Home Poitics How will coronavirus change the way we live?

How will coronavirus change the way we live?

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A return to how life was at the start of 2020 is some way off. Even when lockdown restrictions are eased, coronavirus will affect our lives in many ways. What will struggle to get back to how it was before, and what might change for ever?

Twelve BBC correspondents offer their thoughts.

From Zooming clients to neighbourhood WhatsApp groups, digital platforms have become the only way for many of us to work, get fit or be educated and entertained.

We’re more relaxed about screen time hours for us and our kids, a huge culture shift from just a few weeks ago. It feels unlikely that’ll disappear overnight.

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We now know the infrastructure can cope, on the whole. There have been wobbles, like Monday’s Virgin Media outage, but broadband providers and mobile phone networks have handled the big surge in traffic.

In March, BT said it was “well within manageable limits”, and it is still intending to roll out ultrafast full-fibre broadband to 227 rural communities across the UK in coming months.

Going forward, with lines between home and work blurred like never before, we’ll need to think carefully about which platforms we use and what we say on them.

Still, video conferencing, once the poor relation to face-to-face meetings in the corporate world, is – for the moment – the norm. Remember that meme: “This meeting could have been an email”? Perhaps it’s finally within reach.

Retail was already having a tough time. The lockdown and its ripple effects will speed up the huge structural changes under way in our High Streets. It’s now all about survival of the fittest.

Businesses in good financial health, and able to give customers what they want, will prosper. But weaker players – already grappling with falling sales, rising costs and intense competition – will fall by the wayside during the next 18 months.

But there’s also a more immediate question. How many outlets will reopen at all?

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Some small firms may simply run out of cash and throw in the towel. Some larger retailers are also in administration. Many others will be looking at the profitability of stores and whether they could hand the keys back to landlords.

After lockdown, there’ll be an immediate sales bounce and stores are likely to lower prices to shift stock. But it may be short-lived if people have been made redundant and are unable to spend.

Fashion relies heavily on shoppers with spare cash and many of us will have endured the past weeks buying hardly any clothes at all – and survived!

It will be interesting to see if shoppers rethink their habits and priorities.

Covid-19 is the greatest shock to business for a century.

Emergency measures forced on reluctant companies will form part of future thinking. Questions such as “do we need large city office space with staff relying on crowded public transport?” will be asked. Home-working could make the rush hour history, which might then affect property values in satellite “commuter towns”.

Staff will also demand more from employers in terms of flexibility, facilities and safety at work.

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Companies may start hoarding cash to survive another crisis. Just as the banks became permanently less profitable after the 2007-08 financial crash – because they were forced to hold more base capital before lending – firms post-Covid-19 could be less inclined to invest. That will stifle growth.

The digital transformation of business will get faster, with more automation and artificial intelligence to approve loans, profile customers, control stock and improve delivery.

Supply chains will be shorter, more resilient and possibly more local – but there are pluses and minuses to that. Economic nationalism, when governments try to protect their economies by cutting imports and investments from other nations, is popular right now – but some warn it results in a selfish and damaging “beggar thy neighbour” approach.

Finally, international institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization and the European Union may be challenged to up their games – or go away.

We all hope for a return to business as usual. It’s not going to happen.

Some airlines might not survive this crisis. Others could perish in the aftermath. And those that come through it will be smaller.

There will be, at least in the medium term, fewer flights. That trend will be driven by people and businesses having less money to spend and video conferencing becoming the new norm.

Initially, there may also be nervousness about flying in the wake of a global pandemic. Thermal imaging cameras, which check your temperature as you walk through, could become commonplace at airports and even railway stations to try to reassure passengers and staff.

A smaller aviation market means ticket prices could rise. After weeks of staying at home many of us will be itching to travel, but global travel by plane, train or boat might have to change. For example, EasyJet says it plans to initially leave middle seats empty so passengers aren’t too close to each other – and tickets for a plane with lots of empty seats will be more expensive.

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The number of people on trains, tubes and trams is likely to be lower than at pre-crisis levels, as some work will continue to be done at home. The daily commute isn’t great for social distancing and rail bosses are working out how to manage things when the government eases restrictions.

Independent and green modes of transport such as cycling and, once legalised, electric scooters should become more popular – although some commuters might jump in the car.

The school day normally has its own rhythm and routine punctuated by lessons, bells and breaks. Now more than 90% of the planet’s children are out of classes, according to United Nations agency Unesco. The disruption will ripple for years.

Teaching has moved online, with digital lessons on a scale never seen – highlighting concerns that digital poverty is locking children out of learning. Even in a major economy such as the UK, a significant minority don’t have ready access to a device of their own, which they can use for schoolwork.

Ofcom estimates that 59% of 12 to 15-year-olds have their own tablet, while 83% have a smartphone. However, some disadvantaged teenagers in England will be able to borrow laptops to help them study at home, thanks to help from the Department for Education. This temporary solution may need to become long term though, which is one legacy of this pandemic.

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UK universities face other challenges. They’re globally connected and have successfully marketed the value of a British degree around the world.

Mainland China alone is used to sending 120,000 students to the UK each year. That number will fall, as will numbers from other countries. The appetite to study far from family will not be as strong as it once was.

Research by the University and College Union suggests the combination of an immediate drop in international students this year, and UK students deciding to delay or not enrol at all, could cost universities £2.5bn and lead to 30,000 job losses.

Sweet air and tranquil roads – in the grimmest of circumstances, the coronavirus lockdown offers a sense of how a greener world might feel.

Levels of the gas nitrogen dioxide, linked to a wide range of health conditions, fell across parts of China and Europe as traffic flows diminished. And the rise of online meetings has shown what can be achieved without travel and has saved lots of carbon in the process.

What happens next though is open to question.

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One scenario is that the world repeats the fossil fuel frenzy that followed the banking crisis, unleashing pent-up demand for oil and coal. Governments know this response well as a method to revive flagging economies.

Another option is for a more sustainable recovery, with policies to encourage a low-carbon future. This would see determined pushes for renewable energy, public transport and home energy efficiency.

It was meant to be a big year to try to halt the damage we’re doing to the natural world and to cut the gases driving up temperatures to dangerous levels. That agenda, and the tough choices needed, might not be getting much attention – but they have not gone away.

In fact, the pandemic has shown us how governments can act when they need to – and how willingly people can respond. The issue is whether a similar drive can be directed to what the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calls the “deeper emergency” of the environment.

Legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly famously said: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death… it is much, much more important than that.” He was joking, of course, but now, more than ever, football’s relevance has been put into perspective.

However, sport is a serious pleasure for many. It supports an industry employing hundreds of thousands and has been affected like never before.

Events have fallen like dominoes. Some, like the Olympics, have been postponed, while others, like Wimbledon, have been cancelled completely. Training schedules have been ripped up and staff furloughed. Players are taking wage cuts and broadcasters are warning of lost earnings in the hundreds of millions.

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In future, social distancing will be a massive headache for sporting governing bodies. How can close contact physical sports, like rugby, continue? Even playing behind closed doors presents a myriad of problems.

An English Premier League football season without a champion was once unthinkable, but now the campaign hangs in the balance. Even if sport can return this year, the global recession likely to follow will surely affect business for years, especially in areas like transfer fees, wages, broadcast deals and prize money.

For millions of fans, weekends are now very different. Moments of unbelievable effort and sporting talent often ripple through the nation, providing collective “did you see it?” experiences. The future of sport, without those moments and the fans to watch, looks very different indeed.

The arts sector is split 50-50 about the post-pandemic future, between the optimists and the pessimists.

The upbeat half think the UK arts scene will come back stronger than ever, providing an eager population with longed-for shared experiences and feel-good content.

Cinemas, theatres, concert halls, museums and galleries will thrive on a flowering of creativity, a response to the dark days of the virus. Plus, there will be new converts who discovered all that splendid free arts content made available online during lockdown.

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Image caption

The One Man Two Guvnors stage production was streamed for free online by the National Theatre

The pessimists fear grassroots venues – historical suppliers of fresh talent – will perish in a new era of austerity budgets. Local councils will sell off artworks, and thousands of jobs will be lost. A sector once known for dynamism and imagination will become conservative and risk-averse.

I suspect the reality will settle somewhere between the two. The post-lockdown transition from closed to bustling venues won’t be straightforward. Social distancing is likely to limit activity. Producers will need time to rehearse and finish productions. There’ll also be size limits on film and TV crews making new content. Reruns could be a staple for a while.

But let’s not forget the UK’s creative industries have long been strong economic driving forces. They are world renowned and full of talented individuals. It’s going to be tough, but I’d back the arts and entertainment sector to not only keep us amused and intellectually sustained, but also to lead from the front.

It’s generally accepted the experience of living through the 1930s depression and World War Two shaped the so-called Greatest Generation – a cohort of Britons noted for resilience, prudence, humility, work ethic and sense of duty. They are qualities people see in the Queen and in 100-year-old Captain Tom Moore, who marched up and down his garden for the NHS.

It’s hoped the Thursday night clapping for key workers is the sound of a nation discovering itself again and, denied the luxury of self-indulgence, our eyes are opened to what really matters. Lockdown, it is said, has unblocked a spring of neighbourliness that will flow long after restrictions are lifted.

Perhaps.

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But our suspended life in lockdown could be incubating a grievance that, when released, triggers angry questions, a search for blame, and demands for reprisals. Economic hardship will strain social ties. That’s the real test for this generation – not “can we keep our temper in lockdown?” but “can we quietly repair our social fabric in the tough times?”.

The fear is that our behavioural norms will have become infected by distress and hardship, that we will emerge more individual and less together.

The hope must be that our society, like a virus, is mutating into something stronger.

“This pandemic has shone a spotlight on the overlooked and undervalued corners of society.” The words of the director of the World Health Organization in Europe, Dr Hans Kluge, as he described the shocking death toll in care homes across the continent.

His sentiment will chime with many who have constantly warned about the looming care crisis in the UK, particularly in England. An ageing population, years of underfunding, low pay, staff shortages and the failure of successive governments to reform the system, has left the sector on its knees.

Many staff looking after older and disabled people – in care homes and in the community – will say they felt forgotten when the pandemic first took hold. The focus on the NHS was not surprising, but they were caring for those particularly vulnerable to the virus.

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The struggle to get protective equipment, and slowness of testing in the community in England, have become symbols of their distress. Questions will be asked about the apparent failure to prioritise support to the care front-line, and what it may have cost in lives.

Then, we’ll have a choice to make. Do we recognise, value and fund a properly integrated system that provides support in the community? Or, as our memories become hazy, will we again allow the importance of this type of care to fade into the background?

Even before Covid-19 claimed its first victim, the US-China trade war was threatening the progress of globalisation. International supply chains bring perks – more choice, lower prices and, for some, higher incomes – but also job losses in the higher-wage West.

This pandemic has exposed other vulnerabilities.

There’s the reliance on three countries – the US, China and Germany – to provide 40% of personal protective gear, and also businesses’ dependency on single sources for vital components. There’ll be a rethink of what products are “strategic”, key to a nation’s survival. They might be produced closer to home or alternative suppliers sought.

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But key to a recovery will be job creation and keeping down living costs. The former means that, however uneasy, governments may have to tolerate China’s continued investment around the globe.

As for the latter, businesses need to keep costs low, and overseas sourcing of non-essential will continue. Some of the biggest brands, including H&M, have committed to helping workers in factories thousands of miles away to keep supply chains functioning.

Those companies were already looking beyond China to lower cost nations such as Vietnam, Ethiopia and Bangladesh – countries which will work even harder to attract foreign customers.

China’s factories are firing back up, but who’s buying? Currently, demand from locked-down customers has slumped. Trade could drop by a third this year. But it will bounce back, globalisation will continue – and the competition to be the world’s production line will intensify.

Catastrophe inevitably produces new priorities, even if old geo-political tensions remain. The pandemic has demonstrated, yet again, that global questions require global solutions.

But it has also shown that governments’ first responses have been national. China and the US have squared up to each other over Beijing’s responsibility for the pandemic, nations have closed borders, and there has been unseemly competition for medical resources.

Multinational organisations have fared poorly. The EU apologised to Italy for its limited support and President Trump attacked the World Health Organization for being too close to Beijing. Those who see these building blocks of global order as outdated have more ammunition.

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Beijing’s position is contradictory. It’s the source of the virus and the global provider of much of the equipment to fight it, so expect the “China problem” to be a focus for Western governments. How do they rely less on Chinese goods and resist Beijing’s efforts to get the world to play by its rules – while still pursuing co-operation on problems like climate change and, yes, future pandemics?

There’ll be a lot less money in defence budgets for shiny new weaponry – with security being redefined because of the extraordinary weaknesses revealed by the pandemic. National security capability will be judged by stockpiled medical equipment and preparedness for the next pandemic or environmental catastrophe, not just on how many tank brigades can be deployed.

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