An Opportunity for Optimism.

By Nick Steel and Penny Lodge

It is easy enough, during such a physically and mentally challenging atmosphere as lockdown, to be overwhelmed by the potential ramifications of our current situation. Predictions of a global recession, travel embargoes until 2021, soaring unemployment and long-term enforced self-isolating are almost as terrifying as the virus itself. By now, most of us will know someone who has fought off Coronavirus, and many will know someone who lost their lives to it.

While the gravity of the situation is undisputed, the human psyche is programmed to look for light at the end of the tunnel. And in this instance, it is dazzling.

Communities are coming together in a manner that hasn’t been seen since the Second World War — caring for, helping and entertaining each other — and in doing so, they are slowly patching-up the well-worn fabric of modern society. With planes and travellers having been grounded, the planet is healing at an unprecedented rate as carbon emissions plummet and nature is left undisturbed.

Opera houses, museums and theatres have thrown open their virtual doors to allow people to get their cultural fix online. Likewise, high-end restaurants have started offering home delivery, expert chefs are hosting live cookalongs, nightclubs encourage us to join their 48-hour virtual raves, and sporting celebrities are keeping us fit from the comfort of our own living rooms. Contrary to any marketing strategies of the past, companies have started to set-up initiatives to actively stop people coming out to visit their institutions and use their services, and to instead help them stay inside.

This sudden necessity to Stay Home has provided people with time to stop, reflect and readjust. Up until two months ago, ours was a society obsessed with creating content — being seen to do things and be places. Now, there is a new emphasis on doing less and making the place you already are better.

This isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon. Counter-balancing modern society’s long working hours and social media addictions, people have simultaneously — perhaps unsurprisingly — started to focus more on ‘home’ in recent years. Much of the population has rediscovered the simple pleasures of gardening, baking and meditation, while the concept of hygge has spread far beyond Scandinavian shores and become a global obsession. Similarly, it seems that the younger generation increasingly chooses to shirk nightclubs in favour of Netflix marathons on the sofa. And it seems that this investment in nurturing the domestic space couldn’t have come at a better time, now that we are all prohibited from spending time anywhere else.

Likewise, the shift from needing to be busy, social, and well-travelled (and — equally important — being seen to be all these things) to now needing to adjust to a quieter, less active life is both beneficial to us (mentally, physically, spiritually, and economically) and to our planet. Where travel, consumerism, and Instagrammable experiences were once deemed aspirational, they are now beginning to be deemed as frivolous and almost crass. Restraint has become the new buzzword. This pandemic seems to have inspired more altruistic aspirations — focusing instead on communities, social improvement and the environment.

The majority of us have understood for some time how seriously our lifestyle choices were jeopardising our societal bonds, the planet and our mental and physical health, but to turn the tide on these issues had seemed too gargantuan and overwhelming a prospect to reasonably contemplate. However, perhaps the biggest surprise of the pandemic has been just how quickly these issues have started to be reversed, and how easily we have all adjusted to the new state of play.

To what extent society will continue to progress in this direction following the pandemic remains to be seen. People may — once the initial threat of Covid-19 has diminished — choose to shrug-off the potential for a seismic social and environmental shift in favour of ‘getting back to normal’ as quickly as possible. But many would argue that therein lies the problem: our ‘normal’ was the problem in the first place.

The last two months have given people a glimpse of a world reimagined: a simpler world where community comes first, and people have the time and space to appreciate things more. With no access to restaurants, galleries or the high street, our daily walk has become our new indulgence. Having the opportunity to rediscover the area we live in, and to stop and talk to neighbours or local shop workers (albeit at a 2 metre distance) has been hugely restorative. It is once again becoming normal to smile at, talk to, and care about those that surround us, and in the process, we are building a more compassionate, responsible and resilient community.

This can also be seen in the rush to support local producers and businesses — ordering food from farms whose income usually comes solely from (now shut) restaurants, and flowers direct from growers who are no longer able to sell to big hotels and events spaces. The ‘shop local’ hashtag has become so commonplace in recent years that it’s easy to overlook the significance of the plea, but we must continue to actively support our local economies, now more than ever.

It is our responsibility to keep up this momentum of hope and positivity through adversity, and we must be grateful for having had this time to re-evaluate. We will hopefully emerge with a renewed appreciation of life in its purest forms — breathing in cleaner air, getting back out into nature, and having more time to indulge in cooking, exercising, and playing with our children. Some will have actually enjoyed not having to be sociable and diarize every minute of their lives, which in turn has made the limited opportunities for social engagement that we do have all the sweeter. We are talking more and listening more, and we feel all the better for it.

Going forward, it is vital that we remain realistic as well as optimistic about the threat of Coronavirus. After all, we currently have no idea what a potential second or third wave of the virus could look like, and how it could further affect us personally and globally. However, for the moment we can take some comfort in the news that the curve continues to flatten, and restrictions are gradually being eased, so let’s allow ourselves a moment to feel hope rather than fear.

This experience has softened us, humbled us and humanised us, and in doing so has offered us the chance to create a new kind of future. There might never again be so powerful an opportunity in our lifetimes to press the reset button. Let’s not take that opportunity for granted.

First published in The Drum on 19th May 2020

Article posted on The Drum