John Humphrys: Coronavirus : Any Ultimate Silver Linings?

October 19, 2020, 8:02 AM UTC

It’s hard to look ahead and not feel foreboding about where the coronavirus pandemic is taking us. In the immediate future there are going to be more local lockdowns and possibly other national ones. Everyone is expecting a difficult winter. But will the spring be any better? It’s anyone’s guess. It may be that all the optimistic talk you hear about things improving in the spring will turn out to be no different from the optimistic talk about Christmas we used to hear from the Prime Minister and others. Both Christmas and spring are traditionally associated with hope so we look forward hopefully to them. But hopes can be dashed. They will be at Christmas, so maybe they will be in the spring too. Pessimists fear we could well find ourselves in much the same pickle this time next year with no end in sight. Eventually, though, the virus will be tamed as all pandemics always have been, so the question is: could it ultimately be leading us to a better way of living? In short, might there be a silver lining to Covid?

When unexpected crises like pandemics break upon us, our initial response is to want to get back to our old ways of living as soon as we possibly can. There’s a natural conservatism in most of us that wants normalcy restored. That was what most people felt, I guess, back in March. But speedy return to the status quo ante hasn’t happened and we’ve been forced to change our ways of living in all sorts of ways. Already we are getting used to some of those changes and are beginning to ask ourselves whether what we have been forced to do might not actually be preferable to what we used to do by choice. The most obvious example of this is about working from home rather than going to work.

Among the increasing proportion of people whose work is office-bound and for whom the option of working from home is viable (not everyone’s so lucky), the attractiveness of carrying on with what they’ve been doing for the last few months rather than returning to the old way of working, seems to be growing. Why go back to the hassle of commuting if you don’t have to? As we know, many big employers, such as City banks, are looking ahead and planning for home-working to become the new normal.

But the last seven months have changed our way of life in far more ways than just the bit of it that concerns work. You could say our whole rhythm of life has been altered. We’ve not been able to go out and spend as freely as we used to do: what economists call the ‘saving ratio’ has been soaring. We’ve not been able to get out to football matches, visit the theatre, see a movie in the way we used to take for granted. We’ve not been able to travel so widely or see so many people. We’ve been forced to stay more local and contemplate the fact that life can be led in other ways than working as hard as you can to earn as much as you can to spend as much as you can and get into credit card debt as much as you can, so requiring you to work as hard as you can and so on and so on. It’s called a treadmill.

Much of the commentary about all this enforced change in our behaviour has been on the ill effects it’s having on the economy. No one working in city centres means no customers for sandwich bars and lunchtime-packed dry cleaners. No one able to engage in retail therapy means shops closing. No one going to see a movie  means cinema chains being mothballed. No one going abroad for their holidays means airlines in financial freefall. The implicit message is clear. We absolutely must get back to living as we used to do in order to save the sandwich bars, the cinemas, the airlines.

But maybe this is looking at things the wrong way round. Should we really be living our lives in order to keep various aspects of the economy going? Surely an economy exists to make it possible for us to live as we choose – given that we put in the required effort. That, of course, takes us to the crucial question. How do we want to live?

What Covid has highlighted is that that question is capable of more than one answer. We don’t have to go back to the old, familiar rhythms of life if we don’t want to – at least, not if there is a realistic alternative. So is there? More specifically, is there an alternative that offers us a future in which we might be more happy than we are no?

There was a striking piece of research done two or three years ago which showed that 1957 was the peak post-war year for happiness in Britain. In the over sixty years since then we have, of course, become immeasurably richer and more affluent, but, the evidence suggests, less happy. I was fourteen back in 1957 and I can remember how life was back then, at least in a poor district of Cardiff.

We didn’t travel anywhere – the whole idea of travel was unknown to us, beyond an annual trip to the seaside. We did not live in order to spend and we were not besieged by the envy-generation of the advertising industry telling us how much better our lives would be if only we could acquire this gizmo or go on that foreign holiday.

Even if we had been we would not have been able to afford it. Credit was unavailable so in any case we could spend only what money we had and never even thought about anything else. In some respects that way of life resembled the more circumscribed life we’ve been forced to live these past seven months. But apparently we were happier back then than we ever were subsequently right up to the pandemic engulfing us earlier this year.

It may seem a puzzle – even, to some, a paradox – that getting richer not only failed to make us happier but actually made us less happy. For it’s been a largely unchallenged assumption that faster economic growth and a bigger economy for us all to share in, was the key to greater happiness and wellbeing. Various explanations have been given for why this turned out not to be the case, but the most cogent seems to be that a life lived permanently pursuing material aspirations, such as our consumer-based economy requires us to do, serves more to make us envious of what we fail to acquire (and so unhappy) than happy with what we have to settle for.

Of course this point had been made long before the research provided the evidence. Back in the mid-1980s the ‘slow’ movement began – initially as a protest against fast food, such as McDonalds (where a new branch in Rome sparked the first reaction) and in favour of ‘slow food’. It then expanded to take in the concept of ‘slow cities’, even a ‘slow planet’. In his 2004 book, ‘In Praise of Slow’, Carl Honoré wrote of ‘savouring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them’. The campaign echoed the sentiments of the Welsh poet W.H. Davies, who wrote: ‘What is this life if, full of care,/We have no time to stand and stare.’

So, after Covid, might we opt for ‘slow life’?

There are two obvious objections that people are likely to make to the very notion. First, they’ll say, it’s all very well for rich people (like me) to sing the praises of a slower life but it’s just a dressed up way of saying that rich people can afford leisure and always have; but poorer people can’t. And the second is that of course we have to pursue as much economic growth as we can get because that’s the only way we generate the money to pay for such vital services as the NHS. We’ll soon enough discover what a ‘slow economy’ entails if growth remains sluggish as the pandemic recedes: it’ll involve the government failing to raise the taxation it needs to fund the sort of NHS we all want, so there’ll have to be cuts, longer waiting times and all the rest of it. No, they’ll say, we must get back on the treadmill and pedal fast. There isn’t another option.  The idea that we should make the slower rhythms of the last seven months the norm is simply mad.

To which the ‘slow’ movement might say: ‘not so fast!’ A slower-growing economy doesn’t necessarily imply less money for the NHS. In the end it’s about our priorities. If the cake is smaller but we want to keep up the level of funding to services such as the NHS, then we should just give them a larger slice; it’s just that we’ll be left with a smaller slice for our own consumption. Is it so bad to favour a properly-funded NHS over a second foreign holiday every year? And as for the poor, the same argument holds: we can just choose to redistribute more to the poor. We can do that whatever the size of the cake, if we want to.

In other words we can shape our economy differently to suit better the sort of life we want to lead. If we want that way of life to afford us more opportunities to ‘stand and stare’, then all we need to realise is that we don’t have to jet off to the Himalayas to gain the ‘stand-and-stare experience’. There’s plenty in our own neck of the woods worthy of standing and staring in front of, if only we give it the right attention – and leave ourselves the time to do so.

It might seem fanciful to put it like this, but some are suggesting it could be that Covid is Nature’s way of reminding us we occupy a slow planet and telling us we need to live slower lives. Our ‘fast’ behaviour, the message seems to be, is destroying the planet as a habitat within which human beings can go on living and we need to slow down. Covid, spread through our hypermobility around the globe, is Nature’s reaction, its way of restoring a balance through reducing the population and forcing us, at least temporarily, to behave differently – more slowly. The message is: ‘change your behaviour!’ And it has given us seven months (and rising) to have a taste of what that might be like

Could this message be the silver lining in Covid? Or is all this just nonsense and the sooner we can get back to our old ways, the better?

What’s your view? Let us know.