The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic engendered the creation of public health systems in Europe. It was after the 2002 SARS outbreak that e-commerce took off in China. Similarly, the world will emerge from Corona 2020 a new place. What this will look like (and whether we will like it) is still being shaped, and it is unlikely to emerge with a bang. As we watch some European countries begin to ease their lockdowns, whilst some Asian nations fear resurgence, we can already see that the way out of Corona will be slow, and entail some back and forth. However, this stuttering progression should not detract from the meaning of the changes we have seen, and their potential to impact the way we live in the long-term. As a positive example, in Germany, shut-down McDonalds has leased its staff to a busier-than-ever Aldi for the duration of the crisis. Unprecedented until now, there’s no reason why, post-crisis, more companies shouldn’t enter into similar types of agreements. These could offer staff the option to be protected and retained beyond bouts of poor business. This is interesting because not only would it protect workers, it would also underpin fundamental structural shifts in how the job-market operates.
Looking to these sorts of events, we can identify emerging discourses that will set the stage for consumer tensions in the new Post-Covid-19 world. Understanding these tensions, and our perspective on them, will help us prepare for the cultural shifts ahead.
Online /vs/ The real world
Lockdowns have made us more digitally agile, and this will have a big impact on the way we learn, work, and shop. Hundreds of institutions, including companies and universities who dragged their feet to get online, or allow remote attendance, have now been forced to do so. This radical disruption has sped up change in a way that could not have been imagined, and this will have lasting effects. Nevertheless, it has also pushed us to a very extreme behaviour.
After their lockdown experiences, consumers, workers and learners will be more comfortable in the online environment, and they will have much clearer ideas about the benefits of digital offerings. But they will also be very conscious of they have missed from “the real world”. They will be conscious of how space is divided up between people and activities and what that means for them. They will be more aware of boundaries, the public and the private. Sensing the nearness of strangers’ and acquaintances’ bodies — their touch, smell and a feeling their movement in the space around us, will feel so much more meaningful than it ever did. We will newly appreciate the contexts in which we can move: bars, beaches, offices and cafes, and the moods, sounds and sensations that go with these. The types of chairs, the murmur of other guests’ conversations, the strange cutlery that clinks. We’ll notice suddenly that it wasn’t even about going to the place itself (which Zoom can even replicate with a customized background, or Brewdog with a virtual bar) but the act of getting there, and the freedom to slip fluidly and messily from one context and conversation to another, and back again. The digital sphere is so structured and rigid. And it is so ephemeral: lift your eyes off the screen and you’re in another place. There’s something about real world experiences that can so fully contain you in the moment.
Where, until now, we have so easily used “digital” as a byword for more advanced, more futuristic, and somehow unilaterally better, this lockdown period is an important reminder that online and real life bring very distinct types of value. It is a moment to learn how to better serve your audience in both capacities.
Health & Safety /vs/ Getting out and living the moment
A public health crisis prompts greater awareness around the value of good health, and how to look after it. Expect to see an upsurge in health and hygiene technologies, interest in health insurances, and discourse around the value of public health systems. Also expect to see more caution as regards travel, adventure, and sharing-services, where many will become more safety-conscious. Business budgets and investments may well be similarly restrained. Nevertheless, for every hesitant response, we are also likely to see someone who swings the other way, and, once things are looking up, can’t wait to bet it all on the big recovery moment. Just as there will be people who come out of lockdown too afraid to leave their homes, hesitant to meet with friends, others will be first in line for post-corona parties, raring to book their long-missed holiday in the sun and to jump on that next flight — if there are any airlines left to take them there.
Personal Freedom /vs/ Group Monitoring
Covid-19 has provoked government interventions unprecedented in most people’s lifetimes today, and until last month, almost unimaginable. Governments are re-nationalising private companies, imposing curfews, restrictions on freedom of movement, and in the case of China, monitoring people’s medical condition via their smartphones, including using apps to warn citizens if infected people are in the vicinity, and obliging people to report their temperatures. These strict governmental measures seem proven successful in fighting the Corona virus but represent enormous incursions on individual freedoms and privacy. Post Covid-19 some will want to cling on to this temporary new order. Fearful of virus resurgences they will be eager for the protection offered by close monitoring and place great trust in big institutions. Large corporations will be associated with financial stability and job security. But we will also see a violent discourse against it. Afraid of an Orwellian dystopia and of fascism, dissenters will believe in more personal choice and rights to privacy. They will argue that each individual should be taking more responsibility for their health and its effects on others, trusted to cooperate through choice rather than coercion. They will be wary of big corporate activity and seek work-arounds, promote local businesses and decentralized, encrypted information structures like Blockchain. Expect an upsurge in underground movements, conspiracy theories, micro-organisations, and a move towards more cooperative, locally owned-business models.
Self-reliance /vs/ Solidarity
If Covid-19 has taught us one thing, it’s that other people can infect you, that big cities under lockdown are only the size of your apartment, and being reliant on an empty supermarket shelf for your toilet-paper is no fun. Post Covid-19, expect people to take steps to become more self-reliant. We will see people carrying on the stocking up (in Germany “hamster-ing”) behaviour they adopted during the crisis, and adopting a prepper mentality. There will be more interest in rural, off-grid living, home-steading and autarkic ways of life. Businesses will re-think just-in-time supply- chain models, and may consider adopting more local sourcing and production structures. This is likely to be explicitly called for by governments, as we are seeing currently in the bid from Angela Merkel to Germany to produce more of its own medical equipment, including facemasks. Indeed, at a political level, many countries may fight to keep borders closed, adopt nationalistic discourses, and be quick to blame other nations for their ills, something we can already see playing out in bidding wars for mask shipments.
On the other hand, restrictions in movement have brought many neighbourhood communities together, and there’s nothing like a global pandemic for highlighting the common plight of humanity. Except it’s not quite so common when some are less well equipped to deal with it than others. The UN secretary general recently called for a global ceasefire, and there are increasing proposals for an internationally coordinated response to tackling the virus, playing out in the European Corona-bonds debate, and the UN’s 2.5 trillion USD stimulus strategy for developing countries. Post Covid-19 we expect to see more calls for international cooperation and collaboration on disease management, the climate crisis and economic recovery across the board. We also expect to see more attention on the wealth divide, both between and within nations, where housing conditions have greatly influenced how realistic it has been for different populations to comply with current social distancing rules. See India in particular, but this is true in wealthy nations too, where domestic abuse cases are on the rise. In the face of lacking support, some communities will mobilise to look after each other where their governments have failed them — a perverse example happening now in Rio’s Favelas, where drug gangs have begun enforcing a Corona lock down after their president refused to do so. There will be more consciousness of the importance of public services, a revived conversation around the welfare state and universal basic income. The debate will be thrown into sharp through focus via comparison of economic and social outcomes in countries like the US (where over 10 million people have filed for unemployment benefits), versus the European-style strategy, where this has, thus far, been avoided through the introduction of state subsidies for businesses and forms of Kurzarbeit (shorter working hours).
Humanity /vs/ Nature
Bill Gates said it in his TED talk in 2015: if the 20th century was about fear of war, in the 21st century, our biggest enemy will be the pandemic. We will emerge from this period newly sensitized to the invisible threats lurking in the natural world, able to maul humanity’s innards far more savagely than any tiger has ever done. But we will also emerge with cleaner air in our cities, a positive impact on climate change, and a tangible proof that this can be achieved by slowing down human traffic and activity. After Covid-19 there will be those that want to put humanity first, and are happy to renege benefits for the environment in favour of measures that keep people safe from infection, like single-use plastic. Others will say that’s flawed logic. They will argue that it is precisely because of human disregard for nature — such as industrial farming, manufacturing and illegal wildlife trade — that diseases like Covid-19 can come into being. Furthermore, the climate crisis and Corona are mirrors of each other: preventative measures have been proven to save lives, but inaction will hurtle us inexorably up that exponential curve quicker than you can say “save the planet’s green lung”. The consequences of the climate curve for the human race will be far greater than the damage Corona has wreaked. What is needed to protect humanity from the next crisis is not a war on nature, but getting to know and care for it better.