When Covid-19 has done with us, what will be the new normal? | Opinion

Pandemics – as the historian Yuval Noah Harari has observed – press the fast-forward button on history. Suddenly, changes that would in pre-corona times have generated years of debate, dissent, hesitation, opposition and delay turn out to be possible overnight.

Exhibit A in this context is the way in which hundreds of thousands of white-collar workers are suddenly able – indeed, required – to work from home.

Exhibit B – more worrying – is the way governments are either already deploying, or actively considering, surveillance technology of such intrusiveness that it would have caused outrage and furious protests even a month ago.

Exhibit C is the decision of the two huge tech companies that control mobile phone technology – Apple with its iOS operating system and Google with Android – to create application programming interfaces (APIs) that will enable governments to build and deploy proximity-tracking apps on every smartphone in the world. This is remarkable in two ways. One, it involves cooperation between the two members of a global duopoly that would normally trigger antitrust suits – yet there hasn’t been even a whimper from competition authorities. And two, the companies insist that if governments do not comply with the conditions that they – Apple and Google – are laying down, then they will withdraw the APIs. The specific condition is that apps using the APIs are not mandatory for citizens. They have to be opt-in. So here we have two powerful global corporations laying down the law to territorial sovereigns. Unthinkable a month ago. But now…

Signs of dramatic changes are everywhere – even in GP surgeries. The New York Times published an interesting report on how the work of GPs in London is being transformed by the virus. “We’re basically witnessing 10 years of change in one week,” one GP told the paper. “It used to be that 95% of patient contact was face-to-face: you go to see your doctor, as it has been for decades, centuries. But that has changed completely.” Before the virus, video appointments made up only 1% of annual appointments with British GPs and other practice staff. But the NHS has urged thousands of clinics across the country to start switching to remote consultations and has fast-tracked approval of digital providers to ramp up their offerings.

One of these providers is accuRx, which was already being used by many GPs as a trusted tool for sending text messages to patients. As the crisis deepened, accuRx built a video-calling system over a weekend after the virus arrived in the UK and has – according to the NYT report – quickly become “the go-to provider for online appointments, offering a stripped-down interface and the comfort of having long been in primary care clinics”. Having watched one of their instructional videos, I can see why it’s taken off. Zoom could learn a few tricks from them.

While the pandemic continues to turn the world upside down, new realisations are beginning to dawn on us. As the tech analyst Ben Evans puts it: “We’re all online now, and, just as importantly, we’re all willing to use this for any part of our lives, if you can work out the right experience and business model. Today, anyone will do anything online.”

Well, up to a point. While it’s true that not being online suddenly puts one at a real disadvantage, community volunteers up and down the country are realising that there is still a serious digital divide: and on the wrong side of it are many elderly people – who are the most at risk from the virus.

The most important implication of the breakneck changes currently under way, though, is that there’s no going back to normality. That train has left the station. The coronavirus isn’t going away. And even when there is a vaccine, the risk will endure, because climate change and the erosion of wildlife habitats will ensure a ready supply of zoonotic viruses. Companies will have learned to build supply chains with resilience built in. White collar workers will have discovered that they don’t have do as much commuting as before. Air travel will go back to being a luxury. And so on.

A useful metaphor for the new normal will be what happens when driving a car on black ice. The worst thing to do is to slam on the brakes, because then you completely lose control. Instead you pump them – brake a little, then back off and repeat the process until back on gritty tarmac. Our immediate futures will be like that: a combination of what some people are beginning to call “the hammer and the dance” – the hammer of successive lockdowns followed by digital dances in which we use surveillance and testing to find and control outbreaks. We are heading into a cautious, rather than a brave, new world – with Orwellian overtones. I wonder what Aldous Huxley would have made of that.

What I’m reading

Covid and forced experiments
A long and thoughtful essay by Benedict Evans. Full of interesting charts and reflections.

Shockwave
“Adam Tooze on the pandemic’s consequences for the world economy”. A terrific, informative, sobering read on the London Review of Books site.

The future?
Positional Scarcity and the Virus. An insightful essay by Alex Danco on his blog about the futures (if any) of business air travel and universities.

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