Lockdowns, with much of the human race ordered to stay indoors and the world economy in freefall, are on the way out. But if what politicians and the epidemiologists who are coaching them evidently have in mind anything to go by, “social distancing” is here to stay. Until further notice people – unless they belong to the same family unit and therefore have little choice in the matter – will be exhorted to keep at least a couple of yards away from one another and, if they are wise, to wear masks whenever they venture outside. So, no more kissing, hugging or exchanging handshakes with strangers, eating or drinking in crowded restaurants, squirming rhythmically and often promiscuously in discothèques, going to concerts or plays, attending sporting events or any of the other things they were free to do before the coronavirus struck.
For lovers of a simple life, the brave new world that is opening before us may have its charms, but for the many who do not share the tastes of Edward FitzGerald’s Omar Khayyam – who thought a wilderness would be akin to paradise as long as he had “a book of verses underneath the bough, a jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou, beside me singing …” – it could hardly be less appealing. Without the company of their fellows they soon get desperately bored.
Luckily for them, the sudden cancellation of what all of us assumed was “normality” came when most already had smartphones, laptop computers and other devices which make it easy for them to keep in touch, as it were, with relatives and friends, as well as supplying them with an endless stream of light entertainment.
Had the virus which has upended the planet made its appearance barely a quarter of a century earlier, well before the iPhone and similar hand-held products, Skype, Netflix, online banking and all the rest had reached their present stage of development, the psychological impact of the lockdowns and what comes next would surely have been much greater. Although it could be argued that all this digital connectivity helped the virus spread at a frightening rate, it has also made staying confined to quarters for weeks or months far less painful.
The worst affected by the lockdowns, social distancing and, needless to say, the coronavirus which made even libertarian governments order such dictatorial measures, have been city-dwellers. Men and women in rural areas have had far more space to move about in and have been much less likely to catch Covid-19. This suggests we could soon see a reversal of the worldwide trend for people to crowd together in search of ways of earning an income which, a few years ago, led to over half of them living in big towns of full-fledged cities, often in quite appalling conditions.
Activists alarmed by climate change and the ongoing extinction of rare animals, insects and plants take heart when they see pollution levels decline to almost pre-industrial levels and wild creatures tentatively exploring almost empty city streets. The more enthusiastic among them want to think nature is at long last making us pay for having despised it; like religious fanatics who say they believe a vengeful deity is punishing humankind for getting above itself, they tell us that had we not poked our noses into bat caves in order to get at their inhabitants or mistreated pangolins for allegedly culinary reasons, nothing like this would have happened.
In their misanthropic way, they do have a point, but the stone-age existence the more vehement seem to yearn for had its drawbacks; one is that few people made it past 30. On the bright side, as almost all hunter-gatherers were young, after inhaling a coronavirus, a “bug” which specialises in killing off the elderly and infirm, hardly any of our remote ancestors would have suffered more than a slight cough. The virus is wreaking such havoc because, thanks to modern medicine, more and more people are entering the danger zone by reaching 80 and beyond. Were it not for such progress, the daily death toll the media keep track of would be considerably less impressive than the one attributed to the seasonal flu.
If social distancing goes on for as long as the more hawkish epidemiologists recommend, it will be just as discriminatory as the virus. The hardest hit will not be unhealthy octogenarians but people who lack the marketable skills a high-tech economy demands or have been unable to save much money and have recently begun to rely on welfare. A couple of months ago, those in the wealthier countries could still enjoy what may be regarded as a middle-class standard of living, complete with lengthy holidays abroad. Will they be able to afford such pleasures in future? The signs are ominous.
The jobs that are getting wiped out in restaurants, bars and hotels require close physical proximity, as, indeed, does the tourist industry as a whole. Will they return? Some will, but not as many as before. For those who hated seeing cities like Venice overrun by the hordes of individuals with little interest in their history disgorged by gigantic cruise liners or delivered by package-tour operators, or having to wait for hours for a chance to get a quick glimpse of a well-known painting in an art gallery that, when their parents visited it, had been almost empty, the possibility that the age of mass tourism is no more than a fast receding memory is something to celebrate, but the millions who depended on it for a livelihood will have a very different point of view. Unless the visitors return very soon, their personal prospects will get even gloomier than they already are.
The coronavirus seems bound to accelerate economic and social changes that were already underway before its arrival, changes which favoured the educated (some would say the credentialed, which is not the same thing) at the expense of everybody else. During a lockdown, asking employees who can work from home to do so makes sense, but if the habits thus acquired persist, as they probably will, those who are unable to oblige will find things much harder than before. As a result, the gap between the digitally savvy and the rest, which has been worrying policymakers for many years, will widen still further, as will the one separating those who are in a position to exploit technological progress from those attached to traditional enterprises associated with the old economy which is rapidly falling apart.