The economic, social and medical consequences have been dire. Across the planet, no one person, country or organisation has been immune, with unexpected disruptions to health systems, business, education, sport, the arts, and most importantly, the creation of physical barriers which prevented families and friends from connecting.
However, to identify three silver linings from the pandemic, and that is far from exhaustive, many would nominate improvements in the public health system, reinvigoration of local communities and changes in work practices.
History is replete with examples of health crises prompting change. A cholera outbreak in London, in the 1850s led to John Snow’s famous ‘cholera map’ that used data to track the disease and ultimately led to modern sewerage systems.
In the wake of the 1918 flu pandemic, which claimed up to 50 million lives, many governments embraced new concepts of preventive and socialised medicine. The Soviet Union, United Kingdom (UK) and France put centralised healthcare systems in place, while the United States adopted employer-based insurance plans. Both systems expanded access to healthcare for the general population. This flu pandemic also accelerated the focus on the occupational and social conditions that prompted illnesses, with prevention becoming as relevant as the cure.
With COVID-19, it was initially thought that it would take years to develop a vaccine but thankfully in less than 12 months a remarkable medical achievement occurred, which bodes well for finding a vaccine quickly if/when another pandemic erupts.
One of the notable halo effects of the pandemic, is a rekindled neighbourly spirit. In the UK, more than two million volunteers helped over 2,700 community groups to support the country’s most vulnerable people, as part of the ‘COVID-19 Mutual Aid’ programme. In Australia, suburban shopping malls and parks became homes for vibrant social gatherings, albeit at the cost of central business district life slowing. Anecdotal evidence suggests society reconnected, as indicated by the endless commentary about acts of kindness becoming the norm, rather than the exception.
Should this prompt a rethink about how to design cities, to encourage greater socialisation, remote working, flexible hours, the role of public transport, access to retail, delivery of sporting and cultural events, and vital need for increased green public spaces?
There are signs of increased investment in physical and digital infrastructure to combat future pandemics to make people feel safer and prepared. Implementing pandemic response plans, increasing health care capacity, supercharging broadband networks and creating pandemic-resilient neighbourhoods are obvious responses, but pandemic resilient policy-making needs to be all encompassing to be truly effective.
Post-pandemic, the workplace is another positive example of changes that will last for generations. Although flexible and remote working has been available for years in many countries across Europe, among others, only 24 per cent of Australians worked remotely at least once a week, before March 2020.
COVID-19 transformed many white-collar workplaces, that today embrace flexible and remote working or a hybrid model, as part of their ‘new normal’. The technology to interact and collaborate online has seen Zoom, Teams, Google Hang-Out and Skype, become some of the most used business tools and the statement, “You’re on mute”, become part of the vernacular.
Another unexpected positive outcome for employers and employees, is the increased level of authenticity that is shared between colleagues, clients and other stakeholders. While professional technical standards were sustained, forced lockdowns inhibited access to grooming services which saw grey and natural hair colour become on trend and activewear become everyday wear.
The closure of childcare centres and schools translated to children and pets often making guest appearances during business meetings. These previously awkward situations became unavoidable, and morphed into increased levels of legitimacy and comfort, with increasing sentiments of feeling more supported about sharing their whole self.
Some employers leveraged access to larger talent pools of highly-skilled white-collar workers, as full-time parents were, almost overnight, given the opportunity to participate in a workforce, that was previously not accessible. Suddenly, traditional full-time workplace-based roles transcended into flexible and remote roles, which is proving to be a ‘win win’ for all. This halo glow lives on and considering the tight labour market, the paradigm shift is a realistic preview into the workforce of the future.
For those who returned to traditional blue collar workplaces, there are indications of employee expectations having an increased focus on health, well-being and safety, whether it be via rostering changes, staggered meal times and/or where possible, physical distancing. Improved ventilation will remain on many check lists, as will the option of limiting an employee’s attendance to multiple worksites.
It is not just business. The fast-tracked digital revolution which is occurring is opening up new opportunities for socialising, learning, exercise, shopping and entertainment. Social norms could change too. Couples working from home could mean greater gender equality, with an enhanced ability to share parental responsibilities. Make no mistake, the world after the pandemic – and that might mean living with COVID-19, not eradicating it – is different. How different remains to be seen? But there’s various indicators to suggest good will emanate from COVID-19 in a multitude of ways and will lift the weight from our shoulders from the past 20 months.