COVID-19 Changed Everything; Will We Change It All Back?
The "COVID-19 Normal"
In recent days and weeks, I’m willing to bet nearly all of us have said, or at least thought, “I can’t wait for things to get back to normal.” That’s probably a safe bet, wouldn’t you say?
I’ve also imagined, though, what it would be like to awaken right now from a pre-COVID unconscious state of some sort in, say, a place like downtown Los Angeles. If you’d not been with us since the start of this whole lockdown affair and were suddenly plopped into the middle of it, how would you react to that very sudden, perhaps even overwhelming amount of change? The same line of thinking has me wondering about someone being born into, raised for years entirely in a world that looks like the one we’re in at the moment. Not knowing the difference, would you care? What are the things you might like just as they are now—the “COVID way,” if you will—but that the rest of us can’t wait to put back the way they were, the “normal” way?
I’ve been pondering this point for some number of days now and reading related news from around the US and the rest of the world. Most striking to me have been the many pictures that show dramatically reduced air pollution in major cities. From LA to Jakarta, from New Delhi to New York, from Milan to Barcelona, and London to Moscow the change is real, stark, dramatic. It makes me wonder about an age before my lifetime when air quality this good was normal.
Do we really want to change it all back?
For my part, I don’t think everything should revert or that it will even be able to revert. Indeed, I think there are many, many things we should just leave to the left of COVID.
Many places that weren’t before have now become a cyclist’s dream because of the huge decrease in vehicular traffic. Gennady Sheyner, a reporter from the Palo Alto Weekly captured it this way: “Cleaner air, quiet highways and roads that have suddenly become far more bike friendly than anyone could have imagined are constant reminders that the health crisis has a hopeful side.”
Some, including me, would like to see something tangible and durable come from that hopefulness. Thankfully, there is some indication (particularly in Europe, but also in places like Palo Alto in the US) that civic leaders and planners would like also to keep or make changes that will endure.
As one example, France’s Minister for Ecological Transition, Elisabeth Borne, announced on 29 April 2020 her intent to provide incentives for people to travel by bicycle once lockdown and movement restrictions are loosened or terminated on or about 11 May 2020. Because social distancing guidelines will remain in effect after lockdown is over, public transportation systems are likely to be overwhelmed due to reduced capacity. In that light, encouraging travel by alternative means such as cycling makes sense. Reducing numbers of trips taken by car will also, of course, have the added benefit of reducing pollutants released into the atmosphere on a daily basis.
The Queen of Deconfinement
Minister Borne says she wants to improve the culture of cycling in France with the incentives—which include free repairs at local bike shops, improved cycling infrastructure and free cycling safety instruction—and also, of course, to lessen demand on public transportation systems. She was also quoted as saying she wanted the bicycle to become “the little queen of deconfinement."
Will the Changes Endure?
Only time and the discovery of a vaccine will tell if any or all of these changes will remain for the long haul. For now, though, during the ongoing lockdown period, places like France and Germany are both closing some roads to vehicular traffic, providing larger lanes so commuting and exercising cyclists can maintain requisite physical distance from one another. Similar initiatives have been implemented in Colombia, Belgium and Italy, and it is likely that city councils and leaders all around the globe will at minimum have conversations about these and other similar issues of day-to-day life in a post-COVID-19 world.
I am going to remain hopeful and optimistic for now. I really believe that we humans are a learning bunch, and when faced with adversity we adapt and overcome with ideas that can and will endure. I think many things will be different to the right of COVID-19. Certainly not everything, of course, but some things…and hopefully different will also mean better. We shall see...