It would be unwise to predict what will happen to our world as a result of this pandemic. As scientists scramble to find a vaccine in the shortest possible time, many are trying to control the spread of the disease in the meantime by controlling physical interaction and improving basic hygiene.
Whatever we call it — lockdown or its ‘smart’ version (as our government likes to call it) or social or physical distancing or wearing masks — life these days is all about limiting the human-to-human spread of the novel coronavirus.
As we try to cope with this new world, we find people divided into two types. There are those who yearn for life to return to what it was before, dreaming of waking up to a magical vaccine that protects everyone and relieves us from this nightmare of the past months.
This is a fantasy scenario, the kind that Hollywood or Bollywood movies are based on, which have little to do with reality. This fantasy impacts real life people by keeping their imaginations stuck in the status quo. Sadly, the last few months have shown that wherever people have tried to live normally (without lockdowns and distancing measures), the virus returns and sometimes does so with a vengeance, as if to say it will not allow the past to return.
Then there are those who may be termed as the realists, who try to understand the deeper meaning of the changes that have taken place. Instead of seeing the situation as a nightmare, they are prepared to accept the experiences of the “new normal”. Even if the world returns to its pre-Covid-19 existence, the last six months have pushed this cohort to do things differently, investing their time and energies in exploring new ways of navigating life and work.
For these believers in the ongoing change, like myself, our homes have become much more central in our lives than they were before. As more people stay at home, under state-ordered or self-enforced lockdowns and continue to practice physical distancing to protect themselves, our homes are providing us the protection coupled with the opportunity to continue our lives with some degree of pre-Covid-19 normalcy.
Home is where our lives have returned to in more ways than we could have imagined. Home was always a place we came back to — from work, from travel, from school and colleges, from shopping trips and social gatherings and even from medical care and hospitals. This has been flipped on its head with our homes now encompassing everything within their physical boundaries.
Those of us who are now working from home mostly are showing ourselves that it is possible to do this successfully. In all likelihood, once a covid-19 vaccine becomes available, we will return to our offices but perhaps not in the same way. Does 9-to-5 make sense anymore? Why would businesses pay for expensive office space? Perhaps companies will switch to a shift system and retain shared offices, or just hold space for physical meetings when these are essential.
We are also trying to be better at learning from home with online education trying to find workable models. Can this ever be a substitute for classrooms in schools, colleges and universities? It is difficult to imagine this at present and the safest thing to predict is that online models will complement physical classrooms, with technology working its way to find better solutions all the time.
We are increasingly shopping from home, replacing the trip to the malls with online browsing of stores and catalogs. Will online shopping replace the physical store? Again, unlikely to imagine right now and despite the significant growth in online shopping, it is still a much smaller proportion of the total retail spending.
Our family doctor sent us a message recently with a link to his telehealth initiative. His services are now available online and we do not have to go to his clinic unless he advises so in an emergency situation. This will be quite convenient and one can imagine it being a gamechanger in the healthcare sector in the near future.
In addition to this, we have been ordering food from restaurant apps, doing banking transactions online, taking virtual workout lessons and having social get-togethers on Zoom or Skype. We have also rediscovered our neighborhood as we walk, jog or bike on the same streets where we had never traversed except on four wheels. In addition, social occasions with numbers limited to just a few people are held outdoors in the lawn or the terrace. These are all big changes in lifestyle, even if I am not particularly a fan of all of these, especially the Zoom get-togethers. Still, given that everyone I know is in the same boat, at least I am not complaining about missing out.
All this, of course, is limited to those of us with the means to afford this pivot to the home. Such a move is difficult and painful for the poor, especially in the urban centers, those who do not live in comfortable homes and for whom space for individual movement is restricted. It is important for our governments to ensure that the change does not happen with large parts of the population excluded from its potential benefits. This is the problem with the current structure of our society-that it benefits the few and ignores the large majority. It is both a challenge and an opportunity to rearrange things, as I have mentioned in a few previous articles.
In this particular context, governments need to provide tech-friendly public spaces which can be accessed by everyone. They need to create digital programs in sectors such as education and health which are inclusive for all citizens. In addition, the online world should be more accessible to the underprivileged, and that technology and cellular services businesses should be shouldering this responsibility as well as benefiting from this opportunity. There are some excellent examples in our neighboring countries where the cost of faster internet speeds and higher bandwidths has been slashed to create much bigger markets for cellular companies.
Meanwhile, coming back to the two main groups of people who have the means to change their lifestyles, those who see the change as more permanent in nature will try to accept this and find opportunities to innovate and create new business models with the aid of technology. Their focus should be on homes and the physically distanced lifestyle which has implications for almost every sector.
While creating economic disruptions, Covid-19 has accelerated digital trends that were already emerging. The urgency of developing these trends is something none of us could have imagined a few months ago.