The Covid-19 pandemic is the biggest societal shift since the Second World War, and with a vaccine in sight and international lockdowns thawing, its lasting impact on our lives is being analysed.
Some changes will hopefully be temporary – who can remember when they last shook hands with someone or hugged when they met a friend? Other changes may become permanent.
Prof Liam Delaney, the head of department for psychological and behavioural science at the London School of Economics, has studied people’s behaviour over the past nine months and compares it to an extended New Year’s Eve.
"During this period, some people are figuring out what they want in life, or have identified some positive changes they want to make, but like on December 31, it's likely we will see some changes after lockdown but then we will slide into our old habits," he told The National.
Covid’s effect on transport
Advice to avoid public transport where possible led to a rise in people walking or cycling.
Cycle lanes are now stocked with novice bikers decked out in brand new gear. One of the winners was UK retailer Halfords which reported that pre-tax profits soared by 101.5 per cent to £55.4 million ($73.64m) for the six months to October 2, while revenues climbed 6.7 per cent to £638.9m.
It was one of a select group of UK retailers allowed to remain open during both lockdowns as an essential store and enjoyed plenty of footfall as the public looked for alternative modes of transport.
Halfords had a 184 per cent increase in sales of e-scooters and e-bikes in the first half of the year.
"How much we will permanently change depends quite a bit on policy; many cities are using this time to install more bikes lanes, which will bring some lasting change," Prof Delaney told The National.
“Companies will be more comfortable with remote working giving people further opportunities about where they can live and the jobs they can take.”
Covid’s effect on how we work
For many, avoiding transport of all kinds has become more likely as working from home becomes a realistic prospect even if it’s on a flexible basis.
Matthew Prince, chief executive of Cloudflare, told Fast Company that working from home would become the new normal.
He said the pandemic was effectively the largest "work from home" experiment ever conducted in human history ... I think we'll see these shifts last well beyond the immediate fallout of the Covid-19 outbreak."
Twitter was quick to decide that its staff would be working from home indefinitely and many businesses are planning long-term changes to office structure.
Former Twitter vice-president Bruce Daisey told the Chatham House Undercurrents podcast: "I largely believe that the office as we know it has gone. There has been such a forced reappraisal … the idea of doing a commute to one place every day for almost every organisation will be something that no longer feels necessary.”
For some, though, the initial rush to work from home has been tempered by the realisation that meeting up with colleagues is beneficial not just for productivity (the graphic below shows worker productivity dipped in the afternoon during the first lockdown) but also mental wellbeing, and workers are taking a flexible approach to the home-office balance.
Chris Herd, founder and CEO of FirstbaseHQ, says company headquarters are finished.
Instead, workers will be based at home a few days a week and come into the office for one or two days as companies look to increase the talent pool and reduce wasted time commuting.
In a Twitter thread on what he has learnt after speaking to about 1,000 companies over the last six months about their plans for remote working, he said about 30 per cent were getting rid of the office entirely and going remote-first.
Some had considered remote hook-ups for staff – but instead of at an office HQ, in a more pleasing location like flying staff to Portugal or Spain for a week.
Covid’s effect on the environment
The International Energy Agency described the slump in demand for electricity during lockdown as being like a “prolonged Sunday”.
That said, the increased use of disposable gloves, masks and single-use plastics have raised concerns that the benefits of less traffic and industry this year will be offset despite the best of efforts of many DIY mask-makers.
It’s estimated the pandemic reduced global emissions by approximately 8 per cent for 2020, however, climate-heating gases have reached record levels in the atmosphere despite this huge drop, the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation said.
If we are to limit global warming to less than 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures, as laid out in the Paris Agreement, scientists calculate that emissions must be cut in half by 2030.
“It’s difficult to know how people will respond to the climate emergency after the pandemic. It’s likely there will be a lingering fear about using public transport that will led to more people using cars,” said Bob Ward from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change in London.
“People working from home might not be on a green tariff, where as they would have been at work, and this all adds up.”
That said, action on climate change has been folded into the recovery process. Last month, the UK's Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Britain will ban sales of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 as part of the government's "green industrial revolution".
In the US, president-elect Joe Biden has said he will “listen to science” as he promised renewed action on climate change and Covid-19.
“The pandemic has shown us how vulnerable we are to global threats, not just infectious diseases but biodiversity loss and extreme weather, and the solution to combating these is changes to our behaviour,” said Mr Ward.
One positive is that there has been an increase in renewable energy production and use.
‘This experience shows that renewables technology can overcome intermittency issues, in the case of Europe at least, and that existing grids are able to cope with a higher percentage of renewables,” said Antony Froggatt, deputy director of the Energy, Environment and Resources Programme at Chatham House.
Covid's effect on handwashing
If one thing has stuck in the minds of people during 2020 it’s the message to wash your hands more often. The pandemic has put a focus on hygiene, both in the home, at work and while travelling and some of that messaging will surely stick.
Children who have learnt to wash their hands while singing Happy Birthday to meet the recommended 20 seconds are likely to keep up the habit.
For those who have returned to the office, sanitiser and cleaning wipes at each desk have become a common sight and it’s unlikely people will be eager to return to the crumb-strewn hot-desking environment of the past.
Equally, hotel rooms and restaurant tables have become noticeably spotless. Early in the pandemic, Forbes reported that planes had become cleaner than ever. These new standards are likely to stay.
Covid’s effect on tourist hotspots
Tourist spots have been forced to limit numbers during the pandemic to maintain social distance. Many tourists have found that the quieter attractions made for a much more pleasant experience. Allotted time slots and pre-booked tickets have become the norm. Some venues have introduced apps or gadgets to help space people out.
Travel website Avoid-crowds.com predicts that this is likely to continue.
While the fancy gadgets may disappear, an improved focus on crowd control will remain, it said, and not just at attractions that were overrun by visitors.
“Although it limits our ability to just casually walk into a museum or attraction, crowd control has many perks,” it wrote.
First of all, you will spend much less time waiting. There is no need to stand in line to buy a ticket and you will not need to wait in line any more since you have a time that you know you can enter. It also improves the experience because it never gets extremely busy any more.
“We don’t expect crowd control to stay everywhere. For some attractions it is too attractive to just let in as many people as possible. More people means more money. For others, where preservation is also key, we expect and hope that these crowd control measures will stay.”
Covid and contactless payments
One of the most acute differences in life after the pandemic will be how we bank and shop. Online purchases have become both a necessity and a nod to convenience. People both young and old are learning to navigate more sophisticated transactions on banking apps and payment methods are changing.
A Mastercard global consumer study earlier this year reported that contactless payments were up 40 per cent, with respondents showing increased satisfaction with security protocols around cashless transactions.
It is not only in big cities that people are showing a preference for not using cash. The town of Northampton in England revealed that 80 per cent of all transactions since the beginning of the pandemic were contactless.
"It's fair to say that banks' digital offering is changing due to the pandemic," Alex Fraser, chief executive of the London Institute of Banking & Finance, told The National.
“Now, they want to develop the back end and offer customers everything that doesn’t require a wet signature online. We’ve seen fewer people coming into branches during the pandemic and it’s likely what we will see in the future are banks moving back-end staff out of high rises and into those branches,” he said.
In the UK, online sales are 46.8 per cent higher than February’s pre-pandemic levels, according to the Office for National Statistics, but bricks and mortar stores have suffered considerably. In September 2020, total EU retail sales decreased by 2.0 per cent compared with August 2020, a trend which has continued as numerous countries entered into their second lockdown.
Covid’s effect on the high street
With Christmas trade under serious threat, many small retailers are facing a difficult decision about whether to continue business into 2021.
This chart from the UK's Office for National Statistics retail data for August shows the exponential growth of online retail in the 12 months prior, a trend rocket-boosted by Covid-19.
According to retail consultant Deborah Stone, the pandemic has meant people are reverting even more to Amazon.
"Its convenience is almost unbeatable for many products. The community-run stores have seen more trade, but I think when city-centre offices open again that business will fade," she told The National.
What retailers will have to do after the pandemic, she believes, is make a physical shopping trip an experience in which customers can shop, socialise and eat.
Selfridges in London is among Europe’s leaders in this regard, allowing people to purchase high-end goods, enjoy personal services and dine on fine food.
For smaller businesses that have already made significant losses this year, further investment in in-store niceties, on top of rent and online development, will bring further stress.
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted how we work, travel, shop and spend.
It has undoubtedly pushed people to become more tech savvy by embracing online shopping or web conferencing platforms but Liam Delaney at the London School of Economics warns that although some changes will happen, the longer-term impacts won’t only be “Mum and Dad finally learning how to use FaceTime”.
“Good things will come of this, we have shown that we can work together to solve problems, but we will also need international co-operation to support poorer economies,” he said.