From Brenda in Hove, UK: “Change your Habits, Change your Life” Scott Piles

December 5

Consider the following five quotes:

“Covid has saved my life”.

“Covid has changed my life for the better.” 

“Covid made me see the world differently.”

“Covid made me see my partner differently.”

“I have rather enjoyed lockdown.”

All these quotes come from people who have not had Covid of course – but they have had their lives dramatically changed by the lockdown measures – and have no intention of going back to the way their lives were before Covid.

1.“Covid has saved my life”.

This one is attributable to a friend of my son’s who used to travel four hours a day to and from work and was totally worn down by that. His firm has learnt that he doesn’t need to be in the office every day and wont be expecting him to resume his commute when lockdown comes to an end. This is a massive learning that has happened right across the economy and calls into question all sorts of infrastructure arrangements including plans to upgrade rail networks and roads which will be bearing far lower traffic flows – with the obvious benefits for the environment. I don’t imagine that everyone feels the same about not going into the “office.” Working from home can be quite isolating and even difficult with small spaces and family needing to be accommodated. Many of us have Zoom fatigue and would welcome the social interactions a workplace provides – to say nothing about the creative space that comes from bouncing ideas off one’s colleagues. But not every day!

2. “Covid has changed my life for the better.” 

This quote comes from somebody I know who tells me she hardly knew anybody in her street before lockdown but now, thanks to energetic and neighbourly individuals in the road she now knows them all and feels part of a community. One person in the road (a cul-de-sac actually) ran bi-weekly exercise classes that people did on the pavement outside their houses (clearly a summer thing), another organised a roster for weekly shopping to be delivered for those who needed it, and a third organised a knitting group to make blankets for refugees. This is obviously an extraordinary street but we have heard tales from up and down the country of ordinary people going out of their way for people they didn’t previously know. Such is the kindness of strangers. And all see a new emphasis on the importance of community.

3. “Covid made me see the world differently.”

The third quote comes from a friend and came out of a discussion about how we don’t see our lives going back to where they were before. Many things that we took for granted now seem extravagant and indulgent – even reckless. Travel is one example. The cost to the environment of us taking off to here, there and everywhere without thought for the long term consequences was not sustainable anyway but this massive disruption to our habits has occasioned a more thoughtful approach. There are so many other examples that bear thinking about, some quite small in the scheme of things. Why, for example, did we buy so many clothes? Mad. The fashion industry alone has imposed a massive burden on the environment – and what made us go along with that? I had a cupboard full of clothes and didn’t see myself ever buying another thing. I now feel part of the new ‘circular economy’ and give some of my clothes to an organisation like ‘Thrift’ where they will be sold and some of the proceeds going to charity – and many more to charity shops. What was I thinking?  This new economy is not limited to clothes of course. Even big brands like Ikea are joining this ‘circular’ movement. It took a pandemic to get us to wake up to exactly how gross we had become and how heedless. 

4. “Covid made me see my partner differently.”

This statement needs no explanation because the divorce statistics say it all. Divorce lawyers say they are extremely busy and domestic abuse cases have rocketed. Counselling services are being strained and one counsellor tells how many calls are being made from cars and sheds and streets where people can speak more freely than they can at home. Couples that just about managed when they could spend a lot of time away from each other absolutely cannot manage 24/7. Previous coping habits just don’t work anymore. And they are doing something about it.

5. “I have rather enjoyed lockdown.“

The last quote comes from a friend who has many grandchildren and tries her best to be available to them all. Being released from duty over lockdown has made her realize how exhausting it all was and how little time it left for her to choose what she wanted to do. She has blossomed over lockdown, discovering a talent for painting, growing her own vegetables and fruit, and a host of other quiet pleasures she didn’t have time for before. Hers may be an extreme case but all of us have had to learn new ways of spending our time – and many have found it revelatory.

All this got me to thinking about how many of the ways we spend our time are habitual. We know that new habits take time to establish – and the lockdown period has been long enough to develop new habits. We might not have made the effort to change without the pandemic but now we have – and the chances are that our new habits will endure. We had better be careful we chose the right ones. We know that many of them will be formed about how we see the world. And that has changed in this last year.

I am reminded of the story that the writer David Foster Wallace told a class of graduating college students in 2005. “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. He nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ The two young fish swim on for a bit, and eventually one of them looks over at the other and says ‘What the hell is water?’ *

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*Quoted in The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury: children of the aftermath

May 13.  As much as we are all wondering how we will get through to the end, we are also contemplating how we will be changed by the experience.  From hospitals to universities, managers of complex, rule-bound organisations are astonished at how behaviours set in stone for decades have been transformed in a matter of weeks, and are speculating about how long such a metabolism of change can continue.

There is another way of considering the aftermath.  I have a new great nephew, born on May 1st in a village on the shores of Loch Lomond, a great niece due next month in York, and if all goes well I shall have a new granddaughter, born to my son and his wife towards the end of August in East London.  The brave post-pandemic world will be the one in which these children will take their first steps, and form their identities and ambitions.

In this regard, I have a shared experience.  I was born early in 1949, when Britain was still in the midst of reconstruction after VE day which we have just celebrated.  The bomb damage in the major cities was yet to be cleared.  Rationing was to continue for a further five years.  Whilst we now celebrate the heroic construction of the welfare state, life in those years was hard.  The winter of 1946-7 was one of the coldest on record, causing and compounded by serious fuel shortages.

Looking back, what strikes me most about my childhood was how much my perspective was cast towards the future.  This was partly because my own family had not suffered greatly in the war.  There were no fatalities, no battlefield injuries still blighting civilian life.  It was partly because I spent my early years in parts of the country which had not experienced physical damage (in Stoke-on-Trent, where my father’s family came from and which we frequently visited, the story was that the Luftwaffe had flown over the city, concluded that it had already been bombed, and passed on). 

And it was partly because as a small child I was the direct and immediate beneficiary of the Welfare State.  I was conceived in the same summer that the NHS began its life.  My father was a junior civil servant, seconded to Blackpool after the war to work on planning the new system, then promoted to run the first office of the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance in the north midlands town of Banbury and then in Oxford.  I was in every possible way a child of the new provision, and I can still remember walking with my mother to collect my welfare orange juice from the clinic and my reading books from the children’s library next door.  Later came free education all the way up to my Cambridge doctorate.

If I have hope for the new members of my family, it must be based on two aspirations.  Firstly, that they should be lucky in the homes into which they are born, as I was in mine.  Where there has been death from coronavirus, where the outcome of the pandemic is of embittered lives, undermined health, shattered finances, long-term unemployment, it will be so much harder to form confident, optimistic identities. 

Secondly, that we do in fact create a new world in which, once more, the wellbeing of every child, physical and educational, is front and centre of our collective action.  It is a matter of addressing the inequalities which continue to disfigure our society three quarters of a century after the reforms of the 1945 Labour Government.  And is a matter of ensuring, by signs and by facts, that each child feels itself the most important and cared-for person not just in its immediate family, but in all the places in which it develops as a person.  I had that sense in my beginning.  I grew up looking forwards, learning about the Second World War and its suffering only much later, mostly through history books.  Whilst as adults we must never forget what we have lived through this year, these growing children should never be held back by it.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Beetles and Universities …

April 29. The future of universities is a microcosm of the larger debate about the aftermath of the pandemic.  Will the outcome be a couple of years of readjustment, then a continuation of life as before, with a few tweaks to work and leisure and some fading memories of bad times?  Or will there be a fundamental change in the way in which many organisations go about their activities, with new business models, new techniques, new roles for staff?

On April 22 I wrote about an attempt by the Durham Vice Chancellor to get ahead of change.  It has since been rejected by the University senate, as the Guardian reported:

‘The plans, which would also reduce the number of modules taught in person by a quarter in the next academic year, were condemned by the Department of English as “dangerous and damaging to the short- and long-term viability of the university”. The department’s submission to the senate, seen by the Guardian, criticised suggestions from a private education firm consulted on the plans that lecturers would only need six hours training in order to teach online. The document said Cambridge Education Digital’s estimation of the work required to shift learning online displayed no realistic sense of the realities the staffing and technological support required to develop and deliver it. “Training staff to teach effectively online will take far, far more than the six hours indicated,” it added. The submission also warned the plans posed a potential conflict of interest because CEG Digital is owned by private equity group Bridgepoint Capital, whose chief investment officer is a member of Durham’s ‘chancellor’s circle’ of donors.  The plans will now be returned to the university’s council, where they will be redrawn before being returned to the senate.’hig

A welcome dose of common sense by the English Department, and a reminder that universities still retain an element of democratic decision making.

But the problem has not gone away.  In the past week more universities have been projecting imminent deficits as room rents collapse and overseas students disappear.  The sector as a whole has been lobbying the Government for a subsidy, which has generated a hostile reaction in some quarters, not least because many of the most threatened institutions are also in possession of large reserves and extensive research income.  An op. ed. in the Times (27.4.20) welcomed the prospect of closures on the familiar grounds that Vice Chancellors were paid too much, the sector had over-extended, and Bath Spa University was running a degree in contemporary circus.

In fact, where higher education is largely in the public sector, as in Britain and much of Europe, universities are like beetles (allegedly) in a nuclear war, very hard to destroy.  It is said that three of Europe’s 20 universities were closed by the Black Death, but as that pandemic killed between a third and a half of the population, it may be said that the sector got off lightly.  Since then, outright closure has been almost unknown, despite the recent expansion.  It is otherwise in the United States where a large, sometimes corrupt, private sector suffered bankrupticies during the Great Depression and will do so again.

It may be that a few more staff will in future investigate what happens to their teaching when a computer is turned on, and that a few more students will tolerate less face-to-face contact.  Or it may be that the declining eighteen-year-old cohort, the lost overseas students, the accumulated deficits, will force universities to investigate radical change.  The fundamental things still apply.  High quality distance education is very expensive.  Academic staff like talking to students.  And the students go to bricks and mortar universities for a rich social experience and are unlikely to pay £9,000 a year just to sit in their rooms and be taught on their laptops.