A wonderful video went viral on social media a couple months into the global lockdown. Fantastical music plays as a father reads one last story to his son before he drifts off into a slumber of peaceful dreams. The tale tells of a far off and hypothetical land that was ravaged by climate devastation, by poverty and excess, with limitless growth, wants, and instant gratification. Where talking continued but meaning and social bonds were lost. A world where minor imperfections were filtered out with their technology and everyone become complacent in their unerring loneliness. In their search for wonder, the planet was destroyed. But then a virus came along, an invisible enemy, that forced all the people to hide. When they hid, the people learned to appreciate the small things, appreciate the planet, find their meaning, and learn to love each other again. As the father concluded the story, the son perked up to say, ‘but why did it take a virus to bring the people back together?’ The father replies with a smile: ‘sometimes you’ve got to get sick my boy, before you start feeling better.’
Now, after experiencing the impact of the pandemic, we can reflect and critique a year with the virus. The Covid-19 pandemic has changed things (whether or not it will ‘change everything’ remains to be seen). But we still have three options before us. Change for the better, change for the worst, and, perhaps worst of all, change nothing. While ‘post-’ has become a clichéd prefix of late, what words it will precede remains to be seen and will depend on the actions taken at the present. Perhaps, we will hear less of postmodernism, postcolonialism, and even move beyond the post-9/11 world. But will the post-Covid world be any better?
Hopefully, one day we can look back on this all in the past tense. Meanwhile, here are a few lessons from the year the Earth stood still. Perhaps hindsight will indeed prove to be 20/20. Take heed so that history need not repeat itself for those who were not listening!
1. Which jobs are indeed essential to society (thank you, grocery delivery folks!)
When governments around the globe first started to enact movement restrictions, it appeared for a moment that the end-of-the-world nuts may have had it right. But thankfully we didn’t all need to stock pile munitions or learn to grow or hunt for our own food. We owe an innumerable debt to the front liners, the real heroes who taught us what are indeed the essential services needed. Interestingly enough, these were not heads of state, CEOs, executives, or the financial gurus who hold the majority of the planet’s wealth. It is instead those we pay, and otherwise often treat, the worst in our societies. Perhaps we all will now go forward with a greater appreciation for those who keep our groceries stocked, our parcels moving from one point to the next, the bank tellers, the tradesmen who keep the electricity and WIFI coming in and the rubbish and loo evacuations going out, the healthcare workers who have quite literally risked life and limb over the past year, and everyone else we would not bat an eye over until they are truly gone and suddenly we are forced back to the dark ages. As we cheer for them today, let us not forget to carry forward that appreciation into tomorrow. We need to take note of the fact that society is a collective and that it takes all of us doing our part to keeping its functioning and moving. We thank those who have risked it all to keep it all spinning, and those who could, for staying in and practicing good healthcare policy. When we can say that it is all over, let us not forget those who keep the great machine churning.
2. And that effective governance is not as essential as we had hoped…
Few governments around the globe will go without poor marks on their Covid response report cards, but some of the worst offenders are the supposed mega-democracies which hail themselves to be the bastions of virtue! The US, the UK, India, and Brazil have topped the Covid case and death ratings month after month. But perhaps the veneer of democracy is giving way to older and more dangerous social factors. The divisions that exist all around the world in numerous societies have been commonly trending towards a breaking point and while this can reflect in the poor track records of some of the largest countries in the world, one of the greatest revelations in recent times is the compounding of contradictions and problems with what was normal before the virus. While movement restriction did, for a moment, quell the civil unrest from East to West, it was not long before political unrest re-emerged, even if, in some cases, it had to move to the digital sphere. Prior to and continuing strong throughout lockdowns, political crises remain and are near boiling point in Hong Kong, Thailand, the US, Belarus, Malaysia, India, France, Poland, Nigeria and many other places. But there is one more lesson to be learned for future governance. Is it surprising that some of the best Covid responses come from countries led by women? From Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand to Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan to the numerous female leaders in Europe, women have been getting the job done and keeping the ship afloat! Female leadership is also driving grass-roots and resistance movements from the US to Ecuador, Poland, Nigeria, and throughout Asia. If things are going to change, it is good to see some of the young changers becoming political.
3. That everyone is self-centred, yet each paragons of our own independent virtue!
But inspiring the masses can be difficult and we can’t all be Damilola Odufuwa and Odunayo Eweniyi of Nigeria or Poland’s Klementyna Suchanow. So why not take a quick selfie, jump on social media and form a cult of yourself. And after all, who knows better than me? And look how bad everyone else is, and who knows best which movements to get behind or which tragedies to sympathise with? And when has my Facebook feed ever steered me wrong? Since World War II, individualism has been on a rapid rise, particularly in the West but thanks to globalised popular culture it can be for everyone! And while Margaret Thatcher would be spinning in her grave over the amount of Covid relief being handed out by governments around the world, the showrunners of Netflix’s The Crown would hope the audience should be cringing as Gillian Anderson, portraying the Iron Lady, recited the infamous ‘there is no society, there are only individuals’. But do our actions agree more than we would like with such sentiments. In our isolation, a certain narcissism seems to take control when escapism is no longer possible and we take stock of our present condition. Social media has quickly continued its tendency to be a place to ‘look at me’ as oppose to maintain social communication. Those crying for rights, care less about the common welfare than their own comfort from demanding free speech to resisting the tyranny of facemasks. Vive la liberté! We shall see what good that does if there are none of us around to enjoy it.
4. That we really have no idea how far 6 feet (or 2 metres) is
For a vast majority of us it is difficult to judge measurement (depth perception notwithstanding). That’s why we have measuring tape, but to keep you from having to add another survival item to lug around during out-of-home excursions, many governments and organisations have taken advantage of our ability to use measurement by analogy. So, the recommended social distance is an average person’s arm span, five escalators steps, a twin size bed mattress, or half of one Volkswagen Beetle. How has your public performance measured? Adapting to these new procedures is difficult, but it is a willingness to socially distance, properly wash up, and don the facemask that demonstrates that we have learned the lesson about selfishness. After all, these regulations actually do the very minimum to protect you directly, as by going outside you are engaging with the world and left with a Schrödinger’s Cat question about what is and is not infected. But by wearing a mask and social distancing, more importantly you are significantly decreasing your ability to pass on anything you have picked up out there in the world. Indeed, a mask does not have to be political statement, but it can be a symbol of humanism and love for one’s neighbour. And for those of you whom a digital hug just does not seem to have the same effect, here is a literary hug. I am not sure if that helped, but at least we are amply socially distanced.
5. Working at home in pyjamas can be highly productive and comfortable!
During the pandemic traditional notions of human productivity, its ups and downs, have been redefined. It is amazing what people can accomplish when they can be comfortable. And to think, all the time saved, having to get up and prim and prime one’s self for the day ahead. Why even get out of your pyjamas? When you’re working from home, there is no need to craft one’s hair or put on any make-up. Keep it cosy and let the mind open up to new and smart ways to get the day’s workload accomplished. Who needs the day-to-day pressure of having to care what other’s think of your appearance? Break whenever you want, grab a snack, a tea, or a coffee, use the toilet without having to let anyone know or have anyone cover for you. Calls and emails ought to be kept up on, but it’s pandemic days and no one really needs anything immediately. So, if a lunchbreak turns into a full Netflix series binge session, hakuna matata, you can make sure to put in the extra effort tomorrow. And why not change things up? You can work from a different part of the house each day, or even try opening a window and getting fresh air, or working in the garden. And if you need to catch a quick Zoom meeting, then throw on a nice shirt and whip your hair back and forth and trouser liberation enthusiasts the world over rejoice! Just make sure to turn off your camera if you need to get up for a drink refill. But what’s that, the kids need to be entertained? That construction next door feels like they are in my living room with me! Dinner needs to be made? Your partner is typing or thinking too loudly. Whose been slacking on the chores? When was the last time we took out the rubbish? When was the last time you showered? This one goes out to the pandemic parents who have to both keep their kids and selves on track and to you who finally read that book (or even written that book) that you’d been promising you’d read (or write) if you just had a little more time. Our condolences to those who’s workloads blew up this year.
6. But motivation is not guaranteed by Amazon Prime
While the pandemic and lockdown have left many of us with a considerable surplus of time this year, the same cannot always be said for motivation. When one is not physically required to ‘get out of bed’ how can the same be expected mentally. Being required to stay in is taxing and numerous studies have shown that solitary confinement is unnatural to human beings, nigh inhumane, in line with torture. To cope, many of us treat these days as if nothing had changed, maintain the routine and even dress as if going to work, to then sit at one corner of the home and get cracking. Others have taken on various wellness techniques from frequent breaking to taking on meditation or yoga. In our taking on the reality of the world in confinement we have leaned heavily on personal treats and the safe convenience that technology offers. Since we cannot go out, then we order and let us be thankful for the gig economy army that allows us to move items to and fro and even ourselves if needed with minimal risk and maximum convenience. With those who lost their jobs during the pandemic, the gig economy has been a wonderful way for people to secure their incomes and keep themselves and their families afloat during this trying time. But with that, we must ask, what is the other side of the coin? Amazon and other online retailers are making record profits, but it is well known that this new wealth does not in fact trickle down to those out there ‘in it’. And since the gig economy offers little in the way of protections, security, and pension as the traditional workforce, who is looking out for them? Yet, with more time, the true innovative and entrepreneurial spirits of others have been allowed to blossom, whether that is starting a career as a YouTube celebrity or finding a way to use technology to your advantage when human-to-human contact is to be avoided. The pros and cons pile up and yet the lessons to be learned may not be visible until well after the pandemic.
7. Proper use of your mute button and digital backgrounds have become survival skills
Zoom was one of over a dozen other major group chat applications that came into their own. Through a magic not unknown to the Silicon Valley world, Zoom rose to the top through network popularity while pouring its resources into servers so that it has plenty of space for high volumes of users. Zooming became a word in 2020 and is almost as big as Googling. Thanks to having a free option and an easy-to-use interface, Zoom is the digital space of choice, but with any new technological step, comes a bit of a learning curve. Where the chimes of a mobile used to be the most disruptive potential during a class or meeting (and honestly this has somewhat numbed in our 24/7, interconnected world) hell hath no fury like the death scares and annoyance over a random noise from an unmuted attendee interrupting a speaker. Likewise, an unspoken competition has arisen concerning backgrounds. You will be judged by the books on the shelf behind you, so chose wisely. On the news, one must assert their political allegiance with the cannons of liberal or conservative literature or nationalism through flags and hanging merits. If you cannot compete, then chose from the default digital backgrounds, or be so bold as to download your own. Who says dazzling green screen technological feats are only for Star Wars films? Just remember to check your speaker and camera settings, lest you let an inappropriate viewing or noise be broadcast to your digital friends!
8. A pandemic is a nice, new, excuse for not being able to get down to the gym
New Year’s resolutions from 2020 may have been given a pass in light of Covid-19, but will we all be so lucky in 2021? We were amazed how many people ran to the beaches during the momentary breaks in lockdown that 2020 saw, after all, we all know lockdown does not bode well for the ideal beach bod. After the first month of lockdown, it became apparent to many that this was going to be one for the long haul and if we did not get creative about our activity, a whole host of other issues lie in waiting, not to mention how tragic it would be for the world not to see your most recent post-workout selfie! A flurry of videos and at-home workout plans rose in popularity as many struggle to maintain their form. Even some who had not been regular exercisers found a needed escape in being able to get active, be that purchasing a treadmill or other exercise equipment, or even going for a walk or bicycle ride when allowed. Zoom made for another way for trainers to keep at work and host classes and sessions to vast numbers of people all over the world. While gymnasiums were hit hard by lockdowns, after deep cleaning and ensuring a safe standard operating procedure, they quickly filled up to the half capacities they were allowed. Facemask designers were faced with the unenviable task of creating a protective, yet comfortable facemask that allowed people to push themselves physically without having to suffer from the limitations put upon by masking up. With a mix of proper social distancing and, dare we say, rather fashionable facemasks, the new normal leaves us with no excuse for not getting that daily exercise.
9. Clean air is possible, and quite refreshing too!
As lockdowns killed airline and automotive travel, a noticeable cut back in pollution clouds prompted the trending of #EarthIsHealing. Distant sights once hidden by pollution haze were again becoming visible, water was returning to a recognisable blue hue, and even certain animals began taking back the habitat that human growth had impeded upon. Not to mention the noise pollution cutbacks too! Species on the verge, even a few thought long gone, were spotted again in places that living memory could hardly recall. For a moment we were cut off and nature was allowed to do what it does best, uninhibited. And it was nice to breath clean air and not be choked by industrial smells. Maybe we have been given a wakeup call on climate change, maybe we can change and perhaps there is even still time for us to change. But we need to think long and hard about how we come back from the pandemic. Let us hope a new age of ecological consciousness, or at least a greater appreciation for living with the natural world, has been awoken in our isolation.
10. We really need to be talking about mental health issues and other crises
Millions of people all around the world have lost their jobs (which to many were also their livelihood) due to Covid-19. This statistic doesn’t begin to encompass the true scale of impact that the pandemic has had on our lives. Work reduction, delays of payment, interruption of supply chains and communication. Humans are also social creatures. Not being able to see our friends, family, and even the random people we bump into as we go about our everyday trajectories. The global halt, the new normal. All of this adaptation, change, and disruption. We all deal with it in different ways and more than we care to admit have reached various breaking points. The trend of deteriorating mental health has been on the steady increase long before Covid-19. Modernity, capitalism, politics, society have all contributed their fair share to this growing crisis. Our brains are only able to deal with so much at once. And the normal ways we used to deal with the world have been drastically limited lately. We need to be talking about mental health and tearing down taboos that keep others from seeking help when it is truly needed. While it is difficult to pin down, due both to reporting and recognition problems, most authorities agree suicide rates have drastically increased during the Covid-19 pandemic. But the need for creative and innovative reform of mental health thinking is a long time coming. Now that the pandemic helps us focus in on this crisis, we can also see the simultaneous compounding of other crises from economic, to political, refugees, climate, epistemological, personal, identity, and so many more all weighing down on us. And if mental health is out, then that’s the endgame that is truly sobering.
While we need to keep laughing, so that we are not crying, it is essential we take these lessons to heart. Let’s not do this again anytime soon.