Pilita Clark: The rush to forget Covid needs to slow down

Will the benefits that came from the pandemic crumble as it eases?

 More than 1,400km of cycling infrastructure was built during the pandemic in Europe alone, and  similar shifts are afoot from Bogotá to Sydney. Photograph: Getty Images

More than 1,400km of cycling infrastructure was built during the pandemic in Europe alone, and similar shifts are afoot from Bogotá to Sydney. Photograph: Getty Images

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Something odd happened one night last week. For the first time in more than 16 Covid-ridden months I went to a cocktail party. It was a businesswomen’s networking thing, on a rooftop in the middle of London, and it was by turns cheering, daunting and deeply uncomfortable.

The sight of so many new faces, eagerly knocking back free champagne, was undeniably pleasing. This was offset by the discouraging reminder that any one of them could have been breathing viral disaster up my nose or vice versa. There was also the alarmingly accomplished guest list of executives, directors, movers and shakers. And me.

Still, a lot of us were equally and painfully awkward on account of having to totter about on high-heeled shoes that had gone unworn for more than a year.

Afterwards I realised the whole thing felt strangely familiar for a reason I could not pinpoint, until it dawned on me there was one topic I scarcely heard mentioned the whole evening: the pandemic.

Moving on

That reminded me of another gathering, also involving drink, with friends in a Melbourne pub early last year. It was only weeks after the city had been blanketed in thick grey smoke from one of the 21st century’s biggest wildfires.

The air had been foul. Face masks were selling out. Flights were delayed and a tennis player collapsed at the Australian Open after a coughing fit. Outside the city people had fled to beaches beneath unearthly blood-red skies to escape blazes that left large tracts of the country in a state of blackened, smoking ruin.

But in the pub that night we talked of work, family, other friends and more. Everything except the fires. When I asked why, a friend smiled and said: “They’re over now. We’ve moved on.”

The urge to forget is understandable. Who doesn’t want normal life to snap back after the far greater global crisis of Covid-19?

Even so, there have been gains in the midst of this exhausting, painful time – not nearly enough, but some. The question is, will there be many more serious advances, and could the existing ones crumble as the pandemic eases and the rush to forget takes hold?

The benefits of some upgrades are already obvious. On my way out of the London party, I came across one of the guests hitching up her ankle-length frock to climb on a bicycle for a three-mile night ride home.

“Good for you!” I blurted, having had slightly too much of the free champagne.

This sort of night-cycling was an all too rare sight pre-pandemic. Yet even I have done it since authorities took advantage of lockdowns to spread more cycle lanes through the city. Weekend cycling in particular has soared as much as 240 per cent from last year as the sphincter-tightening dread of a London bike ride has eased.

Cycling infrastructure

The lanes are among more than 1,400km of cycling infrastructure built during the pandemic in Europe alone. Similar shifts are afoot from Bogotá to Sydney. But as vaccinations spread there are already fears that the building spree has peaked.

What of other changes?

As things stand, it is hard to imagine the shift to more flexible, remote work being totally reversed.

The unprecedented glare of attention the pandemic has brought to underfunded aged care homes around the world may not fade fast either, though whether it will bring lasting change is unclear.

The same goes for inequality, climate change and many of the other pressing dilemmas that preoccupy Davos attendees each year.

One could be more hopeful were it not for inconvenient facts such as the paltry 2 per cent of pandemic recovery spending going to clean energy measures.

Or the news that, as of this month, people in richer countries have taken more than 80 per cent of the doses needed to fully vaccinate 70 per cent of the global population, while only about 1 per cent of Africans have been fully jabbed.

The list goes on, as does the pandemic. Eventually it will end and when it does we must not forget all the powerful reasons to remember it. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021

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