We’re nearly two years into a global pandemic that has seemingly changed everything in our economy from how we shop to where we eat. COVID-19 indeed may transform our economic lives entirely – except how we work.
PARIS — We’re not done with this story yet.
In France, the number of new COVID-19 patients has jumped by 50% in a week, hospitals are once again under increasing pressure, and the government still needs its special council that is responsible for crisis public health decisions. Around the world, the new Omicron variant, first detected a month ago, could prove to be more contagious, though, it is not yet known whether the variant is more dangerous or resistant to the vaccines that billions of people have received.
We've now been living with this unprecedented pandemic for almost two years. It can no longer be said to be a footnote or a strange blip in time, as we might have believed during the first lockdowns of spring 2020. The more time passes, the more COVID-19 is profoundly changing our lives.
But this isn’t changing in the sense of a “brave new world” in which a deadly virus shows us the error of our ways and helps us abandon our moral shortcomings. More pragmatically, it is a world where we adjust in the face of new constraints. The longer the pandemic lasts, the more structural these adjustments could become. This is all the more true as these changes often amplify subtle existing trends and sometimes overlap with the push to reduce our environmental impact.
Travel and the environment
Tourism could be the most striking example of the transformations brought about by the pandemic. Movements have now been restricted for over 18 months. Recently, travelers arriving in Morocco were blocked by a flight ban that had been decreed by the Moroccan government overnight. Increasingly, we think twice before booking a faraway trip — and generally are traveling less often.
Tour operators and airlines alike seem convinced that this is only temporary and that people will again rush to travel across the world as soon as the virus has been fully contained.
But that is far from certain. Even before the pandemic, the “flygskam” or “flight shame” movement, which began in Sweden, was becoming increasingly popular. For many, long-distance tourism is not only a health risk but also harmful to the environment. Pandemic-related travel concerns will undoubtedly fade in the coming months or years. But environmental ones will not.
Global tourism and business travel will by no means disappear, but is likely to decrease as we weigh each trip more carefully. Domestic tourism or short trips will likely remain popular, as was the case in France last summer.
Buying and selling
The pandemic could also change how many other services operate. This is the case with cinema, for example, as viewers switch to video-on-demand platforms, comfortably seated in their own living rooms in front of increasingly large screens. Of course, people have started to return to theaters, but it’s happening slowly with cinema-goers preferring to make the trip to watch big-budget films rather than romantic comedies. The same is true for restaurants. Food delivery services have carved out a share of the market, which they will keep even after the pandemic ends.
Online shopping has also become an easy habit that will be difficult to break. Even older shoppers adapted to purchasing products online. This means the whole world of retail will have to continue to adapt. The move to online shopping risks accelerating the decline of local retailers in town and many city centers.
The changes don’t stop there. During the pandemic, what we bought also changed: we purchased fewer services but more products (if only to allow us to work from home). This is, in fact, one of the main drivers of recent inflation pressures.
Here too there could be reason to believe that the shift is temporary because many services had to stop during lockdowns. But this change could also become permanent because we no longer live the same way as before.
Manila Philippines - Long-distance tourism may be the most striking example of this changing demand.
Of course, work has also been impacted, with working remotely being the most obvious example. But companies are now trying to put an end to the practice, as though they were tired of the continuous upheavals of the past few years. The many remote working agreements signed by the French government should not hide the reality: even though working from home exploded with the pandemic, it is now declining rapidly. In France, barely one in five employees worked from home at least one day last October. A great opportunity to fundamentally rethink how we work is undoubtedly being lost.
But since the pandemic arrived, workers have been questioning their jobs, with lockdowns sometimes allowing them to discover some previously unknown pleasures of family life. The United States is currently experiencing the “Great Resignation.” In France, a certain number of employees are increasingly reluctant to work staggered hours or on weekends. Pay raises may not be enough to change their minds.
The pandemic isn’t just a health story. In transforming us, it is also causing a major shift in economic history. Its full impact will take years to measure.
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