Only a few months ago, we thought that a pandemic happened somewhere else with bad hygiene and poor water quality. We had no idea about the family of coronaviruses. How quickly our society can be flipped into a new way of operating and behaving.
With all the risks, illness, death and stress posed to humans, this bio-disaster has come with some surprising benefits like most calamities. One of the first changes to be made was for people to start working from home en masse. This necessitated an upgrade in household IT equipment for many. With parents and home bound school kids all logging on together, negotiations have been underway to divvy up the bandwidth and equipment. The reduction in commute and traffic congestion has been jaw dropping. Traffic jams are now more commonly experienced at the metered entry to Bunnings than on the Monash freeway. The wear and tear on our cars, wallets and our minds has been dramatically reduced with the commute becoming a thing of the past, even if only temporary. Commuters will likely be resistant to taking up the steering wheel again in the same fashion, having proved that many are better, happier, more productive employees at home than by spending up to 4 hours a day coming and going to an office. Even insurance call centre employees have been rigged up to work from home. Consumers wouldn’t even notice unless they inquired (or a dog started barking in the background).
It is also possible employers may be able to save on real estate to accommodate large numbers of employees. Twenty five years ago when I worked for a global multinational firm in San Francisco, they provided hot desk offices that were used by managers and partners when needed. Otherwise they were working from home or on the road. Considered quite visionary then, the company saved millions in unnecessary lease costs for premium high rise real estate all over the world.
Upskilling with teleconferencing has had many benefits for the workplace but also for family members to connect, especially grandparents or the elderly who may be isolated. While this is really only a substitute for authentic face to face time, it has helped us to see those who we love and check on their wellbeing. People may still generally prefer to meet up in person even at a 1.5 metre distance. This physical gap helps to reduce the impulse to shake hands, hug, kiss or cough on one another. Has anyone noticed how strange television shows look where people are actually gathered closely at a barbeque or meeting up in a group? How dated shows become when they are outside the guidelines of social distancing and pandemic practice.
With all the handwashing, masking, gloving and spraying, surely our general health has improved, avoiding other contagions such as head colds, flu, nits and even gastro. Many people have never been so physically well!
Nature has miraculously reclaimed our abandoned spaces at an unbelievable rate. We have all heard about the reduced gondola traffic in Venice being replaced by schools of fish and clear water or the coyote crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. There is also bound to be far less carnage on the road with less traffic and quieter spaces where animals can safely emerge.
Caring for children has become a conundrum. Who is allowed to send their kids to school? Are we working in an ‘essential service’? Do the children need a break from us or each other? There have been many amusing stories about who is assumed to be responsible for the care of children and their schooling when both parents are working from home. It seems that many women are still multitasking in the new home-work space, Skyping and Zooming with their colleagues while simultaneously managing the laundry or whipping up a lunchtime treat for all the new daytime occupants. The bathrobe has also become the new ‘business casual’ attire, as long as your profile is muted. But all is fair in love, war and teleconferencing prêt-à-porter.
While virtual childcare has not quite left the app development stage yet (we live in hope), we still need actual childcare providers to fill in the gaps, meeting us safely at the playground gate, armed with alcohol spray, plastic gloves and no-touch thermometers. The bonus here is that the government is currently funding the care, although only paying for half of the actual fees. Low cost, not for profit community based childcare providers in particular have to think creatively to cover the remaining expenses like food and utilities. By just enrolling your child, everyone can help their local provider which will continue to receive a government subsidy, whether the children attend or not. Along with Job Keeper funds, this has helped to ensure that childcare centres have a chance to survive and that continued employment with superannuation is provided in a workplace that employs a majority of qualified women.
We can also benefit from a healthier lifestyle at home having the ability to keep fit by taking breaks at set intervals but watch those trips to the fridge or biscuit tin. That is not considered legitimate exercise toward kilometres walked in a day. Clearly baking is on the increase, considering how fast flour and sugar disappeared from the supermarket shelves in the early days, rivalling only toilet paper as personal necessities. Packets of vegetable seeds also vanished quicker off the shelves than a supermarket recall but what did everyone think they were getting? Just add water and, poof, your vegetable bins would be overflowing with glorious home grown produce? Some things defy explanation like many of the hoarding behaviours with toilet paper as our new currency.
Our homes and gardens have been morphing into House Beautiful as suburban shut-ins take up the hammer, paintbrush, saw and shovel. All of the to-do lists are about to be done if all the traffic and empty shelves of home improvement stores are anything to go by. This DIY trend has also kept up the demand for builders, plumbers and electricians as they come to the rescue of spontaneous home renovators left reeling from the impact of their new found skills.
Getting to know each other again in the home has been a test of compatibility. While many new babies will be born about 9 months from now, some people will become a bit too familiar with each other and decide that their relationship has all been a big mistake. On a serious note, the risk of family violence raises its head as it always does during disasters in general. The good news is that more resources, awareness and funding are being poured in to interrupt this rise in abuse. Everyone should keep an eye out for symptoms of family violence or abusive behaviour in your circles and call it out. The standard you walk by is the standard that you accept. A phone call can change everything.
Local services and shopping have benefited since most people don’t or can’t go far from home to make purchases. Home delivery of groceries, takeaway food, prescriptions and just about any physical item can be delivered to your doorstep, albeit maintaining 1.5 metres safe distance. This delivery service has expanded employment locally and created opportunity for creative support services to enhance the experience of your mandated homestay.
This sweeping global response to a pandemic is surely a dress rehearsal to what could be accomplished toward real climate change action. Clearly we have the capability to operate from a global perspective in the face of adversity in a flash. This could benefit the planet in ways which we never would have believed only a few months ago before we had ever heard of COVID-19.