Will the pandemic change us indefinitely?
February 26, 2021
One year ago, if someone was to mention the words furlough, travel corridor or quarantini it would’ve left us baffled. Fast forward a year and these words are bandied about more frequently than Moira Rose changes wigs. There have been many moments – darting into a hedgerow to avoid a fellow walker, drinking wine with ten little Zoom squares on a Friday night, accidentally sipping coffee through a mask – when I’ve thought: imagine if year-ago me shot forward in time to this moment, how bizarre this would seem. But, as bizarre as it seems, it is very much the new normal (another phrase for the list) and I wonder if these new normalised habits are here to stay for good or if we’ll ultimately revert back to our pre-pandemic selves? After every great crisis or systemic shift, psychologists and leaders declare that things will never be the same again and, whilst some things do change, others surprisingly don’t. For example the 7/7 London bombings were predicted to put many people off the underground but, within a few weeks, the tubes were packed with Londoners reverting to old routines. Public opinion and laws changed after the death of Diana, but paparazzi still today put themselves and their subjects in danger to get the shot.
Professors Lisa Lahey and Robert Keegan, discuss a different type of immunity to that of fending off viruses, but instead an immunity to change. According to Lahey and Keegan, most of our habits are based on assumptions which are “often formed long ago and woven into the very fabric of people’s existence”. To change these fundamental assumptions, we have to address deep “competing commitments” and there are some fundamental traits and beliefs around social acceptance and emotional connections that are very hard to shift. Even when we want to change it is not that simple. It’s why 90% of people who join a gym in January quit within three months. So, will people really commit to travelling slower and taking fewer but longer trips? Or will they revert back to snapping up cheap flight deals and jetting around Europe to make up for lost time? The sales of dogs soared last year, with people spending more time at home without the usual distractions, but the RSPCA is now predicting a spike in the number of dogs being abandoned as lockdown ends and people return to offices and revert to a life where a dog doesn’t fit.
Some changes, however, are likely to stick; partly because hard evidence has told us they work and because their value during the pandemic caused solid infrastructure to be put in place. Companies have seen that their employees can successfully work from home – with many studies finding it actually increases productivity – whilst the company saves money on office space and utilities. But that deep rooted need for human connection will play its part in resisting a total change to remote-only offices and it is likely most businesses will settle on a hybrid style of working. Restaurant delivery kits have proved to us that we can have amazing food from our favourite eateries at home, and I think many restaurants will keep a delivery service in some form. Karan Gokani, of Sri Lankan restaurant group Hoppers, and Adam Handling of Hame have already confirmed they plan to keep going with ‘makeaways’ long-term. Airlines and travel companies now offer the kind of flexibility we would have only dreamt off pre-pandemic, crucial for consumer confidence and recovery, and now the consumer has experienced this I believe many companies will keep the conditions to be competitive and encourage bookings long-term.
I am hopeful that there will be positive changes from the pandemic: an increased focus on sustainability, huge medical advances, support for small businesses, appreciation for the NHS. But will we still pack into pubs like sardines on a Friday night, hug someone we don’t know and choose a holiday over a week spent binging Netflix?…I think (and hope) that we will.