Obviously I can’t go and check, but memory tells me that the reception of Addenbrooke’s hospital bears the Persian adage “This too shall pass”. The human condition is temporary, and therefore so too is the terror and experience of mortal pain — that’s (I presume) the intended message.
But will it — Covid-19 — pass? Since the “-19” refers to the form of the illness first induced by the SARS-COV2 virus in 2019, then yes, Covid-19 will pass. But Covid-20, Covid-21? I suspect that those people who hope that the virus (and the deformation of ‘normal life’ with which we’re currently wrestling) will fade away are going to be disappointed. We won’t live in social isolation for ever, but neither will we be returning to ‘normal’ anytime soon.
In any case, historically speaking, it was the relatively un-pandemicked century between Spanish flu and Covid-19 that was the statistical oddity, not living with the risks presented by a fatal infectious disease. Human beings are great hosts for fragments of RNA that just want to live, baby! We need a new-normal, not a return to the prelapsarian days of February, 2020. How long ago February seems.
So much of pre-Covid-19 world was oriented for the gregarious and extrovert, and was tolerated by the rest of us (people who need solitude to maintain equilibrium) because the dominance of the herd seemed impossible to overcome. Take the world with which I’m most familiar: the office. Here, the following norms were unquestioningly accepted:
- Open-plan hot-desking (every morning, hoik a box containing your laptop cables to any flat table in the office, and set yourself up for the day) leads naturally to synergistic interactions (“Hey! Let me, like, totally interrupt what you’re doing and tell you all about my ideas right now!”) These add value to the business.
- Global teams are better, because they increase diversity, and diversity always adds value to the business.
- Anyone leading a global team needs to travel incessantly, because physical presence among team-mates increases team cohesion (which is as important as diversity), and adds value to the business.
- Serious decisions must be made face-to-face, even if half the face-to-face meeting is in one video-conference suite in Philadelphia, with the other half in another room in London.
What have five weeks (I started early) of social isolation taught me? First, that hot-desking is dead, thank God. The idea that you should be forced to spend today at the desk where yesterday Eunice from Chemistry was hacking up her lungs (“Some sort of 24 hour thing”) will be illegal by the end of next year. Everyone who was part of the “abolish private office space” movement should be forced to march through the streets — at two metres separation — with a placard round their necks saying “Sorry for our unwarranted attack on human dignity”.
Do we need offices, at all? I’ve found it easier, not harder, to keep leading my own global team. From 1-on-1 catch-ups, to management team meetings, to seminars and town halls and performance reviews: every aspect of managing a group of globally-distributed workers has been easier to conduct from the study at home than from a hastily-booked “meeting space” cubicle at the fringes of the open-plan hell. In my (pharmaceutical) industry, the only people who actually need to be on site are the lab scientists. The rest of us can work remotely. The company works fine.
It works better than fine, in fact; better than the old-normal. Once the curve has been flattened, and isolation officially terminated, the question will loom: why leave the house at 6am to travel to Stevenage on the train every day, when the same work can be done, more comfortably, from home? Why rush back to the old-normal, the Benthamite Panopticon hell, at all?
How will HR react, I wonder, post-Covid-19, if I tell them “I’m not flying to Philadelphia for work, anymore. It’s not necessary — this we proved, in Spring and Summer 2020 — and it therefore unnecessarily raises both my susceptibility risk for infection, and that of the people with whom such travel brings me into contact?” We’ll see.
That’s fine for you, Archer, middle-class manager in your Barnet semi with its nice wee garden and the impossibly patient Mr Keith as companion. What about people who live in inner city flats. With children.
I’m not proposing that social isolation should be enforced forever, merely that we stop insisting on social mixing for the sake of it. More people are like me than you suspect, if you’ve read my enjoyment of isolation with horror. Many more. And if you give us freedom to be just that little bit more physically distant from now on, well, that just leaves more space for everyone else. (Robbie Gibb tweeted a survey that shows around a fifth to a quarter of us plan to reduce social mixing in the future.)
But what about those millions on whom you depend: the health-care workers and delivery drivers and postmen and policemen and soldiers and … the backbone of the country. People who can’t work from home. What changes for them in the new-normal?
As the cheering from our doorsteps every Thursday demonstrates, the value of labour and the dignity of the labourer has — at last — been re-valorised. If we care less about what the university-educated think about Brexit or immigration or anything in the next few years, then good. Having a degree in something useless from somewhere rubbish never made your opinion more important than that of the bin man; in cost-benefit terms, each bin man is worth more than a thousand psychology graduates from North London Tech.
I’m married to an electrician. It’s Keith’s experience of globalisation that has ever shaped my politics: transcontinental supply chains (so he can’t choose to buy parts from people he knows and trusts, because his company finds cheaper alternatives from strangers he’ll never meet in countries he’ll never visit); open-doors immigration (so anyone’s qualification from any EU country had instantly the same jobs market value as his own); the downward pressure on wages — in our household, hatred of Blairite globalisation was never theoretical.
If you’re a middle- or senior-manager in a MegaCorp, you’ll know the pressure to offshore and outsource, in putatively British companies, is real. I hope that the new-normal resets this a bit. It’s too much to hope that the Labour Party (a sack of anti-Semitic rats fighting enablers of anti-Semitic rats, both of them dependent on the votes of those psychology graduates) will change. But the Conservative Party has noticed: we are kept alive by the labour of those whose opinions are despised by Labour.
Meanwhile, there has been a collapse in trust between citizen and journalist — and no wonder. The political lobby, in particular, has behaved lamentably, clinging to their dreary, invented gotchas, and indulging in preening displays of scientific ignorance, even as the old-normal paradigm shifted from under their feet. They remind me of backbench MPs at the time of the expenses scandal: in complete denial that anything needs to change. “But this is how things are done, you see,” they puff, as the sandcastle of self-belief they’ve carefully patted into proud existence is washed away by reality’s tidal wave.
Not only the media’s deficiencies have been on daily display. The official from WHO pretending not to hear the question about Taiwan will haunt that intergovernmental quango. I signed a petition from the sort of organisation I’d normally avoid, demanding action against “wet markets”. I don’t think animal welfare will be left to student activists anymore, not when the link between global pandemics that kill millions and the torture of sentient beings for unnecessary meat is so startingly, unavoidably visible. SARS-COV2 wasn’t the first zoonotic jump; we all know who’s responsible. I don’t think we’ll tolerate either health quangos or corporations looking the other way any longer.
Not only geopolitical outfits and MegaCorps will change in the new-normal. More parochially, perhaps we’ll weigh up the costs of devolved assemblies. An email last week from Sainsbury’s CEO told me the company is ready to match up its customer lists with the database of English citizens felt by the government to be most vulnerable and in need of food deliveries, but: “We are waiting for the databases for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and will contact vulnerable customers in those areas as soon as we are able.”
In the name of God, why are there four lists to do one thing across One Nation? “To give Sturgeon material for a press conference” isn’t a good enough answer — not with national GDP likely to drop by around 35%. Like asking a gynaecologist to take time out from visiting her multiple homes to give you advice on immunology, devolution is an expense whose cost cannot easily be justified.
My 74-year old mother is in Scotland and has the sort of lung condition that would make her death from Covid-19 a near certainty should she become infected with SARS-COV2. That she could have had food delivered safely, last week, from Sainsbury’s, if only we hadn’t spent decades indulging the psychological inadequacies of Salmond and Sturgeon, feels pretty fucking unacceptable.
Wishing viruses out of existence has been one of the hallmarks of my life, since HIV first reared its hideous head, but ‘wishing’ didn’t defeat HIV, any more than shouting GOTCHA! at a government press conference. Don’t die of ignorance warned Sir Norman Fowler, and while too many did, most of us didn’t, and not accidentally. Decades of pharmaceutical research and changes in (sub)cultural norms created a new-normal era that ran from the late 1990s until roughly four weeks ago.
You probably didn’t notice those changes, that coming-into-being of the new-normal, unless you’re roughly my middle-age, and gay. But the same focus on pharmaceutical research — on science, darling! — and effecting changes in cultural norms: that’s the way we’ll defeat SARS-COV2.
There’s nothing special about the virus; it just wants to live. The universe co-inhabited by the viral and human genome couldn’t care less about the outcome, so shaking your fist in anger and insisting on the supremacy of the way we lived until February 2020 won’t, to put it mildly, be efficacious.
Instead, let’s start the conversation about what needs to change, to maximise the probability of human success. The fight for the (new) good life starts here. Don’t die of nostalgia for the old one.