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Urban Systems

The pandemic will forever transform how we live

From homeworking to healthcare, Covid-19 has forced society to adapt in ways that should endure

Journalist: Simon Kuper

“It’s as if we’ve gone from 2020 to 2030 in one weekend,” Dutch educational innovator Christien Bok told the Volkskrant newspaper. Below I’ve tried to capture some of the transformations in western societies since March.

What follows isn’t a catalogue of utopian dreams (though we need those), or shortlived moral awakenings. Rather, it’s a list of changes that have actually happened, should last, will save time or money and can mitigate horrors such as carbon emissions, loneliness and homelessness.

• Working from home. For a week it’s an experiment, but after nearly a month it starts to become institutionalised, even in professions that had never contemplated it before.

The British cabinet now meets on Zoom, court hearings have shifted online and bank staffers are executing transactions from home over secure systems. All this has happened unplanned, while many employees are looking after children all day. Homeworking will be easier after the pandemic.

If white-collar employees end up working from home just half the week, the fall in commuting would slash emissions, pollution and rush-hour traffic while boosting national happiness.

When psychologist Daniel Kahneman and economist Alan Krueger asked 900 Texan women in 2006 to rate their enjoyment of ordinary activities, sex ranked first and commuting last. Morning commutes appeared “particularly unpleasant”. Ex-commuters would save fortunes on cars, and free up time in manifold ways.

Most lowly-paid employees — such as cleaners, cashiers and waiters — can’t work from home. But if white-collar workers shift their activity from city centres to residential neighbourhoods, support jobs will follow. Anyone still commuting to downtown will find roads and trains emptier.

• Telemedicine. The pandemic has sparked an almost instant time-saving revolution in medical care. Telemedicine works “for most medication refills… urinary tract infections, colds and rashes, diabetes and hypertension follow-ups, lab results, post-op visits, birth control and fertility, and mental health,” says the website Medicaleconomics.com.

Older people — many of whom have undergone an involuntary crash course in videoconferencing — will spend less time in germ-filled waiting rooms. Their children (generally daughters) can sit in on the calls instead of ferrying parents to and from appointments.

• Better hygiene. Coronavirus contrarians always point out that the ordinary flu kills thousands too. That’s true. However, it isn’t a good argument against lockdowns during far deadlier Covid-19. Rather, it’s an argument for reducing flu deaths (and misery, and lost working days) in normal times.

We now know how to do it: more handwashing; masks and self-isolation for infectious people whenever possible; and better availability of flu vaccines.

• Volunteering. When the British government asked for 250,000 volunteers to help the National Health Service during the pandemic, three times that number applied.

Some argue that a state service shouldn’t need volunteers, at least not in normal times. But we live in a century of unprecedented leisure (chiefly among the over-sixties) and a waning sense of community.

Many people would rather help their society than moan about it from the sofa. Volunteering is a way to convert leisure into community. It also reduces loneliness, including among volunteers.

• Checking on the elderly. Even before lockdowns, many older people often went days without speaking to anyone. Now countless WhatsApp groups are reaching out to isolated neighbours.

In my building, there’s a sign downstairs asking if anyone wants help. In Ireland, postal workers have begun checking on the elderly, asking whether they need food, a pharmacy or a way to send messages. After the pandemic, these cost-free systems could allow more people to grow old at home rather than in expensive and often depressing retirement homes.

• Curbing domestic violence. Lockdowns have worsened domestic violence, but have also alerted countries to an eternal plague. Better late than never, France has hurriedly enabled victims to seek help in pharmacies (using code words if necessary) and shopping malls.

• Emptying American jails and housing the homeless. Since the 1960s, the US has created a vast government-funded prison-industrial complex to control poor people, many of them African-Americans.

The US incarcerates more inhabitants per capita than any other country, yet still has high rates of violent crime. Now that prisons have become virus incubators, many states are releasing nonviolent and elderly offenders, and arresting fewer new ones.

Meanwhile, California has begun using federal funds to house some homeless people in hotels and motels. It’s also considering buying rooms for the long term. “This was the crisis we needed to address before the Covid-19 crisis,” says the state’s governor Gavin Newsom. For plutocratic San Francisco to have 8,000 people living on the streets and in shelters was a choice.

Even leaving aside morality, it’s easier for people to deal with addiction and find work once they have a place to live. And the new policy should save California money, given how many emergency-room visits the homeless make. Some good ideas really were just lying around waiting to happen.

The content in this article was relevant when published on 9 April 2020. Current views may differ. 

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