Covid-19 is accelerating changes that were already underway, some of them for the better. Frances Cowell finds five that will outlive the pandemic and invites you to add to her list.
We’ve all heard plenty about the damage wrought by this pandemic and many of us have suffered or still are suffering grief and hardship. But, as they say, its an ill wind that blows no good at all, and some good things might yet come of this global catastrophe.
Our first three “good things” are mostly about convenience and saving time. They will benefit you most if you are one of the millions who juggle work and family responsibilities. The second three are “better things”, in that they benefit the planet and every human on it. And not just humans, either.
Its now OK to work at home
If you have a job – and one that can be done at home, then you may be one of the millions around the world who are very happy with that – even if you do sometimes miss the camaraderie of your colleagues. If you have children, then you and they will benefit from the extra time together. Without the stress of crowded public transport, you may find you are more productive too. And for those days when you do have to go into the office, the commute is likely to be less unpleasant because so many of your fellow commuters are at home rather than competing with you for space on trains and busses. Not having to jam into packed public transport twice a day for a couple of hours means that we don’t get colds and flus that we would otherwise expect to come down with.
So spare a thought for the many thousands whose jobs have disappeared, perhaps because they depended on serving lunch to office crowds or served the tourist industry. A lucky few have found work in their local area. But many of those service jobs will be lost forever. But they too will benefit from other Covid-19 Good Things.
A big time-saver for nearly everyone is online professional consultations. Until now, many medical practitioners simply had never considered online communications with their patients, obliging them to show up at the surgery, wait to be called (why are doctors always behind schedule?), often for a routine referral or a prescription renewal that can easily be done online or by phone. Eliminating that waste of time frees up the doctor for patients who really do need in-person attention.
You may miss going out for concerts and theatre but be consoled by an abundance of online events that, pre-Covid-19, were inaccessible because of high admission prices or because travel to see them would be unrealistic. Online, often free, they are now accessible to those of us living in remote areas or with mobility constraints. That’s a bonus in itself. Online events of course are no substitute for actually being in a grand concert hall or at a throbbing rock venue – or the networking of the old conference halls, but for many, the sheer choice of events helps make up for that. And many organisers are making innovative use of the online format, sometimes to amazing effect.
Of course, these Good Things benefit some of us more than others. More important are those that benefit everybody and everything on our planet – not to mention the planet itself.
Getting better all the time
When most of the world was forced to watch helplessly online or on television while the global economy sank to its knees, a peek out the window showed our sky bluer than many of us had seen it for decades – or ever. Thousands of lives were saved, just through cleaner air; many more from fewer road accidents.
Much of those “gains” have disappeared with the return of economic activity. But not all of them.
Indeed, the body blow to the global economy may have its bright spots. Many governments have responded with extra spending on infrastructure, and much of that is aimed squarely at boosting a new, low-carbon economy.
Urban administrations, fearing that people returning to work in person will shun public transport in favour of individual transport, are thinking of ways to avoid the pollution, noise and congestion that results from too much motor traffic in city centres. Not everyone is a fan of cycle lanes, but they are quieter and cleaner than motor vehicles, and are only one of many possible solutions.
The airline industry in particular is changed forever and a step change is underway in energy production.
Global airline traffic has fallen by somewhere between 70% and 90%, depending on whose analysis you read. That is inconvenient if you are waiting for a letter in the post from overseas or, like this author, are unable to visit loved ones; but the wider benefits are likely to be both far-reaching and permanent. Most industry experts believe that global aviation will be one of the last sectors to recover from the crisis. And as the provisions of the Paris accords on climate change begin to bite, the aerospace industry has both the opportunity and the incentive to get serious about climate-friendly aircraft. Aircraft manufacturers are thus scrapping some existing and planned models altogether and accelerating research and development in cleaner types of craft, even using non-fossil fuels.
Coup de grâce
The Big Rethink is not limited to aerospace either. For different reasons, we are likely to see a sustained shift away from fossil fuels like coal and oil. In truth, Covid-19 can claim only some of the credit for this: the oil price was already at historic lows before the pandemic hit. But Covid-19 has helped by gutting demand for things like transport, and so may turn out to be the coup de grâce for fossil fuel production.
With oil prices this low, many new wells are no longer economically viable. Planned drilling in the Arctic, where weather conditions make it expensive to drill and operate oil wells, while political risks add to financing costs, may now never happen. Many fracking and Canadian tar-sands operations have shut down, many never to re-open, because they simply are not profitable at current oil prices. The US Energy Information Administration reports that oil rig counts are at their lowest for decades.
Of course, low oil prices can have the effect of stimulating demand, but many oil production operations, once stopped, are difficult and expensive to restart. Electricity producers, for example, wary of encroaching climate-related risks, are looking beyond oil and coal to cheaper, less risky sustainable, renewable energy sources. Indeed, the International Energy Agency now expects renewable sources to overtake coal as the world’s leading source of electricity production as soon as 2025.
In other parts of the world, low oil prices provide the perfect opportunity to phase out petrol and oil subsidies (which anyway only ever benefitted middle-class consumers, rather than the poor, who tend to use very little petrol anyway). When pump prices are low, consumers are less likely to protest the withdrawal of subsidies, and if prices do increase again, that withdrawal will have been a done deal. The poor actually benefit from subsidy cuts, other things being equal, as they free up government spending for more constructive uses, such as education and health care.
Covid-19 may thus have improved our quality of life and benefitted our planet and all living things we share it with. Even better, many of these good and better things will likely outlive the pandemic. Firms now look hard at how many of the employees they actually need in an office at any time. The fewer they can manage with, the more they can save on rent and ancillary costs. Those hours not wasted in commuting can now be allocated to genuinely productive pursuits, such as fun. Concerts in grand concert halls and throbbing rock venues will return, but many online-only events will stay too. Doctors and other professionals may find that they like the brevity of online consultations and focussing more attention on those who need it most.
With accelerating advances in cleaner and quieter vehicles, together with car-sharing services, cities that have reduced their dependence on petrol-fuelled cars may find their electors keen to retain some of that reduced traffic congestion, improved air quality and noise reduction.
As investment in cleaner, more efficient – and so cheaper – aeroplanes advances and even accelerates, airlines will not return to dirty, more expensive, older models, not least because increasingly climate-conscious passengers are unlikely to accept it. The same for fossil fuel production. Many of those moth-balled oil wells will never pump again, and many shelved drilling plans will never see the light of day.
Let us be clear: Covid-19 has brought dislocation, distress and death to too many of us. But amid the undeniable suffering that is blighting so many, let’s not lose sight of the Good Things. Covid-19 may at least have saved the Arctic. Fingers crossed for the rest of the planet.