Why We’re in This for the Long Haul

Given the crisis we find ourselves in, it’s only natural for people to long for normality. And normality, of sorts, will return, even if that normality isn’t quite the same as the one we left behind us pre-Corona.

Most countries in Europe are pursuing a “flatten the curve” approach, attempting to draw out the crisis for as long as possible in order to avoid a run-away pandemic that places unbearable strain on hospitals. By definition, then, if the plan goes well, the coming year or two years will be accompanied by some measures of the sort we have been witnessing over the past few days and weeks. (Revised, see note at bottom.)

To recap, at various times we’ve seen:

  • Bans on events above 1,000 participants
  • Bans on all events and gatherings
  • Bans on leaving houses except for legitimate purposes (Italy)
  • Border closures
  • Restrictions on travelling within countries (no tourism in Schleswig-Holstein)
  • Closures of shops
  • Closures of restaurants and cafés
  • Rationing of supplies in supermarkets (reported in Germany)
  • Judgement of people suspected of “hamstering” food and supplies
  • People travelling by car, bike, and on foot, if necessary to get to work, rather than public transport
  • School closures, with large knock-on effects for workers who have to organise childcare
  • Almost unanimous, jubliant acceptance of extremely draconian measures

I think these pop-up restrictions are likely to be in place, on and off at least, over the next couple of years. I don’t know in exactly what form, but if the virus is to be suppressed, even partially, over an extended period, then some measures need to be in place.

This will become part of our daily lives. Some lost freedoms we’ll get used to, and I wonder whether we’ll get them back at all. In light of the much more existentially threatening climate crisis, will it be tempting to keep restrictions on travel? Will politicians be braver in inhibiting growth? Will we start valuing remote work, and discovering new formats that are valid in their own right, rather than a sub-standard version of real life?

What Will We Rebuild?

I also see a kind of evolutionary effect. We’re going to see lots of companies failing. These will have lacked the resilience to stand up to the onslaught, partly because they haven’t been able to send their staff home without their business tanking. Online shops are booming; retailers are suffering.

At some point, we’ll be thinking about rebuilding, and the recovery will come, at least partly, in the form of new business models. Newer, smaller businesses will likely favour innovative, cost-effective working practices such as remote working.

Following the collective Corona trauma, I can imagine several forces that will bias in favour of offline activities:

  • Investors will surely favour those who can at least switch to remote mode, when necessary, to soften a similar blow in future.
  • Customers might be wary of booking in advance holidays, events, and pretty much anything that could fall victim to future, short-notice restrictions
  • Insurance could get more expensive (or simply exclude a similar scenario in future)
  • It might be less risky to sell goods and services to companies with a strong online component if people experience loss of earnings as a result of this crisis

In short, due diligence could include taking a close look at home working capacity as a form of resilience to crises.

It’s easy to get caught up in the emotions of the moment (and I’m quite emotionally caught up of late!) – social changes such as women joining the workforce during the world wars didn’t necessarily outlive the crisis in question.

So normality will return, but my bet is that it will come in a very different form, and it won’t be all over by 2021.

Revision, 19th March 2020: I removed all references to “police state” following a little flare-up on LinkedIn a day or so later (relating to a LinkedIn post where I specifically said we’re not in a police state). Things are moving very quickly, and the draconian restrictions feel like a police state at times. That’s not to say they’re unjustified: unfortunately, the alternative is a drastic overburdening of the healthcare system, which no-one wants. We should be grateful that people have foreseen what must have seen a frankly implausible scenario, so the state has the necessary tools to regulate the spread of the new Corona virus, while remaining within the realms of the rule of law. Others have used the term “police state”, but it appears inappropriate at this time. We’re all emotionally charged, which makes it difficult for people not to pick up on a catchphrase and ignore the rest.