Two years on, still without any idea as to what is going to happen in the future, the players are Humankind, and Covid-19. The question is: Space?
So a Coronavirus has broken out of a mine shaft, or a laboratory, or some other reservoir, managed to develop sustained human-to-human transmission chains, become highly infectious during a reasonably uncomfortable incubation period and disrupt the lives of practically everyone on the planet, in varying degrees, for two years. Ongoing.
And yet, there are far worse things lurking out there getting ready to pounce. Some of these are already known to us (Nipah, a potential nightmare with a 40-75% mortality rate and horrible sequels among 20 per cent of survivors), others yet to be discovered, but the rate at which we are destroying forests should bring us more and more nightmares in a very short space of time.
The point is, have we learnt the lesson that Covid-19 is teaching us and are we creating the conditions to adapt? The key word here is Space and we can approach this on three levels: personal space at home, the workplace or school space and the public space. In these spaces, we can make a difference, adapting our lives to a new reality (the circulation of pathogenic viruses) to make them safer and more comfortable in the present, while preparing for the future.
For those who feel the urge to ridicule this article and deny that Covid-19 exists, I sincerely hope they do not have to go through what my family went through in April 2020 when we lost a much-loved one to this horrible disease.
Whether or not we learn the lesson and take advantage of our current technology is an issue (humans need multiple lessons to learn something while animals as a rule get it after just one) and it is quite conceivable, although very worrying, that in a few years’ time everything will have gone back to “normal”, distance working will not have taken off, ditto distance studying and we will have learnt nothing. A quick research into so-called Spanish Flu a century ago, and further research into how humans handled pandemics in medieval times will show that we were as unprepared in 2020 as they were in 1420, or 1920. Or rather, they were better prepared in medieval times because they practised something called quarantine (40 days’ isolation).
As we might have predicted, the vaccination rate, worldwide, is as shameful as it is deplorable and once again underlines the gap between the haves and the have-nots, the enormous gulf dictated by the accident of birth on one side or the other of an invisible frontier (a line drawn on a map somewhere thousands of kilometers away). This means that while at year-end 2021 many of us have some degree of protection against the virus and its mutations, others do not and these then become Petrie dishes for the incubation of new variants, of which we know nothing. There is as much possibility of Covid-19 petering out as it disseminates, becoming less pathogenic and morphing into something like a bad common cold, as there is of it rearing up into something terrible with a high mortality rate accompanied with a long incubation period.
Whether we are speaking of Covid-19 or something worse waiting in the sidelines, it makes sense to wake up and face what has become a new reality. Obviously, working from home has the benefit of drastically reducing the risk of catching Covid but also carries challenges as regards the organization and sharing of space.
Two people working from the same kitchen table while a war breaks out behind them among the kids and the pets, or prying eyes into facebook accounts or cell-phones, bring new issues into the home, which were out of sight (and mind) in pre-Covid days. Indeed, an unstable relationship might not last a prolonged lockdown.
So transforming the home into working spaces which allow a degree of privacy, separating work spaces from Zen spaces, or transforming the entire home into a Zen space, requires some imagination and here is another great opportunity for a start-up business. Properly handled, it is a win-win situation.
Incredible as it may seem, it is not a foregone conclusion that distance working will be in vogue forever. Indeed, in many countries more traditional workplaces, like ministries, banks, insurance companies and so on, places where one would find a control freak in a position of management, the rule is “back to normal”. For the control freak, the person who looks at her/his watch if an employee leaves at the right time (the end of the working day according to the work contract), the opportunity to practise and enact control ends if the employees are all at home.
However amazing it is that companies are not embracing the new trends (distance working) with both hands, it is a fact and yet another indicator that humankind does not learn easily and fails to take advantage of situations. Distance working means for a start that there is less traffic on the roads, so less pollution; it means the worker will turn on the computer probably at 8.30 and not 9.10 and so put in an extra hour or more per day, voluntarily; it means the worker is more relaxed and so happier (more productive); it means the worker will probably go outside for a coffee from time to time (stimulating the local economy). It means that the worker feels a greater sense of trust and responsibility.
It also means that institutions can take advantage of home workers by scrapping the timetable and increasing the workload, so distance working needs legislation to protect the worker from unfair demands and exploitation.
For those unable to work from home, and who have to go to a workplace in person, distance working means fewer travelers on public transportation and an easier ride in to the workplace (in means of transport which have been properly sterilised and rendered safe for use). For the environment, we only have to study what happened in several cities around the world to see the benefits of a reduced human presence: plants and animals appearing in places where they had never been seen before.
Other less conservative practices are apparent mainly among the IT companies, and others with more enlightened systems of management, which have embraced distance working. Some have abandoned the workplace altogether, reducing their rent and other office overheads to zero; others have downsized from six floors to one, others to a meeting room with a nice, attractive look, others to sharing an office space with other companies, bookable online. These practices range from 100 per cent home working to hybrid systems, in which workers are present at the workplace on a number of days a week, or one week in, one week out, or else instituting a voluntary system whereby workers decide for themselves whether they have an in-person meeting or a virtual one. Control a worker, and (s)he will be unhappy = unproductive. Give her/him responsibility and (s)he will respond, positively.
The knock-on effect of an enlightened management practice for the workplace can be felt in real estate. With distance working, it is no longer necessary for a worker to pay premium prices for accommodation in or near a city and more and more people are discovering that the weekend house or the cottage that their grandparents left can be turned into a Paradise Discovered. Added to this, the development of settlements in the countryside, boosting the local economy with more demand for goods and services.
What about schools? Well, a great way to spread a pandemic respiratory disease is to crowd people together in classrooms. True, it is more difficult to deliver a curriculum to primary school pupils than for University students but designing a flexible program is not rocket science and the delivery of the entire syllabus is a question of breaking twelve or thirteen years of primary and secondary education into units. Bottom line: kids love computers.
Properly handled, it is a win-win situation.
Finally, the public space. Common sense would dictate that the use of the mask indoors (I use the K-95) and also outdoors when passing people, makes sense. It is difficult to understand why people would object to the point of breaking things and throwing missiles at the police, just as it is difficult to understand why people would refuse to receive a vaccine which was made to protect them. Perhaps these people would prefer to catch the virus and spend Christmas lying on a hospital bed hearing other patients around them gasping for breath and occupying a space which someone else without Covid might need, quite apart from wasting the time of healthcare workers unnecessarily, but here we are entering the area of psychiatry.
Once again, we see multiple opportunities for new start-up businesses providing venues for goods and services to cater for new fields of demand. Home deliveries, for instance, of shopping, meals and other services from veterinary treatment for our pets to healthcare services for ourselves. Distance schooling/coaching. Sports facilities in the open air. Cultural awareness initiatives. Another win-win situation.
Mask wearing, social distancing, hand sanitising, common sense. Remembering this, and taking advantage of our personal and collective spaces can reduce the discomfort of living in a pandemic, reduce the risk of becoming (seriously) ill and prepare us for a future which has a huge question mark over it.
Have we learnt this lesson? Or will we slump back into in-person workplaces and schools?
Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey can be reached at