Pundits predict that Covid-19 will change our lives in irrevocable ways. In 2020, we buried family members, mentors, teachers and peers. We lost them before we realized how much we valued them. They left before we could say goodbye. What more must we part with before this pandemic is done with us?
A Tale of Two Cities
Remember busy streets? In Lahore or Amsterdam or San Francisco, lunch carts used to crowd shoeshine boys who reluctantly ceded their spot on the sidewalk to the chai/cocoa/bubble tea ladies. Their songs of superior products at risible prices competed with the trams, taxis and pedicabs that ferried workers from home to work and back again.
The foot traffic that fed the street economy wears bedroom slippers these days. The roti maker has gone home to Udaipur, Rajasthan. The general counsel of an international jewelry manufacturer taps on a laptop from her kitchen table in Zurich. The streets of Manhattan are so quiet that the New York Public Library issued a recording to remind New Yorkers how their city sounds 1.
Should we say goodbye to Melbourne and Tokyo, to the phenomenon of crowded urban life as we once knew it? Not yet. Tumbleweeds have not yet conquered the city of London. But other changes have.
We are now a society of two classes. Bankers, lawyers, anyone who can mediate the world through a screen and a keyboard – let's call them the virtual workers. Many of them are well-off and job-secure, though not all. My former secretary works from her one-room apartment in Amsterdam, typing court pleadings and contracts. My son maintains contact by email with his PhD supervisor at Oxford University. An encrypted video connection is what my friend the hypnotherapist uses to treat her patients from an otherwise empty office.
Another class of workers functions in the physical world. Their jobs require them to touch something or someone. Physical workers are bus drivers, firefighters and primary school teachers. They stock our grocery stores and care for us in hospitals. Physical workers are the only ones taking public transportation these days while the rest of us shelter in place.
We do not yet know what will become of a third category of workers. The chai lady, the shoeshine boy, actors and waitresses and concert hall ushers. They can’t all deliver groceries to the homes of virtual workers. They can’t all retrain to become nurse’s aides. Supply and demand in the labor market has gone sideways. Some workers have simply disappeared.
The New Normal
When this is all over, we like to say, then things will go back to normal. But what exactly does 'normal' look like? Progressives call for a reset: ‘They sense a chance to restore the Arcadia before mass air transit and just-in-time manufacturing.’ 2 For them, the new normal requires an integral overhaul of the life we knew, built along more sustainable and equitable lines.
Pessimists pooh-pooh this scenario. To them, economic survival is all that matters. If that comes at the cost of increased inequality or heavier reliance on fossil fuels, then so be it.
Rather than gaze into a crystal ball searching for what might be, let us take a look into the rearview mirror. Covid-19 has accelerated many trends that predate any need for face masks or social distancing. Think of remote learning, online shopping and telecommuting 3. Think of anti-immigration platforms, Trump’s 'beautiful' wall and the ever-popular gated community. Now that each of us could be a disease vector, our desire for distance has only intensified.
For some time now, we’ve been living inside a gigantic thought bubble. Or rather, individual bubbles perfectly sized to fit only the social media feeds that reassure us that our thinking is right. In a time of Brexit, Modi and Trump, political polarization has divided guest lists along ideological lines. Yes, when this is all over, we can have dinner parties again but it seems unlikely that we’ll break the bonds of our digital tribe.
Buying a bao from a street vendor was one of the few opportunities, pre-Covid, when the virtual class met the physical class. Commuting to work was another chance to observe and even participate in life in all its variegations. A civil society thrives on a marketplace of ideas, hotly and publicly debated, before implementation can begin. Life in a crowded city, cheek to jowl, causes friction. Friction sparks fire.
It’s probably safe to say that the divide between the virtual class and the physical class of workers is here to stay. If that’s true, then we can expect to see competing demands from each class for what both will call infrastructure. For the virtual class, high-speed internet connections will be paramount; for the physical class, we need reliable rapid transit networks. Digital workers want online privacy safeguards, while people who work our city streets demand modernized police protection. If, as predicted, virtual workers decamp to smaller, more affordable cities and towns, the load on the big cities will lessen – but so, too, will the tax base. The pie of public investment is finite.
What then of the disappeared class of workers: the maids and the dish washers and the taxi drivers? Not all of them can follow their former customers into exile. Not all of them can wait until Covid-19 is over. Migrant workers in India, in defiance of government orders and police cordons, are returning to the cities in search of work. They prefer the odds of contracting Covid to the certainty of death by starvation 4.
But let’s suppose we all manage to stick it out until herd immunity can be achieved. It’s not at all clear that there will be enough jobs to go around when the age of the new normal dawns. The trend toward automation will intensify as businesses try to inoculate themselves against the next pandemic 5. For workers whose jobs never come back, we may need some form of a universal basic income. Or, perhaps we should agitate for a post-Covid New Deal that can retrain a janitor to be a plumber or a waitress to be a mail carrier.
Job inequality, economic inequality and social inequality are not new issues. Neither are food insecurity nor climate change. These schisms in our society all pre-date Covid. Perhaps this pandemic has taught us how fragile our existence is when such deep fissures run through the foundation of our society. By now, we should have learned to say goodbye to the temptation of punting these problems down the field once more.
It won’t be easy. We will need our best minds to indulge in some blue-sky thinking. For example, we’ve witnessed for ourselves how lockdown benefits the environment. It literally cleared the air and allowed flora and fauna to return to their natural habitats. Could we achieve that same effect by reducing carbon emissions and, at the same time, create good-paying sustainable jobs 6?
Food banks, mobile pantries and community kitchens have sprung up around the world to feed families stricken by the pandemic 7. Progressive local governments, charities and religious organizations led the way. Could ordinary citizens join in the long-term prevention of food insecurity through a more collective approach to gathering and re-distributing our resources 8?
Burst the Bubble
None of this out-of-the-box problem solving will be possible while we remain inside our bubbles. Innovation requires great minds who don’t think alike. Diverse teams deliver better results. Fire requires friction.
Fear, on the other hand, keeps us apart. For as long as the pandemic continues to rule the world, we will understandably identify each other as potential Covid carriers. When the pandemic is over and the face masks come down, will we see each other with new eyes? In order to achieve that goal, we’ll have to come out of our bubbles. Stop thinking in terms of us and them. Let’s say goodbye to the atomization that has characterized our society for too long. Happy New Year.
Karen Kao once specialized in international mergers and acquisitions. She is now a published author, among others, of the novel The Dancing Girl and the Turtle. “The Long View” is her first feature article.
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