Faced with a pandemic, 2020 has been an opportunity to rethink how we socialise and work.
The great pandemic of 2020 has transformed our lives in ways that seemed impossible at the beginning of this year.
Millions of us have had to change how we interact with each other, go about our daily lives and even how we work.
Making sense of the fallout from the pandemic will have not been a high priority while trying to stay healthy, keep others from being infected and holding down a job while juggling a family.
The rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine is a welcome relief, but the chief executive of Germany’s BioNTech, Ugur Sahin, who spearheaded the cure, has warned that the virus could be with us for the next 10 years.
What that means is that we may have to adjust to a new normal.
Mind the gap
The historian and author of “Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present,” Frank M. Snowden, in an interview said that epidemics like the coronavirus “hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are” and “reflect our relationships with the environment.”
Tape measures used by frustrated individuals to literally measure the distance between individuals was just one indication of how strange 2020 became.
Americans marching against face masks and thousands of far-right Germans attempting to storm parliament in anger at lockdown measures held a mirror of how quickly fear and conspiracy can spread in society.
But beyond the humour and apprehension that such acts may have elicited, the pandemic resulted in social regression as people felt the need to secure their wellbeing and of those of loved ones.
The idea can be best described by Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ which lays out the basic aspirations that people need in order to thrive.
If before the pandemic people were trying to achieve self-actualisation, which is to develop their full potential, the highest point of Maslow’s pyramid of needs, then the early stages of the coronavirus saw people regress by rushing and sometimes fighting each other in a bid to secure water and toilet paper – the lowest point of Maslow’s hierarchy.
As bouts of panic buying reoccurred amidst widespread curfews and lockdowns around the world, the fragility of our modern societies was also laid bare.
A historian on Late Ottoman Modernity Dr Yakoob Ahmed speaking to TRT World argues that modernity had lulled the most developed countries, in particular, into a false sense of security.
For too long they had assumed that they had mastered and insulated themselves from the ravages and insecurities of the pre-modern world or even those of less developed countries.
The pandemic showcased that the most developed countries in the West were also the most psychologically fragile in dealing with the shock and insecurity that marks the lives of those in developing countries.
Americans for instance reported that the pandemic had deepened feelings of loneliness as people were separated from their families and millions were laid off from work.
In Turkey, a normally tactile population had to suddenly and quickly reverse course. The hand-shaking, holding arms, and the kissing of the cheeks which is so commonplace, were largely replaced by placing the hand on the chest or a fist bump.
Studies have shown that intimate touching, whether it’s an arm around the shoulder or a pat on the back between family and close friends are a “powerful tool for communicating positive emotions.”
Tactile touching helps not only to strengthen emotional bonds between people but it’s also an important tool in maintaining social relations in good times and bad.
A recent study in the UK found that those grieving the death of loved ones resulting from Covid-19 experienced deeper levels of grief.
Around the world, family members have been prevented from saying goodbye to their loved ones, holding their hands or being able to comfort them in their final moments as social distancing dictates our interactions.
The pandemic has reminded us that our quality of life is interlinked with the relationships we have between those around us and our environment. And as the pandemic looks set to continue into the next year, the way we plan ahead will continue to change.
Early signs indicate that the way we work may also dramatically change.
Bringing the office home?
Earlier this year, some of the Tech Giants that have shaped our world (Facebook, Google and Twitter) announced they will be changing how they work.
Twitter said that the option to work from home “forever” is one that staff could take advantage of if they wished to do so.
The pandemic quickly upended what it means to work in an office.
The British novelist Zadie Smith has argued that we have always found new ways to work: “photography is a challenge to painting and the internet is a challenge to a certain kind of prose.” And we could extend that to the coronavirus being a challenge to the office space.
Since the rise of the white-collar job in the 19th century the open-plan office space has sought to replicate the factory floor. Millions of people packed in a small open space for maximum efficiency as managers surveyed their fiefdoms.
The digital age and the ability to communicate with colleagues outside of an office was already resulting in whispers that the office space could become a relic of the past.
When TRT World spoke to three fathers who had been working from home for much of the year they found staying at home to help with raising their children was particularly rewarding.
“It’s perfect for me now because I’m helping my wife with the baby,” said one young father.
When pressed on the impact it has had on their work, one said he remained just as productive as he would have been while at work, and another said that he was more productive.
Whereas another young father, however, was somewhat more circumspect and wished to return to the pre-coronavirus working pattern. The lack of separation between family life and his job resulted in a home space ill-suited to working away from the office.
Similarly, a mother of a young child speaking to TRT World has found her workload increase during the pandemic. Whereas before work stopped at the end of the business day, nowadays she felt the expectation was to continue working.
The blurring between her personal and work life becomes almost one and the same when working from home.
But before we get carried away about the potentially transformative power of home working, doing away with office space is no panacea.
A study earlier this year looking at the gendered impact of Covid-19 found that women were more severely impacted than men.
Women were more likely to work in customer-facing roles, which were hardest hit by the pandemic. But also with schools and childcare centres closed, households had to make difficult choices about who has the highest wage and therefore who should continue to work.
Working from home is also a privilege afforded to those who earn the most or those with advanced degrees. Those that work in the service sector, manual labour or as delivery drivers, and so many other professions we rely on, won’t be able to take advantage of working from home.
The restaurants, coffee shops and retail outlets that have been built around office blocks would be decimated by a swift shift in working patterns. The social fallout of mass unemployment following a pandemic may be enough for governments to ensure that the march towards working from home is at the very least gradual.
Ultimately the pandemic has forced us to contend with the question of whether we need to commute to work every day and whether companies need to pay for expensive office space?
Is there a better work-life balance that could be achieved by working from home, being with our families while doing our jobs?
The answers to these questions are unlikely to be straight forward but they are an ultimatum about the underlying problems and the opportunities that a post-Covid world presents.
If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that the quality of life we aspire to should be implemented once we emerge from this pandemic. Life, after all, is a lot more unpredictable than we initially thought.