The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the familiar world we lived in and got used to in so many ways, ranging from daily commutes to interactions with people, as well as work-life, pastimes and food. Similar to the 'Black Death' pandemic that originated from the East or Central Asia and spread along the trade routes of the 14th century Europe and Asia, Covid-19 spread fast through the commercial routes of intercontinental flights.
Though the current pandemic may not be as catastrophic as the one that was caused by bubonic and pneumonic plagues, it certainly has resulted in massive changes to socio-economic and cultural norms that were seldom witnessed earlier. And although Covid-19 might not have discriminated among people while infecting, its impact is certainly not equitable among the privileged and disadvantaged classes of societies.
The pandemic has unravelled the apparently solid edifice on which stood much of what was taken for granted in the wider world, including interlinked nature of global supply chains and industrial networks, timely deliveries to markets, and mass transportation. The sharp contrasts between public healthcare systems and those provided by the private sector have also come to the fore.
Pandemics like the 'Black Death', or the 'Flu Pandemic' of 1918-19 had enormous socio-economic repercussions for the entire world. The same is true for Covid-19, which is already causing innumerable transformations ranging from personal adjustments to global shifts. Perhaps, some more time is needed before it can be ascertained whether the changes would be permanent in nature or temporary in scope.
Many changes had to be embraced in our daily lives in the wake of this crisis. In fact, the impositions of lockdowns have mostly come as a shock to a majority of people that made them feel lonelier, or lethargic, or worried - perennially driven to distractions by family members at each other's heels. However, despite being distanced socially and physically, it has forced people to stay home over weeks or months, explore interests that might not have been touched in a lifetime, go back to olden days through watching movies from the nostalgic era, and take recourse to the social media for solving mysteries of the present and the past.
This calamity has also given a boost to communitarian virtues like common purpose, creativity and solidarity among people. They are learning through the social media how others have responded and coped with the unfolding scenario. Creativity and innate resourcefulness have been unlocked in many while dealing with the situation confronting them through online platforms.
This has also found manifestations in pursuits like cooking and gardening. Many people are now cooking instead of consuming cooked items, choosing recipe, selecting ingredients, grinding spices, and then enjoying the real act of cooking meals. Many others are growing vegetables and fruits for own consumption in gardens. Some parents are getting engrossed in arts and crafts while providing home-tutoring to their offspring, which they almost forgot during their earlier hectic schedules.
Many people could also reconnect with things that were lost in the rat-race for survival, sometimes by doing things from scratch and finding how satisfying those tasks could be. A number of organisations have facilitated a temporary switch to 'work from home' for many. This has caused changes to working lifestyles and yielded benefits for people through generating leisure times that could be gainfully utilised for other productive chores. However, that has apparently favoured office workers more compared to those employed in the services sector.
Despite the recent loosening of lockdowns across the globe, social distancing may have to be maintained for many months to come for curbing and controlling the virus spread. Temperature-checks and thermal imaging cameras may continue to dominate at entrances to office blocks, so that people can be sent back home if they display any sign of fever, although the efficacy of such technologies are not fully above board.
Rearrangements will also have to be made to office-desking, as crowded offices with many people using the same space are likely to become hotbeds for transmission of Covid-19. Many entities will also need to stagger their work-shifts in order to ensure that offices or factories do not become packed, thereby enabling the workers to maintain distancing. This, in turn, is likely to result in a reduction of rush-hour traffic, as commuters would no longer be required to rush to offices at the same time-slot.
However, the public transports like buses and trains may have to be run with as low as 15-20 per cent capacity in order to facilitate social distancing. There is a risk here if a fraction of these commuters take recourse to travelling by cars, as most cities would then witness worsening of traffic congestions. Therefore, some cities across the globe are encouraging people to walk or pedal cycles to offices. Road spaces have even been reassigned by some of them, at least temporarily, for additional bike-lanes as well as wider pavements. Electric scooters may also be legalised now, which would have a noticeably beneficial effect for the environment as well as public health. As fallout of these changes, the bicycle industry in countries like Bangladesh is now witnessing a booming time, as sales and exports of the product have shot up recently.
It is likely that we will witness continuation of office-work from home for many months even after the pandemic subsides. As such an arrangement could remain functional during the pandemic, the managers would no longer be able to hide behind traditional arguments against permitting personnel to work from homes. This may also lead to an alteration of expectations and workplace norms, where achieving deliverable targets on time rather than the time spent behind desks in office determine an employee's value. Therefore, flexitime for office-work may become quite common in place of a routine 9-5 working hours.
This may also have a knock-on effect on the value of residential properties in cities and towns, as more city people are likely to move out to suburbs and satellite townships to take advantage of that scenario.
Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.