown less than a year ago has only further enhanced the image of the scientist. Yes, they may be a bit geeky sometimes, but they have done a lot to help us win the battle against Covid. Robin McKie, Observer Science Editor

Politics

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

It may not feel like it at the moment, admittedly. But if this pandemic echoes other defining events in our recent history, from the 9/11 terror attacks to the 2008-09 banking crash, it will leave the political landscape utterly transformed in some respects yet wearily familiar in others.

Last week’s spending review, spelling out how the cost of battling Covid will shape national life for years to come, was a classic example. A public sector pay freeze, plus benefit cuts next April? Well, we’ve been there before; to many families it will feel like austerity all over again.

What’s different this time, however, is that Boris Johnson insists there’ll be no return to austerity-style spending cuts. Instead, taxes will rise. If he actually goes through with threats to target second-home owners or higher earners’ pensions, expect some mutiny in Tory ranks. (The bitter joke among Tory MPs is that they’re implementing more of Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto than Corbyn ever will.) But the door to a long overdue debate about taxing wealth, as well as income, is at least now open.

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern.
Pragmatic politicians such as New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern have seen their reputations enhanced through their handling of the Covid crisis. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

The pandemic also seems to be changing what people look for in a leader. The last recession pushed angry, despairing voters towards populists with easy answers; make America great again, take back control. But Covid has been a brutal reminder that in life-and-death situations, competence is everything. Joe Biden isn’t wildly exciting but at least he doesn’t speculate aloud about the merits of drinking bleach. From New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern to Germany’s Angela Merkel and Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon, the leaders whose reputations have been enhanced by this crisis tend to be pragmatists and consensus-seekers, not excitable culture warriors. Keir Starmer’s rising poll ratings suggest a hunger for steady-as-she-goes leadership in Britain too.

Optimists will hope that this collective near-death experience brings a renewed political focus on what actually makes life worth living, from supportive communities to the beauty of a natural world that sustained many through lockdown. Pessimists, however, will worry that calls to “build back better”, or reset society along fairer and greener lines, could be an early casualty of a hard recession that leaves people focussed purely on economic survival.

For it would be naive not to expect a backlash against all of this. Nigel Farage is already trying to whip one up via his new anti-lockdown party, targeting voters angry at having freedoms curtailed. But if the last crash unleashed an era of radicalism and revolt, it’s not impossible this one will leave people craving a quiet life. After such turmoil, don’t underestimate the longing to get back to normal, even if the normal we once knew is gone. Gaby Hinsliff, Guardian columnist

Culture

We know that the spaces from which “culture” emerges won’t look the same after 2020 as they did before. Many theatres, bookshops, music venues and galleries won’t survive the catastrophe of shutdown, and if they do emerge it will be with diminished resources. But what about the attitude and the focus of creativity. Will it be shadowed by the pandemic post-vaccine or will it celebrate liberation?

Portrait of a young TS Eliot.
TS Eliot wrote The Waste Land while suffering the after effects of the Spanish flu, which killed millions globally in 1918-19. Photograph: Mary Evans Picture Library/Alamy

History suggests both. The terrible mortality, social distancing and economic hardship resulting from the 1918-19 Spanish flu epidemic that followed the war were shaping forces in both the doom-laden experiments of modernism and the high hedonism of the jazz age. The Waste Land and the Charleston emerged within months of each other. TS Eliot wrote much of the former while suffering from the after-effects of the influenza, haunted, as his wife Vivienne noted, by the fear that as a result of the virus, “his mind is not acting as it used to do”. Certainly, that poem’s most memorable lines, with their stress on the mass gathering, read more pointedly from our current vantage point: “Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,/ A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/ I had not thought death had undone so many./ Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,/ And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.”

But, contrarily, the spirit of the post-pandemic age was equally alive in the bathtub-gin excitement of the Cotton Club, and the rarefied decadence of the Bright Young Things: raucous celebrations of seize-the-day freedoms after the misery of war and virus.

Not much literature or music that directly responds to the current pandemic has yet emerged. Zadie Smith’s brief book of essays, Intimations, hazarded something of what that response might look and sound like. In a memorable phrase, she described the events of this year as “the global humbling”. That moment when we collectively realised that the confident certainties of what we used to call “normal life” were only ever a heartbeat away from unknown threats – and that the US, Smith’s adopted home, having led the world in many things, was now leading the world in death.

Will such experience engender a new and deepening age of anxiety in the books we read and the films we watch? No doubt that apprehension of apocalypse, of environmental emergency, that draws us to The Road or to Chernobyl will become more insistent. But as Eliot also noted, humankind “cannot bear very much reality”. After this year in which the young have been denied so many of their rites of passage – chances to sing, dance, drink or love – we can surely hope for a post-viral creative outpouring of all those things that make us most happy to be alive. Tim Adams, Observer writer

Work

”Imagine there’s no commuting, it’s easy if you try”, is a popular refrain in discussions of the post-Covid world of work predicting the imminent demise of the office. Sometimes it’s combined with the claim that low-earning hospitality and leisure jobs that have dried up mid-pandemic won’t be coming back and so shouldn’t get support now.

These different predictions are likely to be wrong for the same reason: they pay too much attention to crystal balls, and not enough to rear-view mirrors. Yes, the pandemic itself has meant big changes to the world of work. It has changed where some people (generally higher earners) work while hitting the ability of many lower earners to work at all. But imagining a world without lockdowns is best done by focusing on those pandemic-driven trends that reinforce, rather than run against, patterns visible pre-crisis.

A man sitting on his bed working on a laptop.
Working from home has been a big change, but history warns against the idea the office is finished. Photograph: Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

So, expect the pandemic’s turbo-charging of retail’s online shift (with Arcadia’s likely administration the latest example) to continue – there will be fewer cashiers and more delivery drivers. But don’t believe the hype on the decline of hospitality and leisure. Workers in those sectors are twice as likely to have lost their jobs or been furloughed as the pandemic has left us spending more on buying things than going out, but the long-term trend is the opposite: hotels and restaurants accounted for a fifth of the pre-pandemic employment surge.

Working from home (or living in the office, as it can feel like) has been the big change for professional Britain. But history warns against the idea that the office is finished. Only one in 20 of us worked entirely remotely pre-crisis. But three times that number worked at home at least one day a week, a trend that was rapidly growing. Hybrid home/office working is the future. But be careful about assuming this transforms Britain’s disgracefully big economic gaps: some will benefit from more choice about where to live but offices in poorer areas, rather than those in central London, may be the ones that end up empty. And remember, we’re only talking about a fraction of the workforce here. Post-Covid, waiters and cleaners won’t be doing their jobs from their spare room or kitchen table.

As well as predicting the future, we should be trying to shape it. Higher pay and more security for the low paid workers who faced the biggest health and economic risks from this crisis would be a good place to start. Torsten Bell, chief executive of the Resolution Foundation

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