From grandparents to governments, corporations to children, getting back to normal after lockdown has become a way of focusing on the future and getting through the COVID-19 crisis. But what’s ‘normal’ after the first wave of the pandemic could look very different from before.
The study from Imperial College which sparked the UK’s lockdown demonstrated a model aimed at ‘flattening the curve’ of infections to a level manageable for a country’s healthcare system. This model means social distancing, and lockdown not as a one-off, but as a way of life, introduced whenever the curve heads upwards and reduced when it flattens. How might this change the way we live?
Life under lockdown will be a brutal one for businesses relying on high street footfall and the leisure industry. Independent service businesses such as coffee shops, hairdressers and nail bars – which seemed to be bucking the high street downturn – may not survive.
Some of these will adapt and find ways to deliver without breaking social distancing rules – for example, by offering classes online, or switching to a takeout service. But industries such as cinemas, conference centres and cruising are going to have to get very creative to survive a world where nobody’s allowed out.
Home working, too, is a genie that isn’t going back in the bottle. Many more companies may well discover what many home workers have known for years: the right tech can make a central office – and an expensive, unpleasant commute – utterly irrelevant.
Health tracking – or the rather more sinister-sounding ‘bio-surveillance’ – is likely to become the only way in which industries relying on gatherings can continue to exist until a vaccine can be rolled out across the world. And it could be the only way that international travel becomes feasible at all.
Mobile phones provide the perfect vehicle for a tracking system which would show exactly where you’ve been, who you’ve spoken to, and even what your temperature is. Phones could also store proof that you’ve been tested and are clear of COVID-19, or that you have had the illness and are now immune, giving you access to public spaces.
This kind of system is already gearing up in places like Singapore, which has exhaustively tracked and monitored both cases and contacts – a website shows where single case lives and which hospital they’ve been to.
The pandemic has seen political ideologies upended. In the UK, Boris Johnson’s contentedly small-state conservatives have just presided over the biggest government bailout in history. Employees, the self-employed and businesses can all now claim for income lost through COVID-19’s impact.
Measures like this are vital, as they lessen the possibility of social unrest. It’s been said that in a pandemic, the biggest threat is other people. That’s not just as a source of infection, but also as a potential source of crime. Sicily has just seen a spate of thefts sparked by people who don’t now have money to buy food.
The idea of a universal basic income has been floated by blue-sky thinkers for many years, and has been gradually coming into the mainstream – Finland trialled a version of it in 2019, providing 560 euros a month to 2,000 people.
But now, suddenly, it doesn’t seem like such a strange idea. If COVID-19 doesn’t go anywhere, and countries shift to and from lockdown frequently, then governments will need to think hard about how to provide enough income to keep society stable.
The countries which have succeeded the most in flattening the curve – or eradicating the virus altogether – are those which have imposed rapid and draconian measures on citizens. It’s logical to suspend elections, too, and extend emergency powers: governments across the world have done that in order to impose social distancing and save lives.
But if, 18 months from now, we have a vaccine that works and can be rolled out across the globe, how willing will leaders to give up those powers? It’s no longer inconceivable to imagine that Viktor Orban in Hungary – or even Donald Trump – might be tempted to use the pandemic as an excuse to postpone elections indefinitely.
Yet for all the bleakness surrounding the world now, there is still a chance that social change for the better could emerge. Disease has always shaped the world and those consequences have, in many cases, ushered in new and better ways of doing things. Cholera epidemics forced better public sanitation, while the massive flu epidemics of the 20th century sparked successful research into vaccines.
It could be that COVID19 forces us to re-evaluate the importance of public health, deep expertise, properly funding research and countries all working together towards a common goal. And that lessens the chance of disruption on this scale happening again.
Important disclaimer: this document is not an official research report and the views expressed in it are those of the authors. The authors are not registered research analysts and there is no assurance the trends mentioned will continue or that the forecasts discussed will be realised. Gold as a commodity is not a specified investment for the purpose of giving advice under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, therefore, this does not give rise to rights to claim compensation under the Financial Services Compensation Scheme.