When COVID-19 is a distant memory, will we simply return to ‘business as usual’? More to the point, is that what we want?
We have seen some momentous positive changes to our world as we collectively battle the COVID-19 pandemic. While they may seem only temporary, this brief moment in time could be the opportunity we needed to pause, reflect and press the restart button for a better trajectory.
Most of us can imagine what a better world could look like, but actually changing our behaviour to achieve it is a whole new ball game. This crisis has forced us to make changes, allowing us to see what happens when we do things differently. It’s clear some aspects of the new way of functioning are not only possible but preferable, both on a personal level and for the greater good.
Progress on climate action
Lockdowns around the world have resulted in huge improvements in air and water quality, significant decreases in carbon emissions and a fall in demand for coal and oil. Wildlife has blossomed and biodiversity is returning as we humans spend more time indoors. Even long-polluted areas have shown a drastic turnaround, for example, canals in Venice, previously contaminated from years of tourism, are now cleaner.
The brief recovery of our earth has given us a real glimpse of what could be. Of course, restricting basic freedoms isn’t the way forward in tackling climate change. However, many alternative ways of life explored during COVID-19 could easily be continued.
For example, the success of online meetings, conferences and even court hearings means we could reduce unnecessary business travel and daily congestion and pollution on our roads. Widespread shop closures have forced people to buy from local suppliers; if this continues, it would reduce food miles and help to protect wildlife. Job uncertainty has encouraged people to buy pre-loved items and reduce non-essential buying, driving down the consumption of material goods. And, many people have reconnected with a simpler and more self-sufficient life – planting and making their own food, and entertaining themselves with craft, puzzles and board games, rather than more energy-intensive pursuits.
Hopefully, the success and relatively easy up-take of these changes will encourage governments around the world to use the crisis as a pivot point to redirect their spending. They have an opportunity right now to use economic stimulus, recovery resources and the low interest rates to drive investment in cleaner, renewable technology and make real progress on reversing climate change.
Greater work flexibility and work-life balance
Lockdown restrictions have allowed many employees to prove they can work from home reliably and effectively. If employers embrace a future of greater work flexibility, where working from home is perfectly acceptable rather than a ‘special treat’, we would not only see environmental benefits, but could also reduce employee stress and mental health issues, and increase our number of usable hours each week. Previously wasted ‘commuting time’ could become leisure or family time, improving work-life balance.
Decentralisation in Australia
We may even see more city dwellers opting for a tree change or sea change, as the need to ‘live near work’ becomes less important. A push into regional areas, where property is cheaper, and life is arguably more relaxing, may be compounded if we see more financial stress among city dwellers with big mortgages facing a drop in income, particularly as mortgage holidays are called in and economic stimulus packages wind down. It may be perfect timing for some Australians to sell up in the city and purchase their dream home in a regional area, particularly as interest rates remain at their lowest level in 70 years.
This trend could help Australia decentralise its cities, something it has been trying to do for decades. Longer term it has the potential to boost regional economies and reduce congestion in our major cities; a real silver lining for Australia.
Increased world peace
In March, the United Nations called to end all wars during COVID-19. It is greatly concerned that countries at war may find it impossible to control the virus. Special envoys are increasing their efforts to convince soldiers to down their weapons and allow humanitarian workers to start reducing the impact of the virus.
Eleven countries facing long-term conflict have agreed to the UN ceasefire call, including Yemen, Libya, Cameroon, Colombia, Syria, Sudan, the Philippines and Ukraine. Turkey and Russia have also been negotiating ceasefire solutions with the UN. Whether the UN can prolong these peace agreements into the future remains to be seen, but the current reprieve is certainly a good start.
Businesses everywhere have been forced to be more innovative, to maintain income during lockdown restrictions. Many have adapted by offering their services online and providing a way for their employees to work remotely. Some have had to reinvent their business models – cafes have turned into takeaway venues and gin distilleries have been making hand sanitiser.
We may see a change in consumption patterns post-COVID and businesses will need to continue to innovate to adapt. For example, we could see more demand for better home fitness solutions and home entertainment options, people-tracking and data security technology, new health-care equipment and online education solutions.
Corporate social responsibility in action
It’s been heartening to see so many businesses donate money, food and medical equipment to support people who are struggling due to the crisis. For example, McDonalds is providing free coffee for healthcare workers; Johnson & Johnson donated a million masks as well as goggles, protective suits, thermometers and respirators; Coles pledged 1 million dollars’ worth of food each week to those in hardship; and Optus has been giving away free mobile data. Some education and recreation providers have set up a free service online to help keep people occupied while in lockdown. These generous acts are unlikely to go unnoticed and will, with any luck, drive a new focus on corporate social responsibility even after COVID-19 is long gone.
The pandemic has shone a light on education alternatives as we undertake a huge homeschooling experiment. Online teaching, educational games, self-led learning and virtual reality have been forced upon educators and students. The result is a much broader scope of educational options and a generation of parents and teachers with a greater understanding of how children learn and what works best. It is hoped the experience will inspire education decision-makers not to fear change as they look for a way to transform our education system.
Around the world, we have been finding new ways to satisfy our need to connect with one another. Restrictions on visiting friends and family have brought neighbours together and heightened our sense of community connection. In Italy, for example, people created music from their balconies and danced in the street together (while socially distancing, of course).
There has also been a surge in formal and informal volunteering as people offer to go food shopping or take on household chores for the elderly, or even just reach out to offer company and support. There’s been a wave of new social media support groups too, such The Kindness Pandemic Facebook group, which shares stories of kind actions and encourages members to do the same.
It’s easy to take the things we have, including life itself, for granted – indeed, most of us probably do. But this pandemic has reminded us just how precious our loved ones are to us, and how much we value our freedoms, leisure, social connections and work opportunities. Hopefully, when this is over, we will not quickly forget how important these things are and how easily they can be taken from us.
The global pandemic could be a very important first step in making a more permanent shift towards a better world. We just need to embrace these constructive changes and incorporate them into our future.