Introduction

As we approach what seems to be in most nations the end of the first and hopefully last wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is time to think about the lessons we may (or could) have learned from it. Rather than a Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems for facing the pandemic (lockdown versus “liberty and death”), I'd rather prefer to find myself sharing some thoughts about some more subtle topics.

Health

Washing hands

One of the biggest discoveries for me, right from the beginning of the pandemic, was how few people know how to wash their hands properly. When practical videos about the correct way to wash one's hand started popping out, I was thoroughly fascinated not so much by the demonstration of the correct way, but rather from the introductions illustrating the frequently used, wrong way to do it.

Now, I'm not a “healthism” fanatic, but I do like to keep my hands clean, and I have always known I had a tendency to wash them with greater frequency and care than the average population, but discovering that people not only don't wash their hands as often as I do, but frequently don't wash them properly even when they do, was quite the surprise —and I'm not even talking about the thorough, 20-second-minimum, all-around-and-in-between that has been (cautionarily) taught since the beginning of the pandemic, I'm talking about even more basic (and less paranoid) gestures other than “rubbing your palms together”.

The big question remains: have (a meaningful number of) people actually learned to wash their hands properly? have they taken the habit? will they pass it on to the new generation? or has the lesson already been forgotten in the months that have elapsed since the initial panic?

La revancha del bidé

I have the luck of living in a nation where it is customary to have a bidet in most if not every bathroom. Now, whether or not it is used, and used correctly, is obviously a different matter, but at least it's there.

This is not the case everywhere, and it was interesting to see the lack of a bidet manifesting in nations such as the United States of America with panic buying of toilet paper (and the resulting self-fulfilling prophecy of its shortage).

Now, one may or may not do without toilet paper when in possession of a functioning bidet (as I myself discovered pretty recently, there are two camps in bidet usage: with and without preliminary use of toilet paper; I always thought that the standard was to use the paper first, and then wash up in the bidet, but apparently, this is not the case for everyone), but one could hope that nations that weren't used to the bidet before may have found enlightenment, with this piece of bathroom furniture finding its due place in more homes. And hopefully get used as it should.

Hands and feet and breathing customs

There are several customs that have been affected by the pandemic, at least during its peak (in the nations that have successfully taken action against it). A common example is handshakes, for which alternatives such as the elbow bump or the so-called “Wuhan shake” foot tap have taken the spotlight. It'll be interesting to see how long these alternatives will last, but there's actually more customs that would need rethinking “in a pandemic world” —even though they have received little to no media attention.

Blowing the candles on a birthday cake is a good example: in a time where everybody should be using masks to protect oneself and the others from the spread of this viral infection, exhaling strong enough to suffocate the flame of a candle is not exactly the most health-centric action one could take. Alternatives have been attempted, but I'm not seeing them really catching on, especially with the younger kids (luckily, I would say, as they would not infrequently result in disaster, I fear).

Some have remarked that the greatest divide in the results concerning the containment of the pandemic has not been political initiative, technological progress or wealth of a nation as much as geography, with a remarkable density of success stories among the Asian nations compared to any other continent.

I'm left wondering how much of this is a byproduct of certain cultural aspects common among many Asian countries, and particularly social customs such as removing one's shoes when entering a house (consistently more widespread in than outside of Asia), or the considerably more frequent usage of face masks when out in public (even without a raging pandemic, whereas in certain nations plenty of people can't seem to grasp the importance of such a simple habit even during).

The masks of freedom

A surprisingly contentious theme during the pandemic has been the use of masks. Leaving aside the discouraging paranoia against them shown above, one of the points that seems to have been surprisingly poorly communicated is that the main objective of masks is not as much to protect oneself, but also, and maybe most importantly, to protect others1. Alternatively, the message has passed, but nobody actually cares about the health of others, not even if the solution is simple and for the most part not particularly burdensome (unless you also wear glasses) for day-to-day activities.

In my whereabouts, for example, a recent trip to the mall has been fascinatingly exemplary in this regard: on the upside, there were only very few people without masks; on the downside, there were also very few people using the masks correctly, nose out being a very common mistake, and “chin support” (hard to think of a more inconsequential way to use the mask) being a not too far second.

Now, there would be much to say about the (un)ethical disregard for the health of others by those who insist on refusing to wear a mask2, or more in general about the overall effectiveness of relying on self-control to ensure that everybody's good health is preserved, but in this context I'd rather point to another ironic aspect about mask wearing.

The irony is that while conservatives and self-professed libertarians in nations such as the USA refuse to wear masks as a protest against such a liberticide imposition, more privacy-conscious individuals appreciate the thwarting effect these masks have on facial recognition. Unsurprisingly, this is something the people of Hong Kong have been leveraging since before the pandemic in their (so far unsuccessful) protests against the China power grab; and just as unsurprisingly, tech firms in China have been hard at work in making facial recognition work even in presence of masks. Oh, and if you think this is just an issue with “those repressive communist regimes”, don't delude yourself: even in nations like the UK the powers that be are more than happy with the development of similar tech. There's a reason why the EFF is fighting for restrictions on the use (and abuse) of face recognition tech

Environment

The slowdowns caused by the containment measures against the spread of the pandemic (and particularly the lockdowns) have had clear beneficial effects on the environment. Cleaner air and water have been observed all around the world, with prospective health benefits for the population, and even, curiously, improved energy production from solar. While not surprising on a intuitive and qualitative level, the effect is worth of being studied, because the relationship is not as simple as may be initially thought, related as it is to the distribution of the many factors that contribute to pollution: pollution related to personal transportation, for example, has decreased significantly, whereas that related to manufacturing has only decreased in proportion to the impact on work.

Most important, and just as unsurprising, the benefits have mostly been temporary, yet people's discovery what clean air feels and looks like may increase pressure towards longer-term solutions for a cleaner environment. Which leads to an interesting question: how much do people not care about the environment because they have simply forgotten, or even worse never experienced, what a clean environment actually feels like?

I was actually pondering this a few days ago while sitting on a beach, with a not-really-clean sea in front of me: this is what most people know about the sea, whereas I have memories of the clean seas from elsewhere, from my childhood. How much do the difference in experience affect one's sensitivity to these themes?

Then again I'm reminded by the little care a lot of people show about their surroundings (be it other people or living spaces), and are left to wonder how much of it is (human) nature, and how much of it is nurture, or lack thereof. And thus maybe, but hopefully not, the only long-lasting change from the pandemic will be single-use PPEs becoming the cigarette butts of pollution of the next decade.

Legacy?

One of the powerful things about the habits that we (might, could have) learned during the pandemic is that they are actually good habits: even if not as strictly or thoroughly as during the pandemic, they are habits that would benefit us all in our daily lives, even under normal circumstances, by helping reduce the diffusion of many kinds of more and less grave sickness that adopt similar spreading mechanisms and suffer from the similar kinds of interventions. Jokes have been made about other viruses suffering from the COVID-19 response. What remains to be seen is how successfully this will be adopted by the current generations and passed on to the next.

Work

Employment and work have been massively affected, frequently negatively, by the pandemic. In fact, economic worries have been almost constantly in sharp contrast with health and safety concerns for the whole population, and even though it's has been clear from the very beginning that the classic workplace is and remains a hotbed for outbreaks { }, there's a massive inertia against redesigning workplaces, improving worker's equipment, and more in general rethink the whole concept of work, to reduce the associated risks of contagion.

Working from home

One of the most impressive changes that have been triggered by the pandemic, especially in places where lockdowns have been mandated by the regional or national authorities, has been the transition from the classic office work to remote work.

What makes this change most impressive is not only the rapidity with which the solution was adopted, but the sharp contrast with the general mentality up to a moment before, where —with the exception of some more forward-looking exceptions— remote work was for the most part treated as a special benefit to be conceded only under extreme circumstances —if considered as a possibility at all.

One can come up any kind of explanations and justifications for the previous attitude, but I think that for the most part it boils down to control, and a lack of maturity (when no total inability) in assessing the capabilities and “performance” of the workers.

(Ironically, the sudden choice (or need) to shift work from in-office to remote also ensured that this was done in the worst possible way, and in the worst possible circumstances. Issues went from the lack of appropriate infrastructure (either in the office itself, or at the workers' homes) to the overlap of the transition with a moment where everybody (and in particular: children) had to stay home as well, with significant impacts on the effective productivity of the remote workers. But, to be fair, the latter has been an issue for everyone, including those for which remote work was already a reality.)

Of course, this isn't the whole story, there are jobs for which remote working does create issues, and I'm not referring only to e.g. manufacturing, where the need to operate machinery requires workplace presence: even restricting to the tertiary/service sector, where office work is predominant and mostly “remoteable”, there are circumstances where the switch to remote work presents issues.

The most famously debated point in this regard has been remote teaching: the emergency switch has uncovered massive deficiencies in infrastructure, amplified what ultimately boils down to census-based access to learning, and highlighted the difference in quality, preparation and adaptability of the teachers. It has also opened the door to massive penetration of technological giants such as Microsoft and Google into the field, with little or no oversight (a topic that deserves its own discussion).

Less discussed problematic situations are the fields where “trust is not enough”, and large-scale technical solutions are adopted to prevent exfiltration of information: extremely restrictive firewalls, limited networking, strict rules against BYOD, etc (think: nuclear research).

Of course, remote work is not a universal opportunity, and as with all limited opportunities, it's the opposite of an equalizer: be it by census, location, education level, type of work (which again strongly correlates with wealth and opportunities), infrastructure, the ones most affected by the crisis and the inability to convert working style from in-place to remote end up being always the more vulnerable categories.

Essential or not

While lockdowns remain the most effective countermeasure to the spread of a pandemic, especially when enacted early on, they have a non-trivial socio-economic impact. Still, most nations have enacted lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic, at different times, for different periods, of varying degrees, and with different results.

One of the most contentious points for the lockdown is the choice about which activities can/should/must close and which can/should/must be allowed to continue to operate, and under which conditions. This is a non-trivial balancing act between placing enough restrictions to meaningfully reduce the spread of the contagion3 and still provide people with the means to survive in good health.

In most nations, this has led to the differentiation between essential and non-essential work, with the former category encompassing the activities that cover the production and distribution of what are deemed “survival” goods and services (e.g. food, healthcare) and “everything else” falling in the other category.

There are a few issues with this distinction. The most obvious is that there is a certain degree of subjectiveness in where to draw the line between essential and not: while certain things are quite obviously essential (e.g. food), and others are, at least in the short, run most obviously not (e.g. luxury goods), there are others for which the choice is not as clear cut: for example, how essential is it for survival to be able to get new clothes in the short term?

A practical issue closely related to the fuzziness of essentiality is the operating requirements for the essential services: “directly” essential activities rely on a number of ancillary and satellite activities to remain fully operational, and this creates a cascade of dependencies of activities that need to remain open so that the essential ones can. This may render the lockdown measures much less effective than expected: in Italy for example, despite the formally extremely strict (and long) lockdown, the majority of workers remained active (with large differences between regions and categories), many of which commuters; unsurprisingly, the spread of the contagion was found to correlate directly with how many workers remained active.

Finally, a counter-perspective presented by neoliberalist or more in general “free-market” oriented economists, posits that all work is essential, if not else because, without their work, workers would be unable to afford even the most bare of necessities. Of course, the objection is only relevant if —consistently with the mentioned economic philosophy— we disregard any social welfare option that would balance the loss associated with the closure of non-essential activities.

Aside from the irony of economists, the arguably “most non-essential workers” (humanity has survived for millenia without their work), objecting to the arbitrariness of the distinction between essential and non-essential work (but then again, theirs is a work can for the most part be done “remotely”, and would thus not be affected by lockdown measures), the discussion ultimately becomes one to answer a simple question (with no simple answer): how many, and whose, lives are we willing to sacrifice in our objection to mandatory protection?

In some sense, this is the economic equivalent of the masks issue, and again becomes a matter of (personal, and social) trust in “the government” versus “the people”. And when pondering how much we'd put trust in the latter, let us keep in mind how even the simplest of pro-social-health measures get fought, or the human cost of the delays in enacting lockdowns due to pressure from special interest groups representing a minority of the population, but with large economic (and thus political) influence, or the preference for high-tech solutions that track workers instead of providing adequate PPEs, or the cop-out of “selling at cost” the PPEs to the exploited “employees-but-not-really” of the “gig economy”. But this will be discussed further down.

Satellite effects

The transition to remote work, and more in general the “lockdown experience” has had several consequences, and it's interesting at some of the more “satellite” ones.

Workwise, the shift from office work to remote work has far-fetching economic consequences on that part of the economy that depends on the presence and (usually) concentration of offices in specific parts of town: from the rent of office space to the food and services in “central” locations that thrived on the people circulating during lunch breaks or at work check-in/check-out times, for example, have suffered significantly from the sudden shift to remote work.

Remote work also provides greater possibilities to improve work/life balance, if managed correctly; it can also lead to much worse work/life balance, but not much more so than the always on call mentality that has been growing for years now in many office workplaces anyway. Of course, much of it, in both direction, depends on personal attitude, discipline, motivation and external factors (such as presence of children and their age, or marital status and consort working condition).

(An example of a somewhat unexpected satellite change is the loss of audience for radio broadcasts due to less commuting. An example of a lost opportunity of reflection on work/life balance is the hidden significance of this loss, i.e. the amount of time that was wasted —for the lack of a better word— commuting from house to work and back, time that would in most cases have been better spent in any other way, be it enjoying life or being productive at work.)

The two experiences (the satellite and the personal) are in sharp contrast, and it's unsurprising to see the growing pressure from interested parties to go back to the traditional model, often with debatable communication choices, such as by implying that the remote work (or its so-called “smart working” relative) isn't real work.

In the opposite direction, we see court decisions such as the Swiss top court ruling that requires employer to contribute to employee's rent payment in case of remote working. Such an initiative, and more in general a move in the direction where employers support the personal and technical infrastructure required for employees to work from home would help reduce some of the inequality of opportunity for remote work, while at the same time reducing the “office space” cost savings for the employers.

Rethinking work, rethinking life

Pressure to prevent or reverse the (prospectively longer-term) social changes triggered by the pandemic and their influence on the economy, work and life comes unsurprisingly frequently from those that built their fortune on the exploitation of the previous status quo. An interesting example of this can be found in the Swiss employer's association (Centre patronal) document from April 15, 2020 and titled Vers une stratégie de sortie de crise (PDF warning, and archive.is mirror), i.e. «Towards a crisis exit strategy».

There's a very interesting phrasing in the document:

Il faut éviter que certaines personnes soient tentées de s’habituer à la situation actuelle, voire de se laisser séduire par ses apparences insidieuses: beaucoup moins de circulation sur les routes, un ciel déserté par le trafic aérien, moins de bruit et d’agitation, le retour à une vie simple et à un commerce local, la fin de la société de consommation

One must avoid that people be tempted to get used to the current situation, or to be seduced by its insidious appearances: much less circulation on the roads, a sky deserted of air traffic, less noise and stress, a return to a simple life and local commerce, the end of the consumer society

The warning is obviously not motivated in terms of the benefit lost by those whose large personal wealth is built upon the consumer society and the stressful working conditions that support it, but is phrased in terms of the least fortunate that have been hit the hardest by the economic contraction associated with the pandemic and the emergency measures adopted to contain it.

The reason why this is interesting is not so much that it's false, but the fact that it's an excellent example of how one can state the truth and still be dishonest. Looking at the data, it is indeed quite clear that those that have been affected the most negatively by the economic contraction have been the bottom and the top layers of the wealth distribution, the rich and the poor4 —although, of course, the impact the corresponding loss have had on the life of the groups is very different, and so is their possibility for recovering from the loss.

And therein lies the dishonesty: hastening the return to life as it were before the pandemic wouldn't help the least fortunate in recovering their pandemic-associated losses, because their fortunes do not depend on the previous lifestyle —in contrast to those who have built their fortune on that, and who coincidentally are the ones represented by the Centre patronal and pressuring for the return. The “exit strategy” of reverting tout court to the previous model isn't a universal exit strategy, but one that benefits only a very specific section of the population. Even worse, the document implicitly presents a false dichotomy, as if the return to the previous lifestyle and system was the only alternative to the catastrophic loss for the poor.

In many ways, the current economic situation is the “wealth and opportunity” equivalent of the food crisis, and is explained by the conflation of two very different issues: scarcity and distribution —a distinction that is brilliantly exemplified by surplusses of food being destroyed in the face of hunger. This kind of remarks are not new, and can in fact be traced back by 40 years if not more.

Of course, if for the food we haven't found a practical solution after four decades, it's hard to believe we'd find one for the more general “wealth and opportunity” issue, despite the opportunity to rethink the whole system offered by the braking caused by the pandemic. A change in lifestyle exposes different opportunities, and opens a window for other, deeper changes in the system.

Again, among the most fortunate there are people that are already positioned in a way that allows them to better exploit the opportunities offered by the change in lifestyle: Amazon's Bezos and Facebook's Zuckerberg massively benefited from the lockdown, and I don't hear them complaining about the change, or pressuring for a return to the old ways.

(Of course, the fact that they could easily switch to remote work, or could work around the lockdowns by being classified as essential, ignore the need for safety measures for the workers, and fire them if they happened to rebel helped a lot —and draws a less poetic picture.)

Smaller parties however can also find solid opportunities. The pandemic, for example, is how my family discovered and started using a local online greengrocer: you order on the website, they deliver to your footsteps; yet behind the technology, they are still a local shop, the quality is comparable when not better to what one can find at the supermarket, and for the most part cheaper. Similar realities have existed for years (for example, a colleague of mine has been shopping for years from a fishmonger whose primary communication channel is WhatsApp); it's likely that the pandemic will accelerate adoption and spread of these kind of realities —at least where they are possible.

There are downsides to things moving in this direction.

For the buyer, the counterweight for time saved in “shopping from home” is in reduced information and higher risk: e.g. hand-picking one's own groceries allows better selection and fine-tuning of the amounts («product X is available, but the ripeness isn't exactly what I'm looking for, except maybe for these couple of items»).

For the worker, the shift in operational mode will require a shift in competences: less “front office”, more logistics. The danger here is that while the former can, at least in some fields, the front worker can provided added value (e.g. a good bookseller in a bookshop can suggest, direct, inform the buyer), the latter is a more easily “replaceable” role: it requires less specialization (and has thus a wider pool of competing workers) and most importantly we're moving towards more massive automation in the field (reducing the need for workers at all).

Downsides for the employer/entrepreneur, aside from missing the value-add of competent front workers in sectors where this matters, is the need to rely on distribution networks on both sides of the chain, procurement and sale, and the corresponding issue with scale: if you're small enough, or large enough, you can manage your own (outgoing, and incoming in fact) distribution chains, but if you're not, you have to rely on middlemen, with all the associated negatives.

For the system as a whole, there's higher fragility: any disruption in transportation and distribution will negatively affect both sides of the transaction (again, this has been the case in some nations for the food distribution during the pandemic, as mentioned above).

But most importantly, even this shift doesn't really solve the underlying problem, which is structural and infrastructural. Infrastructural, because it depends essentially on the availability and quality of and access to infrastructure (physical and electronic pathways, education, health). Structural, because the drift towards the more aggressive forms of capitalism we've seen in the last four decades century have amplified all the intrinsic limits of the system, starting from the poverty trap5.

The pandemic, in many ways, has accelerated (or is accelerating) changes that would have happened anyway, over time. The upside is that the drastic timing of the changes has highlighted aspects that are usually less dramatically noticeable in a more gradual degradation —which has helped some people to lend (and ask for) more attention to the situation, and to reflect more carefully about its causes and possible solutions. The downside is that too much information is still in the hands that are most interested in preserving the statu quo, and in the useful idiots that delude themselves in thinking that the amplification of the structural problems in the current system is the solution to its deficiencies —and the lessons that could have been learned are lost in the chase of scapegoats and misrepresentations to feel safe in one's own beliefs.


  1. to be more specific, the direction which filtering happens depends on the type of mask, but for the commonly suggested, cheap, disposable surgical mask, the main purpose is to reduce the risk of the wearer spreading the virus to others, rather than the other way around. ↩

  2. this could be readily interpreted as a violation of the others' negative right to good health, but this is a discussion for a different time. ↩

  3. the fact that workplaces are important hotspots both for workers and patrons does not exactly come as a surprise. ↩

  4. Ironically, the least affected seems to have been the ever-disappearing middle-class. And of course, among the richest, those who were better positioned to profit from the change in lifestyle were not affected negatively —but actually the opposite. The findings may be surprising, but similar results have also been found for other, past crises, leading to what has been described as the elephant curve. ↩

  5. a recent, at the time of writing, essay on the topic, with solid data in support of the hypothesis, is «Why do People stay Poor?» by Claire Balboni et al.. { when published. } ↩