Even as countries begin the long, slow climb out of lockdown, there’s growing recognition that whatever our societies and economies look like once this is all over, it won’t be much like 2019.
When we return to work, what will work look like? What kind of cities and economies will we live in? And while the affluent west plans an escape, the world’s war-torn regions await an even greater crisis on the horizon.
Goodbye open-plan office
The pandemic will end many of the things we love — some of our favourite restaurants, bars and cafes might never reopen, and cheap holidays could be a long way off.
But it might also contribute to the demise of one of the most universally reviled necessities of contemporary life: the open-plan office. A study of an outbreak at a South Korean call centre, where nearly half the employees on a single floor got infected, has shown just how quickly the virus can spread through an office space.
That means as people start heading back to work, we may have to rethink how we design office spaces. There’s already a broad recognition that working from home will be far more normalised, and travelling vast distances for a single meeting is out. It could also see the panoptic open-plan office, another of Silicon Valley’s gifts to the world, replaced by 90s-era high-walled cubicles.
Tech companies are starting to stock up on office dividers — another sign that nature is healing?
A greener future?
COVID-19 has, to some extent, put the increasingly urgent issue of climate change on the backburner.
But with economic activity ground to a halt, personal car usage plummeting, and travel suspended, global carbon emissions from the fossil fuel industry could fall 5% this year. In megacities across the world, skies are finally free of pollution.
How long any of this lasts depends on whether we embrace a fundamentally different, more sustainable post-pandemic economy. At a city level, there have been some progressive noises. Amsterdam is embracing the “doughnut economy” — the latest, faddish idea that means functioning in the optimal middle ground between meeting minimum living standards and avoiding ecological catastrophe.
Milan wants to remove cars from 35 kilometres of once-congested urban streets, while Paris and Oakland are expanding bike paths. In Australia, experts are now calling on state and federal governments to shift the balance of urban infrastructure away from cars and back toward pedestrians and cyclists.
There are also some positive signs for the renewable energy sector, although whether we’ll see a dramatic post-COVID-19 surge is still unclear.
As oil prices tank, renewables now make up a record fifth of American electricity. Angus Taylor has flagged bioenergy as the next step in Australia’s emissions reduction strategy. But that alone isn’t enough, and climate scientists are urging the government not to waste a good crisis, and use the post-pandemic recovery as an opportunity to push for growth in the renewables sector.
What happens to sport?
While the NRL remains stubbornly determined to start up this month, and have spectators back in its usually half-empty stadiums in time for a spring finals series, other sporting bodies are far more cautious.
While Germany’s Bundesliga could be the first major football league to restart, and pending a commitment from the government, Ligue 1 in France had its season cancelled, after Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced live sport could not start until September. FIFA’s chief doctor recently said we might as well forget about professional football until next season.
Either way, without crowds, will any live sport really be the same? The Tokyo Olympics, postponed until next year, are still in doubt. Yesterday, the head of the Japan Medical Association suggested that without a vaccine, holding the games next year might not be viable. A further delay would effectively be the death knell for Tokyo’s Olympics.
Virus brings more misery
Recent pleas by the United Nations for ceasefires in conflict zones, which were blocked by the US and Russia, may have fallen on deaf ears.
Although the Saudi Coalition announcing a unilateral two-week ceasefire in Yemen, the pandemic is generally, making things worse for some of the world’s most vulnerable areas. In Yemen, where just one test has been conducted, the UN fears COVID-19 is spreading undetected, and is worried a shortfall in funding could cause another humanitarian crisis.
Refugee groups say it’s just a matter of time before the virus hits Idlib province in Syria, an area hit hard by the country’s civil war. The United Nations is desperate for a ceasefire. In Libya, which has been in a near-perpetual state of chaos since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, there are fears a greater outbreak of the virus could destroy and already decimated health system.
There are also concerns about the pandemic’s impact on Europe’s forgotten war in Eastern Ukraine, and that moves toward peace could unravel.
This article was first published by Crikey.