“We live in unprecedented times.” Almost every politician, celebrity and talk show host has used those lines in the last month as the global pandemic sweeps through parts of Asia, then Europe and then the U.S. We are still in the thick of it as numbers continue to climb, and we quietly hope that early action by the Indian government can help mitigate the spread of the disease across the densely populated sub-continent.
Not to downplay the amount of human suffering caused by COVID-19, but we should not let the lessons of our current circumstance go unheeded. Where we pushed our healthcare systems to optimise for efficiency, times like these do make us wonder if there was wisdom in having a bit of slack to give us the headroom to deal with the unexpected.
In our necessary reaction to stem the spread of COVID-19, we have undertaken many measures which would have been deemed unfeasible social experiments.
1. How would our planet heal if we took a very drastic cut in global air traffic? Once theoretical, the results can now be observed in reality. Whether we can untangle global emissions from the global economy remains a puzzle we need to solve.
2. What will we learn about the nature of work? Do firms actually need to rent large swaths of office space, or will a remote workforce prove effective enough for business operations to continue?
3. Is it possible for education to move entirely online? I had my doubts, but just last week my son’s Chinese tuition centre moved to an entirely online delivery, and I was very impressed by the level of engagement the teacher was able to garner via live video conferencing.
4. Now that less traditional forms of socialising, such as online video chats and instant messaging, have become the only acceptable forms of socialising, does it open the window for introverts to take the lead a bit more? Can we help our extrovert friends navigate and find a home here? Or will our cozy corners be run over as millions move from pubs and malls to subreddit threads?
It is safe to say that we all hope for COVID-19 to go away. Its ubiquity has been an odd equalizer in society. The virus discriminates against no one; and while the rich may have their palaces in which to retreat while the poor may not have access to good healthcare, the fear of contracting the virus is so universal that we are all caught up in this shared experience —carrying this shared anxiety.
May we not sit impotently waiting for this time to pass. We can act on the many things we have learned here. Now that habits and routines are all being reshaped, we can make connecting with our loved ones a part of our daily lives; we can be better neighbours, better customers, better parents and better children, better caregivers and recipients, better employers and workers. Let us use this opportunity to reinvent ourselves. We can be better.

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