September 15. Once the scale of the pandemic became clear, commentators of all perspectives began asking the question, how different would the post-coronavirus world look? Would individuals, societies, governments, embrace radical change, or would we do all that we could to reinstate familiar routines and pleasures?
Looking back in 1772 to the 1665 plague, Daniel Defoe was pessimistic about the outcome. “But except what of this was to be found in particular Families and Faces,” he wrote, “it must be acknowledg’d that the general Practice of the People was just as it was before, and very little Difference was to be seen.”* At least part of the explanation for the transient effect was that the outbreak of bubonic plague was immediately followed by the Great Fire of London, which reset the programme of improvement on every front. We have already arranged for a cataclysm next year in the form of a no-deal Brexit, which in the UK at least may indeed wipe out all prospect of progressive change in the 2020s.
Nonetheless the question remains on the agenda, even if the point of conclusion is now receding into the distance. The large-scale Nuffield / UCL Covid-19 survey which I have written about before, has just asked its panel of now over 70,000 respondents whether they expect to change the way they live their lives once the pandemic is over.**
The results are deeply underwhelming. Whilst only ten per cent expect to return exactly to their previous life, a mere two per cent of the respondents assented to the proposition, “I will entirely change the way I lived compared before Covid-19”. Over half the population thought that “they were more likely on balance to return to how things were before” with about a fifth expecting to change things and over a quarter in between no change and some change.
When the survey focussed on the specific actions of those who wanted a new life, the poverty of aspiration becomes still clearer. Top of the list is an activity which perhaps has been created by the pandemic, giving more support to local businesses. But as the fourth most desired change is more shopping online, it seems unlikely that there is going to be a wholesale shift to buying the necessities of life from the grocer around the corner. Otherwise the head of the chart is filled with such mundane ambitions as saving more money, exercising more, eating healthier food. About ten per cent report an intention to ‘seek a new romantic relationship’ but it is not clear whether this ambition has been communicated to an existing partner.
The problem with these sorts of enquiries is the absence of a pre-Covid baseline. In a culture which foregrounds the freedom of individuals to set their own future, it might be supposed that a desire for some sort of change is near universal. The content of the reported agenda looks a lot like the first week of any given New Year, when in the aftermath of over-consumption, resolutions are formed to live a more virtuous life. These peter out as the days lengthen, leading to an outcome that looks very like Defoe’s verdict.
The conclusion has to be that alongside staying alive and getting a virus test, we need to devote serious time to conceiving a new future. It will not occur by default, nor by responding to short-term inconveniences. The slogan ‘Build Back Better’ is now widely used by agencies, pressure groups and politicians (even B. Johnson, God help us) reacting to the crisis. On the survey evidence, what is better remains out of focus and beyond what at present we seem able to imagine.
*Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722; Penguin 2003), pp. 219-20.
**Covid-19 Social Study Results Release 19, 26th August 2020, pp. 44-50. https://b6bdcb03-332c-4ff9-8b9d-28f9c957493a.filesusr.com/ugd/3d9db5_fba549666ba14e18bc1f844446a31c9b.pdf