Could there be long term benefits from our current experience? The short term says no, all people want (with some justification) is for things to return to ‘normal.’ This normality is a life lived freely to intermingle and without care—which is not to say that I am painting everybody in their normal lives as being careless, but merely that in a ‘normal’ life one doesn’t have to go about one’s business factoring too much into what other people do so long as they don’t behave with overt stupidity towards oneself. These days it doesn’t take long to spot the people who do behave stupidly and anti-socially. They stand out a mile whereas before the pandemic they may have just been mild irritants in the background (like people who don’t clean up after their dogs). The pandemic seems like a giant housetraining exercise we’re performing on ourselves, and given the longevity of this experience perhaps it will have long term impacts on human behaviour.
This could operate at two levels, the micro and the macro. At the micro level, which is our individual personal behaviour I think it will be quite a long time before people generally (but there will always be idiots) feel inclined again to behave with a sense of unconscious trust in others, particularly strangers. Perhaps a new age of mask wearing in the West will take hold, and new norms of distancing will feel the right approach. Will pubs ever be the same again, even when close contact has become iffy? I’m not sure I feel keen on returning to previous habits.
At the macro level, which is to say our national and international politics the picture is no more certain. An intelligent strategy to take us beyond the pandemic would recognise that this economic upheaval provides boundless opportunities to shift the balance of the economy at a time when electorates wouldn’t object—a revolutionary moment presents itself on the back of a global disturbance which has already proven, well, deeply disturbing. One could say that we now do have a real choice with ample legitimate routes to follow away from our previous pre-occupations. The choice is crisis capitalism or environmentalism (in the fullest, most profound sense of that word). I have to be honest and say I’m not optimistic that the right choice will be made (although there will definitely be a bucket load of greenwash designed to convince us otherwise).