The pandemic has revealed many things about our world. More importantly, it has shown us the future in unexpected ways. And the view is, if we find the courage to apply the pandemic’s lessons, uplifting. This passing crisis has shown that ideas routinely dismissed are entirely achievable.
It is premature to suggest that because urgent necessity finally stepped over privilege, we now have a one-tier health system. Nevertheless, it is impossible to imagine we might return to the situation where treatment was delivered on the basis of a person’s resources rather than need. The usual voices will offer the usual, self-serving objections but if not now for a one-tier health service when?
That change should re-engineer one fundamental but the pandemic has pointed to far, far greater possibilities, ones that might utterly change the way we live, where we live, how we work and learn — even how we might begin to confront the climate crisis in a real, game-changing way.
One set of figures, which more than likely reflect our situation too, shows road travel in Britain has plummeted by up to 73% since the pandemic took grip. It has fallen to 1955 levels when there were far fewer cars and motorways.
Downing Street data shows rail travel is down 90%, and that London Tube and bus journeys are down 94% and 83%, respectively. Air travel may have fallen by similar ratios. These are crisis-level figures and they will change when normal life, or at least a new version of normal life, resumes.
However, just as with health, it would be folly on the grandest scale not to recognise the possibilities offered as transport accounts for around one third of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions.
The figures show that a great number of people, maybe far more than anticipated, can work from home. Home working is not without challenges but it offers possibility on a grand scale.
The idea means more people can live in low-cost regions which may help turn the tide in the housing crisis. If a tech worker can as easily live in, say, Skibbereen or Sneem as Dublin’s Spencer Dock, then rural decline might be reversed. Tottering, hollowed out communities might be rejuvenated. The growing and questionable influence of corporate landlords can be diluted too.
That modern curse, the daily, multiple-hour commute, might become, for some workers at least, history. That would reduce our dependence on oil which, as our world warms to an unsustainable degree, cannot but be welcomed. Home learning might help slow the colonisation of university towns and cities by ever-expanding student accommodation. It would also widen third-level opportunity even if third-level education is about far more than academic achievement.
Those who have invested heavily in office blocks and apartments, those who hoard land, and banks that make more money when house prices soar will resist these changes but the work-at-home genie is out of the bottle.
The chance to improve lives and our economy is so obvious, so very great that it cannot be ignored. The great potential also means we are obliged to review how broadband, the essential facilitator of this plausible decentralisation, is owned and managed.