After the storm: the new normal after the coronavirus outbreak

The coronavirus outbreak will affect our future - including the extent of climate change - in fundamental and unexpected ways

22 March 2020 - 00:00 By Tanya Farber
France and Canada players elbow-shake instead of shaking hands in Calais, France, due to the coronavirus epidemic.
France and Canada players elbow-shake instead of shaking hands in Calais, France, due to the coronavirus epidemic.
Image: Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images

Trend forecasters call it a “black swan event”, an unpredictable upheaval with cataclysmic consequences. And they are already turning their attention to what happens once this first bout of global panic passes. They predict there will be “a new normal” for the way we socialise, study, travel, earn money, buy food, protect ourselves — you name it.

According to associate professor Hlonipha Mokoena at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, one consequence may be “a re-evaluation of the 'global citizen' phenomenon in which people feel they have the right to travel everywhere and create long 'bucket lists' of destinations they want to visit”.

The outbreak was also likely to reshape the political landscape. Mokoena said some people became “more suspicious of governments” after a black swan event, and an awareness grew that there was “no substitute for well-functioning and well-resourced public health systems”.

In terms of identity, she said that rather than reinforcing the idea of a common humanity, epidemics often triggered the “Nimby” (not in my backyard) syndrome as people tried to distance themselves from those who were sick by, for example, opposing the establishment of a quarantine unit in their neighbourhood.

We can certainly expect “massive cultural shifts”, according to Professor Nicky Falkof, a cultural studies expert at Wits University.

Just as the two world wars brought women into the formal workplace permanently and the Great Fire of London spawned the concept of insurance, Covid-19 could be “a seismic event that dramatically reshapes society in unexpected ways”, Falkof said.

“While the rest of us are trying to hide in our shacks or suburbs, disaster capitalism is throwing an all-night party,” she said.

“We need to try and remain cognisant of how this crisis will be used and who will be enriched by it.”

Global crises could also be “surprisingly productive”, with positive consequences for climate change or even the current economic model of endless growth, Falkof said. With the brakes on those, the outbreak “could be good for humanity in the long run”.

Azar Jammine, an economic forecaster, said the demand for office space would be dealt a huge and long-lasting blow as people adapted to working at home.

But eventually they would begin to be stressed by the absence of face-to-face interaction with others.

The same would apply to retail — the “sex appeal of online shopping” would fade and consumers would miss the recreational aspect of going to the mall.

The fact that “retail sales used to drop during the holidays and now go up” showed shopping had become a recreational activity, said Jammine.

But for many people with menial jobs who would not be able to earn a living from home, the long-term effects could be disastrous.

Inequality could be exacerbated further, as could the digital divide.

Jammine imagined a single office which now stands empty as everyone works from home, except for “the tea lady and cleaners who won't be needed any more” and would lose their jobs.

He said there would be a reduced demand for taxis, “and even privately owned vehicles”.

William Bird, head of Media Monitoring Africa, said media consumption may change or return to its former shape.

“We are lucky so far in that our government and president seem to be playing open cards about the virus and are communicating well.

Unwelcome bird

A black swan is an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected of a situation and has potentially severe consequences.

Black swan events are characterised by their extreme and widespread insistence they were obvious in hindsight - Investopedia

"If they carry on, this could have a positive impact on the media, which will benefit from increased trust and credibility,” said Bird.

While the pandemic imposed an extra burden on the mainstream media, the crisis also “offers a real chance of redemption for the media in the eyes of many”.

The new restrictions on liquor outlets might lead to a downturn in interpersonal violence and murder, since the relationship between these and higher alcohol consumption is well established.

According to the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention, the two are linked by “a wealth of evidence”.

“Alcohol has also been found to contribute directly to intentional and unintentional injuries, the spread of infectious diseases, intimate partner violence, as well as child neglect and abuse.”

A recent study found that 65% of social contact crimes such as murder, attempted murder, rape and assault occur in the context of excessive alcohol use.

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