Plus ça change - qui sait?
By Trevor Moore No one knows who first said something along the lines of “the only constant in life is change” but it was probably Heraclitus. He lived between about 535 and 475 BCE and he died not long before The Plague of Athens which it is estimated killed up to 100,000 people (out of a world population of about 100 million). He is known in the Western philosophical canon for his doctrine of change being central to the universe. Heraclitus knew a thing or two and if he were, he would tell us, probably in no uncertain terms, that we will not be “getting back to normal” after the COVID19 crisis has passed. For a start, it may never pass; it may always be with us. He would work out that a disturbance to the status quo such as we are now living through - what the International Monetary Fund calls The Great Lockdown - is not a disturbance that leaves no ripples in the pond of humanity.
There is, of course, a pathway out of The Great Lockdown but we don’t know what it is and neither are we likely to know until we have trodden that pathway. That this was not clear to Morrison when a week or so ago he was talking about the economy “snapping back” is testament either to the man’s incompetence or to the incompetence of his advisers. I have just ordered a copy of Turnbull’s book (which I fully expect to be in the form of an apologia) so that I can learn more. How on earth you could think for a moment that anything will “snap back” is beyond me. Much will change “on the other side” (another useful and possibly optimistic term). But what might those changes be and will we like them? One thing is clear: things (whatever “things” are) will never be the same. We can guess, however, what things in particular will be most affected. The point about this is that anyone’s guess is as good as anyone else’s … that’s the beauty of gazing into a crystal ball. I think that the major changes will be in healthcare, remote working, travel, retail, sport and education. Healthcare will change. Once a shift like the shift to telehealth has happened it’s hard to see how this would roll back. The degree to which this is A Good Thing probably depends upon each individual. It’s a change, like many others, that will impact the digital divide. This is a divide that is both socio-economic (whether you can afford a computer and a broadband connection) and generational.
The other thing on health maybe the attitude we have toward a fellow worker who turns up to work with a cold or a cough. While previously many of us just carried on, I expect that in the future that won’t be acceptable; we’ll be sent home … not to be sick but to work remotely. The increase in remote working is making people realise that some of the infrastructure they needed they don’t need after all. I called the NRMA the other day. The woman who answered the phone was at home. I didn’t ask whether she normally worked at home but whether or not she did you do not need a huge investment in real estate to run a call centre. What you need to be able to do is to measure the productivity of the competent people you hire. You give them a laptop and broadband access. I hope that remote working is making managers realise that they need to manage. They need to understand how to measure, monitor and support their people.
Video conferencing has always been a technology that should have been a no-brainer but somehow never took off. I did gigs for several large organisations, public and private, who had all the video technology imaginable, and yet they still flew everywhere for meetings. No more I think: I suspect that will change. I have heard (this morning on the 7AM podcast) reference to some estimates for the Great Lockdown of up to two years. That may not mean that the level of restriction on movement is the same as it is today, I expect it will ease. But I think it will be a while before international travel is as easy as it was a few months ago. We won’t be taking international holidays for a while. The airline industry is already suffering and while the suffering won’t get worse the length of the suffering will. I have been a on-line shopper for years now. The pleasure of going down to the Post Office to collect your delivery is almost unequalled. There are some things that you cannot buy on-line, like petrol and having your car serviced, but recent surveys suggest that the volume of on-line shopping has risen on the last two months. It’s not likely to drop. That means there will be less shops and those that there are will probably need an on-line channel to survive. There is, possibly, some positive news (although you may regard the things I mentioned above as positive). I suspect that companies and countries will be much more wary about depending upon businesses overseas. This may lead to a resurgence of local manufacturing as companies adjust their supply chains to reduce the risk of exposure to interruptions. The alternative risk mitigation is to carry large stocks of stuff but that would affect balance sheets. On the other hand, mitigating risk through shifting to local production depends upon access to capital. As I watch the news each night, the absence of any sports news is obvious. Sport will resume at some time (though almost certainly not in the timeframe that the NRL’s V’Landys would wish) but when it resumes, I expect that a lot of money will have disappeared. That money may come back but for minority sports I think it will be tough. As it recovers, sport will be more local and smaller scale. I wouldn’t criticise V’Landys; if he doesn’t push the envelope then he won’t get anywhere.
Finally (or finally for my list) the effect on education will be massive. I suspect that schools will continue to be social hubs but the dependence on remote learning will remain in some form. This will change the sorts skills that we need from our teachers. Communicating on-line is different than face-to-face. For universities, the challenge is even greater. I expect that they will recover but that recovery will be very slow, and some may not make it. Of course, my crystal ball is no better than yours and even if it were, I would be no better at gazing into it. There are certainly other things that will change - indeed, that are changing - and I suspect that politics and its conduct will be one of those things.