Post-pandemonium: is there such thing as a post-COVID world?

Peter Ayres Peter Ayres
Buildings Structures Capability Leader
15 February 2022
6 min read

We’re now on our third year into the pandemic and needless to say: it’s been a rough few years.

We’ve been through various levels of hell and back, and we’re all still rather twitchy: the strangeness of isolation, experiences of quarantine, being locked out of our home countries, or home states, repeated lockdowns, estranged from family indefinitely. Some of us have lost jobs. Some of us have lost loved ones. It has been (and still is) exhausting.

With all the uncertainty and grief that we’ve experienced, it’s no surprise that people are thrilled reimagining and looking forward to living in a post-COVID world – but is there even such a thing? As it has been established that COVID-19 isn’t going away: The idea of a post-COVID world may not be as ground-breaking as we are making it out to be.

Many of the changes that we are now experiencing are not necessarily the result of the pandemic, per se. Our way of life was already changing dramatically before the pandemic hit. What kind of future will we be seeing in the next decades as we work through the fifth industrial revolution?

Shifting workplace cultures

We are living during one of the most significant turning points in history in terms of workplace and technological revolution – whether we are in a pandemic or not.

Seriously clever systems and tools including automations, artificial intelligence, drones, virtual and augmented technology, enabled by hyperfast internet connections, are transforming how we live and work.

Flexible and hybrid work set-ups are also not new. Organisations around the world have been trialling various approaches to workplace flexibility for over a decade now. Even before the pandemic hit, many organisations such as HSBC had flexible working policies that allowed employees to negotiate an arrangement that worked best for them.

While the introduction of flexibility definitely helped businesses run amid the start of the COVID-19 crisis, these turning points in the way we work aren’t solely born of lockdowns. It also meant the world was already ripe for such a shift. Flexible working and digital transformation are parts of the evolution of our workplace cultures, which would have happened anyway even if COVID-19 didn’t exist.

The pandemic has simply accelerated many trends and changes that were already occurring. Mass scale remote working popped up in a matter of weeks, a global workplace backflip that helped us all realise the extent of our technological capability. While some workplaces took a while to catch up, COVID-19 challenged many to create more flexible and independent working arrangements by exposing the opportunities they would otherwise miss out on.

Inevitable evolution of globalisation

Changes in global, and even national, travel patterns are a relatively hard item to miss when considering the disruptions the pandemic has introduced. The implementation of national and interstate border lockdowns to various degrees on a global scale obliterated many airlines and heavily compromised freighting, spawning an endless amount of problems for people and businesses worldwide.

The world went from global to local very quickly, but globalisation was already beginning to breakdown before the pandemic, albeit in subtler ways. Increasing awareness of socio-economic inequalities and environmental degradation produced by forces of globalisation was already circulating and infiltrating changes in how people lived.

According to a 2019 report by McKinsey Global Institute, one of the hidden ways that globalisation was changing was the decreasing amount of goods traded across borders. From 28.1 per cent in 2007, the global exports declined to 22.5 per cent in 2017. While recent supply chain issues have certainly been caused by COVID-related freight disruptions, producing and buying local has been trending upward for some time.

Digital disquiet

Culture wars have always been occurring – human beings have been shifting values in light of social, economic and environmental events for some time. While the culture wars surrounding climate change and the popularist rejection of the social democratic consensus are arguably taking greatest prominence at the moment, the next one brewing is likely to feature data privacy and ownership.

In its 2020 report, Gartner predicts that by 2023, 65 per cent of the world’s population “will have its personal information covered under modern privacy regulations” versus 10 per cent two years ago. This is after they observed a decline in customers’ trust and an increase in privacy invasion in 2019.

If the demand for data privacy protection has been increasing since then, it comes as no surprise that there are many debates surrounding personal data acquisition instigated by COVID-19 mitigation efforts. 

In Singapore, a COVID-19 contact tracing app became a source of heated debate on the balance between data collection and personal privacy, after it was revealed that information could be used by the police in criminal investigations. This prompted the government to not only acknowledge its mistake but also to amend its COVID-19 Act to restrict the use of the data.

With more of our personalised data available due to pandemic-induced digital practices, our journey towards the fast-expanding culture war regarding data and privacy has likely been accelerated by COVID.

Living with COVID-19 as an endemic disease

We’ve been here before: The "Russian flu" in 1889-1890 was a worldwide respiratory viral disease and one of the deadliest pandemics in history. Modern research suggests this was not influenza, rather a form of coronavirus and that many of our common colds circulating today evolved from it. Just as the world recovered from that pandemic, in time it will surely recover from COVID-19.

So a post-COVID world, in its technicality, does exist – one where restrictions will be gone, and we can freely travel without fear of the virus. But, will it be an entirely different reality from the one we had pre-COVID? Not really. Or maybe not merely as vastly different as some are trying to picture it to be.

Ironically, while we felt the world ground to a halt when the pandemic hit, it didn’t. The problems we were facing then have remained for us to pick up again, and the developments we have been working on still progressed amid the crisis – with some at an even accelerated pace. The world continues to rotate.

As COVID becomes endemic (soon, hopefully), we’ll all go back to enjoying ourselves in the ways we used to – packed footy stadiums, night clubs and festivals. One day, the pandemic will be over, the fear induced by the sound of a stranger’s sneeze will be forgotten, but the world will, no doubt, be left to consider some of the changes this global event accelerated, and whether we actually ended up in a different place.

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Peter Ayres
Written by
Peter Ayres

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