Significant societal changes are often triggered by crises; women entered the workforce en masse due to massive demand for workers during World War II; the Great Depression in the United States had many question unfettered capitalism, and the State took a larger role in the economy; energy efficiency became a focus during the Oil Crisis of the 1970’s. While some of these changes weakened over the decades, they all had a long-term impact on societies.
Today the COVID-19 pandemic is ravaging the world, and it is certain that this crisis, too, will have significant and long-lasting impacts on how we live our lives. Even the immediate “short-term” impacts from the pandemic are stretching out to 12-18 months – at which point we will hopefully have a vaccine.
We are already witnessing some of the coming changes, while many others will no doubt only become apparent over several years.
What are some of these changes that the crisis is precipitating or accelerating
One is the use of technology to enable social distancing – in some Chinese hospitals, robots have been introduced to do simple tasks such as distributing medical supplies to wards, thus reducing people’s movements and the risk of contagion.
For now, however, robots are of help in only a very limited number of situations. The increased demand for health professionals, combined with the need for social distancing has already changed the landscape in Australia, where telehealth consultations can now be bulk-billed for all Australians.
Even during “normal” times, this will benefit people who struggle to consult in person due to disabilities or work conflicts.
Another major change is the closing of schools, which has taken place globally and for what looks likely to be extended periods of time. Since it’s unacceptable to just put all learning on pause for months, online learning is experiencing a sudden boom. This massive experiment will undoubtedly allow us to quickly learn what works and what doesn’t – and will eventually result in development of new, better processes and tools for online education at all levels of schooling. While students will eventually return to classes, it seems unlikely the newfound best practices for online learning would all be forgotten. Australia is likely to be one of the forerunners in both developing and adopting new online learning methods; after all, we have over half a century of experience in distance learning with the School of the Air.
It’s obviously not just students who are now home – most office workers are as well, which is driving similar changes. There is no shortage of guidance being offered to people working from home, especially for those new to the concept.
Teething problems are all but guaranteed at first, and many will find the change challenging. Over time, however, the positives for both employees and employers will be better understood and appreciated, and it seems likely working from home will remain more mainstream even after the crisis is over.
Commuting times are much more reasonable when working from home, and many will find concentration is easier with fewer office distractions – at least when the children return to school.
As such, these changes are now taking place at an accelerated rate, and they have flow-on effects elsewhere in society. Working from home alleviates – or almost eliminates in some cases – traffic flowing into the CBDs, whereas demand for recreational spaces such as cafes in suburbs will increase, as long as they are allowed to remain open.
Increased use of streaming services and videoconferencing is already driving rapid network traffic growth, forcing throttling of some services until the infrastructure can catch up – which it eventually will. Suddenly wider roads are not a priority, but wider network ‘pipes’ are.
There are also bound to be other large-scale societal changes flowing from the crisis; for example, it is clear resilience will play a bigger role in organisational and country-level strategies in the future. Already, companies and governments are re-thinking supply chains heavily dependent on China. A degree of decentralisation and diversification of supply chains appears inevitable, even at the cost of some efficiencies.
For many people, however, the biggest change the pandemic has brought so far has been the disruption to our social gatherings. As physical distancing is necessitated to increasing degrees globally, it is becoming clear that some of that will be the new normal for extended periods of time. Social distancing, per se, doesn’t need to be so severe – instead of meeting face to face, people seek to connect online, and are doing so at record scale.
Any one of several ongoing wholesale changes to our lives would be stressful. As they are all happening at the same time and under a cloud of severe health risks, it is no wonder people are feeling anxious and may not immediately appreciate the new habits.
How much of these new habits will we keep even after we, hopefully, have a vaccine sometime next year? Only time will tell, but it seems unlikely that a full return to the past normal will take place.
Over time, we may grow to appreciate and even love some of the changes that we now feel are being forced upon us.