COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, is sweeping its way across the globe, gripping societies with widespread fingers and a reach that seems to grow endlessly. Meanwhile, populations everywhere hide out at home, compulsively sanitizing their hands in an effort to protect against this invisible enemy, and waiting– but for what?
If this disease has taught us anything, it’s that life carries on no matter what changes it has to overcome. Being forced to live in a way that we’ve never had to consider before has proved to us that the societies and the lifestyles we’re used to were fragile from the start. While it’s fine to sit at home in front of the news and mourn the normalcy we took for granted, that grieving period will have to eventually come to an end. We may still be reeling sightly from the sudden shock to the systems we were accustomed to, but if you’re waiting for things to go “back to normal”, let me put your mind at ease:
We’ve already learned a number of valuable lessons from this virus, as outlined in this article, 5 Lessons Learned & The Positive Side-Effects Of Covid-19, which include the fact that commuting to an office is overrated, and that the people working in occupations we took for granted before, like store clerks and nurses, are the real backbone of our economies. Many of these lessons are positive, and bring us a sense of optimism about humanity and how it bands together in a crisis. There are a few other conclusions, however, one of which is slowly starting to dawn on us in a more chilling way.
The authoritarian creep
If you thought you had freedom, think again. Countries around the world have implemented lockdowns, with strict penalties for those who break the rules. The freedom we once had, to come and go as we pleased, is gone. And the lesson is that, if it wants to, any government can control the movement of its population if given an excuse.
Don’t get me wrong, lockdowns– and their enforcement– are the best way to prevent the spread of this pandemic. People are stubborn and entitled and, as we’ve already seen here in South Africa, will frequently assume they’re invincible and that the rules don’t apply to them. Staying home is the best way to protect everybody, but you’ll always find people who don’t give a damn about that, and will need to be brought back into line. But it’s become clear that in doing so, the freedom and control we thought we had over our own lives was, at worst, an illusion, and at best, a gift from our governments.
In countries like China lockdowns and quarantines were enforced by the mobilisation of its massive and intricate surveillance infrastructure, “the terrifying scale of which”, writes Ryan Broderick for Buzzfeed News, “is only matched by the terrifying fear among Western liberals that it was necessary”.
According to Broderick, Chinese payment apps like WeChat installed software with which to monitor its users’ movement. In addition, their phones were colour-coded– red, green, and yellow– by the state-run telecom depending on their risk of possible infection, and these were then checked by guards at strain stations, who reported anyone breaking quarantine to the police.
If the numbers China has been reporting are to believed (we’re still on the fence about this, with US officials arguing that they’re not accurate), these strict authoritarian measures may have been successful, flattening their curve and preventing the infection from spreading beyond its initial major explosion.
Singapore also used a technique referred to as “contact tracing”, which relies on interviews with infected patients, as well as surveillance footage and digital signatures (like those we leave behind when we use an ATM, for example) to track the spread of the virus.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been given the right to rule by decree indefinitely, as long as the indefinite state of emergency lasts, suspending parliament and elections. Russia is using facial recognition to nab those leaving the house during quarantine, and according to Broderick, Hong Kong has tagged infected patients with electronic bracelets in order to track their movements.
The sacrifice of privacy and freedom that the citizens of many nations are having to accept in order to protect the larger population is starting to seem like a necessary evil, and it’ll probably be something we see more commonly, and in fact get used to, after the worst of this pandemic is over. The creeping in of authoritarian surveillance, might become the new normal in the West, even if not to as great an extent as in China, and for many that is truly terrifying.
In addition to a loss of freedom, the inevitable economic impact of the virus will leave many countries in recession, and businesses struggling. Check our Millennial’s Guide to Coronavirus Economics for more details about this. According to Forbes, almost all industries have been hurt by the pandemic, and Broderick points out that it’s even forced global pop culture to pause, and undergo a reinvention.
Production of blockbuster movies has been shut down, and cinema releases have been pushed back (I for one am particularly disappointed that we now have to wait even longer for the release of Disney’s Mulan, as if we haven’t waited long enough). In light of the new jump in subscriptions to streaming services a-la-quarantine, writes Julia Alexander at the Verge, studios like Universal, Paramount and Disney are having to reconsider which releases would still generate good returns in cinemas when we’re allowed back out into the world, and which might do better as online releases. In the case of the former, we’ll have to be patient until going to the cinema doesn’t seem like a deathwish (whenever it is that they’re even open again), and in the case of the latter, well… we’ll just have to make our own popcorn.
Forbes contributor Paul Earle writes that he expects a new wave of story arcs and characters to enter our films, television shows and novels. “Existential global crises tend to spark the imagination of storytellers and their audiences,” he writes. “Many believe that the growing menace of Nazism in the 1930s contributed to the creation of Superman as a hero to save the world. The postwar era in Japan is vital context for the creation of the radioactive monster Godzilla, a marauding reminder of the tragedy of atomic weaponry.” So at least there’s a whole range of new heroes and villians for us to look forward to!
Musicians are performing living room concerts, releasing coronavirus-themed music, and memes have become the most effective way to quell cabin fever and compassion-fatigue-induced-melancholy. Watching crowds of people in movies now causes me anxiety that they wouldn’t have just a couple of months ago. The way artists create, and the way we’re using and consuming media and reacting to it, has changed, and keeps changing.
While this is nothing new, particularly over the last couple of decades, a world on lockdown has certainly accelerated it. Broderick says, more eloquently than I could, that “what’s happening to our entertainment is only reflecting what is happening to the way society works now: We have moved online, and it is hard to imagine going back”.
Not all is lost
There’s still cause for hope. The world will change, and we will adapt as human beings, as we have for centuries. The economy will take a massive knock, but as we’ve established, clearly there was a flaw in the system from the get-go. We have the opportunity now, as a global community, to replace those flimsy structures with more robust ones, that will be able to withstand the next pandemic– because we know there will be another. Just as this outbreak wasn’t really much of a surprise to experts, who have been warning that the next pandemic may be on the horizon for years, they know that here will be more to come.
And perhaps this too is an opportunity for new types of business, and new innovation in the way companies operate. Forbes predicts ways in which the pandemic may be serving as an impetus for innovation. These include the birth of a culture of hypercollaboration in business where we once saw only competitiveness. Earle writes that he foresees a new culture of kindness to leave its mark on new products too. “I expect a wave of new products, services, and content designed to encourage positive interactions and collegiality, bringing us together as humans,” he says.
We may be forced to be apart physically, but this has given us all opportunities to connect in new ways, which of course, we won’t stop doing once we can see each other in person again. Now, no matter where in the world our loved ones are, whether oceans apart or a few blocks away, we’re all connected in the same way, and from that we’ll learn valuable lessons about how to maintain all our relationships despite distance.
And as Broderick says, thanks to the hyper-connected world we live in now, “we have an infinite capacity to connect with one another in the dark. Even if it’s as simple as sharing a funny video with your family group chat.”
So while the idea of life ever going “back to normal” as we knew it before may be an illusion, this is our opportunity to create a new normal, and so far it seems like the world has grabbed that bull by the horns.
The world we emerge into once we’re allowed out into the light will not be the same as it was before, but here’s hoping that after all the struggles, the losses, and the uncertainty we’re facing to get there, it might be better.