It is February 2021 and the Smith family are excited to have tickets to watch their favourite football team. Sport is newly emerged from months of being played behind closed doors. Outside the stadium, security guards’ handsets register Covid-19 immunity certificates encoded on the Smiths’ smartphones; fans without the app face additional checks. The family pass through body temperature sensors, check their face masks and enter the ground. The view is unimpeded — seats all around them have been blocked from sale — but the half-empty stands mean the atmosphere lacks the old electricity.
The Smiths’ story may prove overly gloomy, or not gloomy enough. Even as countries tentatively start to emerge from the Covid-19 lockdown, it is clear that life will not spring back to how it was pre-crisis until there is a vaccine. Organisations and individuals must adapt to another “new normal”.
Monumental efforts will still be needed to avoid, or lessen, a second wave of infection. Cycles of relaxing and reimposing shutdowns may follow. Testing and tracing those who contract the virus will be crucial. Some pleasures and freedoms the lockdown has taken away will still be denied.
Countries that have built up mass testing and tracking capabilities will emerge fastest. Test and symptom data need to be linked to apps that register those falling ill and alert people who have been near them. Creating workable apps is tricky, but countries such as Singapore and South Korea have done so. Technologies should be shared.
Within countries, some sectors will emerge faster than others. Essential and outdoor work such as construction may come first; bars and nightclubs last. Many white-collar employees whose jobs can be done at home will stay there, perhaps for months. Depending on how governments weigh the risks, some children will be back at schools, others will stay at home.
Those returning to the workplace will find a changed environment: staff working shifts or in rotating week-in, week-at-home teams to allow adequate distancing. Staggered start and finish times will attempt to lessen rush-hour crushes on fetid subway trains.
The new social mores of the lockdown will persist. Handshakes are still out. If not officially compulsory, masks may be socially de rigueur. Many interactions from business meetings to dating will stay online. Airports, planes and trains will be sparsely populated. Who realistically expects to take a foreign summer holiday this year?
Immunity registration systems will be helpful to identify those who can re-enter public life without risk to themselves or others — especially those who had the illness without symptoms. But they must not turn the so far virus-free into second-class citizens, creating perverse incentives to get infected.
Among the biggest challenges will be preventing inequalities the Great Lockdown has already compounded from being widened by the Great Easing. The young will regain their freedoms faster than the old and vulnerable. “Knowledge” workers can shelter behind laptops at home while those whose work is physical are forced out into a still hazardous environment. Millions who have lost jobs will not quickly regain them and will need supporting through the next phase. Poorer countries may take longer to control the outbreak and exit lockdowns. Travel bans to and from richer countries trying to avoid reinfection will worsen their plight.
Juggling such challenges will test governments as never before in peacetime. How they respond will determine just how poisonous is Covid-19’s global legacy — long after rich-world sports stadiums are full once more.
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