THE NEW NORMAL? THE FUTURE AFTER COVID-19

Wednesday 08 April, 2020

By Thom Watt

Nobody knows what happens next. We’re in a period of uncertainty, the likes of which we’ve not seen in 80 years. 

One of the few inevitabilities of the pandemic is that this period in history will have profound influence on our generation and how we live our lives in future. In a few short weeks we’ve already had to rethink how we work, how we interact and even how we care for our families.

“I had done some preliminary reading and thought this was an issue that raises really deep philosophical, religious and moral issues. And I think epidemics have shaped history because they’ve led human beings inevitably to think about those big questions.”  Epidemics and Society, by Frank Snowden.

Economic theorists have started to look at how this period may change our habits and our mindsets in the coming years. We’ve looked at some of these discussions, and what they may mean for the future. They are not presented as being right or wrong, merely as an overview of what may change.

Environment

The slowing of international travel and production will have a significant impact on the environment, but that may be both positive and negative. The levels of nitrogen dioxide measured around industrialised areas of the world have reduced to levels not seen in decades, with London’s levels half those of two months ago and falling.

Times of significant change are incredibly disruptive, but they can also be fertile ground for embracing new opportunities. Many businesses will be looking at how to make their supply chain more sustainable, and realise that conference calls can be as effective and sustainable as a face-to-face meeting.

However, climate change experts have expressed some fears that “the bounce back” could put green issues on the back-burner, as climate policy is given less priority than the economy. Professor Rob Jackson from Stanford University, Chair of the Global Carbon Project, has said that “the concern is that companies that are hurting financially will likely delay or cancel climate-friendly projects that require investment up-front.”

A Baby Boom?

Historically, global epidemic events have resulted in an increased birth rate 12-18 months afterwards. Studies from thinkers as diverse as the Institute for Family Studies and Ohio State University have suggested that events from the Second World War, Hurricane Katrina, the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong and the influenzas of the early 20th century have all resulted in an above-average birth rate after the fact. However, the results after a period of enforced isolation and working from home are unknown.

Why is this? Dr Michael Cackovic from Ohio State University explains that “the human response to loss, disruption in access to family planning and, of course, increased sexual activity from being confined to home, could lead to an increase in people getting pregnant.”

Universal Basic Income

UBI is a contentious issue, but it is one that has supporters from across the political spectrum, for very different reasons. It’s difficult to think of a policy that could unite figures as diverse as Richard Nixon, Martin Luther King, Bernie Sanders, Steve Mnuchin, Andrew Yang, Bertrand Russell and the Adam Smith Institute.

Supporters on the right believe it can foster entrepreneurship – as citizens are given a safety net to build upon, it could increase spending power and support businesses. Supporters on the left believe it could lift vast numbers out of poverty, support the working class and provide a greater social safety net. With governments looking at a number of ways of maintaining economies in the short-to-medium term, this could be a policy adopted by some states as a legacy of the current turbulence.

Illness Resilience?

Stopping the spread of germs and maintaining cleanliness have been a key message in the battle against Coronavirus. These may be habit-forming.

A 2018 IPSOS study found that more women than men believed that washing their hands after going to the toilet was “very important” (91% vs 84%) and agreed that it was “crucial behaviour” after taking public transport (74% vs 66%).

A widespread public health campaign to encourage handwashing – which is effectively what has been running for the last month – for an incredibly serious virus could have knock-on effects, and lead to this behaviour changing for good. Some strains of ‘flu could die out for good.

Cashless Society

With the enforcement of social distancing has come a greater awareness of potential contact points with germs. A number of shops across the UK have stopped taking cash as a precaution. With internet delivery of groceries and takeaways at an all-time high, and both requiring online transactions, we may see a reduction in the number of retailers accepting cash for goods or services. The increase in the contactless transaction limit from £30 to £45 on 1 April has already made this more likely.

As Dr Aragona Guiseppe says, “money holds a whole host of germs and so it’s more important than ever right now to try and curb your habit of using physical money.”

A cashless society throws up a number of repercussions, from a likely increase in the number of third party banking apps, to the possibility of digital exclusion for elderly groups or those who choose not to have online banking services.

Home Working

Businesses have had to adapt quickly to new ways of working. Many companies have operated successful work-from-home policies for a number of years, with the work-from-home employees rising 140% since 2005, but suddenly doing so full-time has inevitably thrown up problems, from bandwidth and remote server access to the speed of internet connections.

For some, it will showcase a successful, collaborative, modern way of working, which reduces overheads and the need for a physical office space. The forecasted roll-out of 5G in the coming years will further increase the feasibility for home working. Eight out of ten of the most downloaded apps in the UK in March 2020 were used for video conferencing, suggesting there will be further innovation in this space too.

“Non-skilled workers”

The government’s list of “critical workers” includes frontline healthcare workers, some civil servants, police, military, energy and infrastructure, as well as those in food production, delivery and retail.

Some of the most important workers in the current pandemic are amongst the lowest paid in society, from hospital cleaners, to delivery drivers, to those stacking shelves at supermarkets.

As Sarah Jones put it in the New Yorker, “it should be obvious now, if it wasn’t before, that there’s no such thing as unskilled labour – that low-wage work is as essential and integral to daily life as the labour performed by accountants or lawyers.” Conservative MP Steve Double has also suggested that those deemed “low skilled” “are actually pretty crucial to the smooth running of our country.”

Global events of this scale have tended to change our attitude towards certain vocations, from nursing in the Crimean War to the attitude towards women in the workplace after World War II. With so many of those on the front line designated as “non-skilled workers”, there may well be debate around the living wage, the gig economy and working conditions for those on the lowest incomes.

Thom is Head of Digital at Weber Shandwick Scotland. He works across a range of sectors and industries, specialising in social media strategy, data policy and digital content. Contact Thom at Thomas.Watt@webershandwick.com.