City City Bang Bang, Columns

The politics of change?

Will Covid-19 change the world in dramatic, hitherto-unimagined ways? Or will we go back to old set ways, once the danger has passed? At one level, it is difficult to believe that such a fundamental dislocation of our way of life can pass by without leaving a deep imprint on our future behaviour. It is also natural for us to see in the prism of this calamity, things we would want changed about the world and believe that this shock will move us in that direction.

On the other hand, previous pandemics including the truly catastrophic Spanish Flu, which decimated 18m people in 1918 have been erased from our memory without leaving any discernible trace behind. Is the trajectory of our lives beyond the influence of an event such as this? Is the ecology of our times such that any deviation from our existing ways is difficult?

One way of thinking about the possibilities is to look at what the triggers for behaviour change might be. There will be some changes that will come behaviour-outwards, and others where mindsets will change first, which will in turn lead changes in the way that we act. Also, change is not likely to be unidirectional or uniform and any scenario-building for the future must take this into account. There is a strong possibility of a rebound effect- as restrictions lift, some people will embrace everything that has been currently denied with a vengeance. Additionally, there will be some change that will result as a direct consequence of the pandemic, but second-order and third-order changes will come from the interaction of many variables, including from our response to it.

The Covid crisis has made us act in new ways, simply because of the unique set of circumstances that it has created. Among other things, we work from home, depend on deliveries to come to us, cease all social interactions, make do without help, wash our hands maniacally and live in fear of losing livelihoods or having to subsist on vastly reduced incomes. Some of these new behaviours are purely a result of immediate circumstances and will in all likelihood, be reversed the moment the crisis eases.

But some will stay. In these cases, we will have discovered the merits of these new methods and continue with them, whether by rote as an unconscious extension of a new habit or by conscious choice, having discovered new virtues in these. Ordering online, doing more household chores at home, being more proactive in terms of looking after one’s health, taking the idea of immunity seriously, making do with fewer clothes, experimenting more with cooking and being more open to newer cuisines even at home, working from home, spending more time consciously with the family around some activities like board games- the list of new behaviours that might ‘stick’ is a long one. They may not present themselves with the same intensity as do now, but a version of these will become part of our new repertoire of habits.

A lot of these are those that one had reason to have adopted earlier, but didn’t because of inertia caused by old habits. The greater adoption of digital means for financial transactions is likely to gain much greater momentum, the increased use of telemedicine is likely to become more commonplace, online education is going to feel more normal. However, in cases where the new habit did not enjoy that implicit advantage, we are likely to go right back. For instance, while we fear the loss of household helpless, it is unlikely that we will continue to be more self-sufficient when the crisis has passed.

The other set of changes are likely to be caused by being forced to think about our lives and the world differently. The pandemic has potentially made us revisit many mental models that had become fixed in our minds, and the effects of this are likely to unfold over a longer period of time, but are likely to be far-reaching and fundamental. Potentially, we could redefine many ideas that are now considered as givens. The value and meaning of work, the question of what should one’s priorities be in life, coping with new ideas like social distancing, the place that consumption holds in our lives, the desire for solitude, a deeper engagement with things spiritual, the need for a lighter footprint on our immediate surroundings- these are some of the many transformational changes that are being talked about.

However, the world that we live in today does not allow for any new narrative to take root without facing an oppositional challenge. This produces a structure of change that is fundamentally different from earlier eras. The idea that new mindsets will gradually seep in and become mainstream continues to be a possibility, but the politics of change will play a huge role. At its heart, the fundamental ideological divide in our times is between those that value continuity and those that seek change. The idea of a fundamental change of a foundational kind does not have the presumed licence to prevail as it once did.

There is today a large and active constituency that works against the idea of foundational change. To the outside eye, the fact that Donald Trump still enjoys a 45% approval rating given the way he has handled the current crisis is bewildering, but it would be foolish to ignore the message that is being sent. The resistance to having to change one’s way or life or give up one’s place in the hierarchy is a strong and global one.

In the post-Covid world, some change will come easily as current behaviours morph into new habits. Old debates will become more urgent and contentious and some new debates will open up. But more fundamental change will be resisted, and given the current political climate in the world, the forces of continuity could well prevail. Sweeping change in the post-Covid world is far from being a given.

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