A silver lining to Coronavirus?
Covid-19 might lead to some profound and positive changes.
23 March 2020
Coronavirus has already had a catastrophic, world-changing impact, and in the UK things look set to get worse for a while yet.
But even at this stage of the pandemic, might there eventually be some silver linings to this grim cloud? This is the biggest catalyst ever for disruptive innovation. Here are some things that might change forever:
Education in schools, and exams. The education system is being forced into a fundamental, temporary change in how children are taught and tested. Might this be a game-changer? Some people (not me!) have for a while been questioning the Victorian principle of sending over 1,000 young people to a school every day, given that technology now means we can be taught without having to be in a classroom. Not every home or household is suited to home learning, but over the coming weeks and months, most parents are going to have to learn how to handle it anyway. With trial and error, I predict that a lot of people will discover successful models for home-schooling, helped by teachers who are setting and assessing work remotely. Meanwhile, with no public exams this year, schools and universities are forced into a different form of assessment. For some people this is not a bad thing: guru Dennis Sherwood has for a while been blowing the whistle on the known unreliability of exam grades (made even worse when GCSE grades moved to 1-9). Other countries - USA, Denmark - already do things differently. Might this be the beginning of the end of GCSEs, and even of formal A Levels in the UK as our way of assessing teenagers?
Air Travel. Has coronavirus done what the politicians and the Paris agreement etc have failed to do? Air travel has temporarily collapsed to a fraction of what it was a month ago. Will it ever climb back to the level it was at before? Will we begin to realise that ‘local’ is often better, and that having a holiday home in (say) the south of Italy might be more of a liability than a luxury? And that flying to a conference in Las Vegas is an unnecessary indulgence? Was the ruling against the Heathrow 3rd runway a fortunate dodging of an expensive white elephant?
Commuting. Most of the UK population is now having to work from home. For many this is the first time. We have no choice but to make it work. It will be a pain for some, but others will enjoy the flexibility, and the time and money-savings of not having to commute in traffic jams or crammed trains for two hours a day. I suspect that a lot of companies will find that having all their staff in the office 5 days a week is an unnecessary overhead as videoconferencing becomes the norm. We may never see commuting return to the level it was at just a month ago.
Cruises. Seeing the size of some of those multi-storey ships that ferry huge crowds of people around the tourist capitals of the world has been a shock. The cruise industry has become a monster – and I suspect it contributes a lot of sea pollution. But now, the idea of being trapped on a cruise ship with 3,000 people might be viewed by many people as a self-imposed imprisonment rather than a liberation. Cruises will return, but perhaps not at the same level. We have to be realistic - Covid-19 won't be the last pandemic. It might only take one more virus scare to kill off the mega-cruises forever.
CO2 reduction and the environment. See above. But on top of that, is this enforced step back going to make us all think differently about the environment? Pollution in parts of China and in cities like Los Angeles has plummeted for the time being. It’s pleasant to hear of the Venice water becoming clear again. When the economic recovery comes, it will be fueled by cheap coal and oil, but might there be some government and societal resistance to allowing things to go back to the old ‘normal’?
Waste. With all our new free time this weekend, my family spent yesterday morning clearing out drawers that have become increasingly cluttered in the last few years. We wouldn’t think of ourselves as a particularly materialistic family, but I was staggered to find that we have (or at least we had) hundreds of biros/felt tip pens/pencils/crayons in this house, many of them never used, many others used once and now dried up/useless. This colourful tat has come from numerous birthday party goody bags, and gifts, school giveaways, hotel take-home items etc. Unrecyclable, half of it has gone in the bin. This should never have happened, and this casually wasteful lifestyle is surely not sustainable. In 100 years, I can’t believe this junk culture will still be with us (if it is, the wastelands will be horrendous). When will the change happen? Maybe it will begin now. For a start, tighter budgets mean we have less money to thoughtlessly spend on junk.
Food. It’s interesting to see which food is disappearing from the supermarket shelves first. We are being reminded about what food is healthy, and what supplies are most important. Supermarkets are apparently slimming down the range of products they’ll provide. We’re getting a massive cultural reminder that often the simple, basic things can sometimes feel like luxuries. Brazilian coffee or fresh carrots?….
Community. We are being forced to find out more about who our neighbours are, and to look out for them. This is not just a one-off, like the street party a few years ago. This will be sustained for months. Will we begin to see that it’s ridiculous that nearly every home in the street has its own car, garlic press, whatever? Might we even start seeing the occasional communal meal: the people at house No.25 making a big stew and sharing (or bartering?) it with others?
Not all of the changes above will happen, and some of them won't be universally popular. But with climate change, care and the environment all huge issues that we've been failing to address for years, might we have found the catalyst, however unpleasant, that will rapidly move us forward?