Time for change after the coronavirus pandemic

I’ve taken to keeping a daily diary in isolation – though I suspect I’m not alone here. Most of us locked up our diaries to collect dust in the attic when we left our teens. Its job was complete, navigating those unpredictable and impressionable years. This pandemic needs its own navigation. For many, cocooned in the safety net of the western world, trauma of such scale, the human loss, the fear of the unknown, are new. Some have witnessed wars and displacement (I saw some of this) but for many, the memory of war is from grandparents’ stories, from the movies, from The Diary of Anne Frank. The more contemporary events are events – they happen somewhere else, captured in a photograph, an article, noted and then gone.

This coronavirus pandemic has the gravitas of a world war. And there is something unifying in its global-ness. We’re all in it together, feeling one another’s pain, understanding each other’s fears. And equally terrified and helpless. Yet, the reality of the loss of lives and livelihood, the surreal nature of the lockdown – these need to undergo some sort of daily navigation. And so, the daily diary has re-emerged, with slightly less self-absorbed content and with a finer quality Japanese fountain-pen, ink, and paper.

It contains intimate details of the cherry blossoms that have doubled since yesterday in the local park where I take my daily walks. The hazy morning light brightening in the unusual April heat. London’s clear skies. The silence in the air. The orchestra of bird songs – some of which are new melodies in a city cleansed of air and noise pollution. The hungry bees populating the garden. Spiders weaving their architectural webs. The house cheese plant cuttings coming to life in their containers. The life of spring.

I observe the teenager across the lawn in the neighbouring house slouched in his backyard, headphones on, absorbed in his world, possibly thinking of his school friends, maybe even a girl, or boy, whom he cannot see for months. Months that are years in the teenage world. I watch the man in the park dry fly fishing. It looks surprisingly elegant. I mourn the elderly neighbour no longer with us, not for the virus, but another illness that took him in silence in the midst of this chaos. I hear another neighbour signing, alone but with her church choir via Zoom or Skype for Easter Sunday. I try not to listen to the ambulance and police sirens moving across our road, slowly fading, perhaps another tragedy in offing. Then silence and stories in my own mind.

Mostly, my diary pages are filled with ideas of how these monumental episodes offer the chance of renewal. Why not use this golden gift of silence to rethink our cities? With the High Street closed, I’m reminded of how little we need to live well. There are the essentials, of course, but do we need all this ‘stuff’ designed for desire? Observing families in the parks, should shopping be the default for entertainment? Equally, the pandemic is highlighting the precious value of time with family and friends, the social factor in being human. It is humbling watching communities come together to help one another with such dignity, and formal work rivals offering assistance. Perhaps our cities could focus less on empty consumption and more on places for people, for communities to grow, for this unified spirit to continue.

Equally, observing London with minimum cars and transport, do we need to be constantly moving? Walking through Hyde Park and onto Buckingham Palace, there is so much beauty in this city without clutter. Why should cars drive through parks? Why not pedestrianised central London and offer electric trams and the kind of clean driverless pods we have been discussing for years? The products are there. The technology is there. The infrastructure is largely there. It all just needs a push.

We now see that many businesses can function perfectly remotely. Why not rethink the tired work arrangement, the largely unchanged office format? Judging by the conversations I’m having with most colleagues, especially those in public relations and communications who are now working from their home offices and shed, I see such creative thinking from individuals who usually follow the corporate line. I suspect there will be more productivity, more interesting work emerging from this new way of working.

The world could benefit from working together progressively. This pandemic is proof of that. Watching the devastation caused to less fortunate countries, and watching ours largely surviving through state intervention, should it not encourage a more active state? Surely, we can now see the value in investing ever-more in our national health system – instead of systematically starving it. Equally, seeing how more deprived communities are suffering largely due to underlying health issues, isn’t this the time to discuss inequality, education and more? Even capitalism knows it cannot survive in its current grossly unequal state.

Within this adversity, we see families reuniting in parks, teenagers cycling with their parents, no iPhone in sight. Couples jog together absorbed in conversation. Maybe they are revaluating their life, their fast world. Perhaps they are rethinking their careers, ditching the corporate life for something more real. I suspect much of this thinking will be gone by the end of the pandemic (assuming there is an end). Yet, dear diary I hope this episode changes our collective perspectives, that we each see our individual responsibility to help make this world a better one not for a handful, but for all. That is not a tall order.

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