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Fintan O’Toole: Coronavirus has made all familiar things strange

It should not take something as terrible as this to awake us to life’s inherent fragility

Ten-year-old Charlotte O’Brien visits her grandad Pat O’ Brien in Clontarf, Dublin. Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times

How long will it last? The question does not apply merely to the Covid-19 pandemic. It relates to its economic, social and political consequences. It is not easy, in the midst of a crisis that is only beginning to unfold, to imagine whether and how it will change the way we live, the way we interact, even the way we think.

But already, almost everyone is experiencing what we might call the shock of the old. We have become used, in our era of rapid technological change, to startling innovations. But the coronavirus – even though it is called “novel” – brings with it a different order of disruption.

We are being shaken, not by the next big thing, but by the recurrence of an age-old experience. The first of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse is Pestilence – and he has come riding back from the deep, dark past to trample on all our assumptions.

It is possible, of course, that the answer to the question of what will change is: not much. Human beings and our societies are remarkably elastic. The terrible Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 killed even more people than the first World War. But it was followed by the Jazz Age of 1920s hedonism, of Berlin cabarets and New York speakeasies, in which everyone seemed to be dancing on the edge of the volcano, losing their inhibitions in an orgiastic fever-dream of money and sex and intoxication.


People have been aware for many, many centuries that what we now call globalisation is a garden of delights

There was not much sign of a chastening then – and perhaps there won’t be any in whatever post-pandemic culture we will inhabit. Maybe, after this period in which all the parties have to stop, we will, as our ancestors did in the 1920s, just party harder.

Even if we go back further into history, we can see that people have been aware for many, many centuries that what we now call globalisation is a garden of delights for infectious diseases. They may not have understood the microbiology or the vectors of contagion but they knew that the three big spreaders of pestilence are colonisation, armies and merchants. But that knowledge did nothing to stop or even slow either imperial invasions or wars or global trade.

Our species has an amazing ability to carry on regardless and perhaps, after the first wave of this panic has passed, that is precisely what we will end up doing.

A sign with social distancing guidelines in the Botanic Gardens in Dublin. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

But it doesn’t feel like that right now. Covid-19 has already forced all of us to think about things we had learned not to think about. We are in a moment of profound defamiliarisation. The ordinary, mundane and banal have become difficult, dangerous and strange. The church, football stadium, pub, conference hall, office, classroom, creche – the spaces in which we measure out our lives – have become zones of hazard.

The invisible virus has made our commonplace social rituals suddenly visible to us. We have been forced to see them. Instinctive bodily gestures – most obviously the handshake but also all those unconscious, automatic touching of our faces with our fingers – have been wrenched into awkward consciousness. We have been made hyperaware of the places we occupy, the way we move, the many layers of connection we take for granted until they are threatened or broken or, conversely, until they come too close.

Samuel Beckett wrote that "habit is a great deadener". Suddenly (and ironically) all those dead habits have been brought to life. We are more awake to the world around us than we have needed to be for generations.

And in this great awakening to the habitual, we are being forced to ask: do I really need to do that? The first victim of that questioning is the force that has enabled Covid-19 to spread with such astonishing speed – long-distance travel on a mass scale. Until a few weeks ago, it was assumed that demand for flights would continue to increase relentlessly, whatever environmental campaigners might say. Now, that assumption has become suddenly very shaky.

Much of the world is becoming, for now at least, a no-fly zone

The narrator in Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie says his father was “a telephone man who fell in love with long distance”. The contemporary middle class fell in love with long distance, but this moment may mark the end of the affair. We are being grounded in the most literal sense. Much of the world is becoming, for now at least, a no-fly zone. This seems temporary, but it may not be.

Once we stop taking for granted the idea of relatively cheap and almost boundless air travel, it becomes what it was for our parents and grandparents, an exotic and even wondrous experience. Perhaps that is what it should be. Maybe, like economy-class versions of Icarus, we have flown too far, too often.

This is not an abstract question. The likelihood is that the pandemic will devastate the global airline industry, drastically reducing the number of flights for business and tourism over the course of the rest of 2020. It seems improbable that the industry can survive this crisis in its current form. Will governments therefore end up nationalising (or in many cases renationalising) strategically important airlines? If they do, they will find themselves having to make some very big long-term decisions about the viability and ethics of intensive air travel.

But it is not just long distance that is at stake. Proximity is also problematic. In this regard, the post-pandemic world may be a case of going back to the future – or rather to a future that didn’t really happen. When the revolution in information and communications technology was getting under way in the 1980s, it was assumed that by 2020, very few of us would be working in big offices. Physical meetings would be a thing of the past – why would we need them when we could communicate virtually?

But we proved to be much more resistant to decentred, virtual working than the visionaries ever imagined.

Will Covid-19 kick-start the future we were supposed to inhabit?

Look on the skyline of Dublin and every other major city and you see the giant cranes being used to build old-fashioned office blocks. Again, they embody an assumption: that demand for office space will continue to grow. But will it?

Will Covid-19 kick-start the future we were supposed to inhabit? It is forcing developed societies to engage in a vast experiment in the feasibility of home-based work. If that experiment proves to be a success, if productivity turns out not to be reduced by a radical shift towards virtual and digital modes of business, the long-term implications for spatial planning, transport networks, how families organise themselves and for the life of cities could be huge.

Some of these implications could be very pleasant – a major reduction in commuting to work would be a great blessing. But what we can say with some certainty is that life for those who cannot work remotely is about to get much worse. People who work in most service industries don’t have the option of working from home. You can’t virtually pull a pint or serve a meal or clean an office or crew an aircraft.

The immediate economic victims of the virus will be people who already work in precarious employment: budget airline crews, hotel staff, the vast army of people (usually from poor countries) who work on cruise ships.

Universities, too, could face an immediate and a semi-permanent crisis, not just of financial viability but of identity

The pandemic will certainly increase inequality, both globally and within the rich economies. Even if governments act – as they should – to shore up the incomes of those worst hit, they will have to face up to the possible long-term loss of employment in the labour-intensive hospitality and tourism sectors.

Universities, too, could face an immediate and a semi-permanent crisis, not just of financial viability but of identity. Almost all of the universities in the West now depend on attracting very large numbers of high-paying students from far away, especially from China and India. That income will dry up this year, leaving large holes in their day-to-day budgets.

But there is an even bigger threat. Just as businesses are being forced to experiment with virtual working, universities and colleges are being forced to shift their courses – and probably their exams – online.

Trinity College Dublin has closed due to the spread of coronavirus. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

The paradox is that the more successful they are at doing this, the worse it will be for them. Suppose it all goes splendidly. Students love their online courses. The remote exams are managed without serious cheating. Even the graduation ceremonies, shifted into cyberspace, prove quite satisfactory. What then? Universities see themselves as being about place, relationships and communal experiences. What if students ask: why should we pay for those things when you’ve just proved that we could get our degrees without even being in the same country?

This is an even sharper question when, as we saw so dramatically this week when Trinity College Dublin had to shut down most of its student accommodation, shared living quarters no longer seem safe, let alone desirable.

Where now for the "co-living" spaces praised just last year by Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy as "very trendy" and "exciting"? No one apparently thought of pandemics when deciding that young people should be delighted to share kitchens and bathrooms with strangers. Will physical planning now have to consider the danger of infection in the way it has to think about fire safety, as a risk to be radically mitigated in the way living quarters are designed and built?

The biggest long-term effect, though, is likely to be political. In October 1987, the right-wing US president Ronald Reagan sprayed his folksy charm over an old anti-government joke: "You know, it's said that the 10 most frightening words in the English language are, 'hello, I'm from the government and I'm here to help.' "

The joke encapsulated the ideology that has been dominant since the end of the 1970s, when first Margaret Thatcher and then Reagan came to power: government is at best a necessary evil and therefore the smaller it is the better. But with Covid-19 it is increasingly clear that the six most frightening words in the English language are: "You are on your own, mate." Rugged individualism is not much use in the face of a collective threat. Pandemics don't reward self-reliance. Big government is back with a bang.

And not just big national government. The pandemic is a terrible reminder of the need for rigorously co-ordinated global responses to global crises. The British government’s attempt to go it alone with its own distinctive strategy have already proved to be untenable.

One time-worn response to the spread of pestilence is to find the scapegoat

All the old platitudes about our sharing of the planet have been given an appalling urgency. It should not take an airborne danger to bring home to us the fact that we all breathe the same air, but it has done so in the most dramatic way. The staggering speed with which the virus has spread makes it impossible for any rational person not to understand the reality of human interdependence.

But of course there are many irrational people, one of them in the Oval Office. US president Donald Trump, unfortunately, has history on his side in his repeated characterisation of Covid-19 as "the Chinese virus" and "the foreign virus". One time-worn response to the spread of pestilence is to find the scapegoat: Jews for preference, but if they are not to hand, any alien or different community.

And this is one way the long-term politics of the pandemic could play out. Trump, his media allies and his Mini-Me imitators around the world will undoubtedly try to deflect rising public awareness of the need for a better kind of governance into paranoia, hatred and nationalist authoritarianism.

The other possible response, however, is precisely the opposite. This crisis has destroyed all complacency about the status quo. It has forced us to wake up, not just to our dependence on one another, but to the sheer fragility of our lives, our economies and our societies. It is not the wake-up call any sane person would have wanted for the world. It would be far, far better if we could just imagine those realities without having to experience them.

But now we don’t have to imagine the precariousness inherent in our relationship with nature and the planet. It has come into all our lives. We will not soon forget what this feels like. We will not, surely, fail to learn that, with so many unpredictable threats in our capricious world, we must at least deal with the utterly predictable ones.