The good effects of the Pandemic

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 31, 2020

The pandemic has been hitting many of us hard – from the (roughly) 100 million people who were poor and are now pushed into extreme poverty, but also those of us reading this blog who might be lucky enough not to have lost their job, or not to have fallen sick or having lost family members, but who are nevertheless feeling gloomy, missing friends, and social interactions as we knew them.

But is there then absolutely nothing good coming out of this pandemic?

I confess I had to think hard to not answer this question with “No, what were you thinking??”. Still, while the advantages of the pandemic are peanuts compared to all its bad effects, there are a few changes for the good. I’ll start with pointing out the ones I see in my live and around me; then you tell me what you see in yours.

One good thing is that we are flying less. Over the last year, there has already been a shift in some part of the affluent population that is no longer regarding flying as if it’s on a par with taking a train. Some people have stopped equating ‘holidays’ with ‘flying somewhere’. For some, it is surely only temporary, since they used to fly to meet parents or siblings, and will do that again as soon as they get the chance. We are now all more or less forced not to fly, since there are very few destinations we are allowed to fly to, and moreover, many people do not want to take the risk of contracting COVID-19 on a plane. For behavioural change, having had some specific experience is often more motivational than listening to a sermon, and hence I am (mildly) optimistic that more people who used to fly a lot in the past, will fly less in the future.

Another, related, good thing is that in my country we have now moved PhD defenses online, or in hybrid format, with examiners from the other side of the world being in their home office. In September, my PhD student Matthias Kramm defended his PhD dissertation with one examiner calling in from Canada, and his co-supervisor calling in from New Zealand. Clearly, there is a loss of the social aspect, but it also saves a lot of emissions and money. And, in this case, the PhD defense did not have to be delayed. Since the universities have acquired the technological equipment to make this possible, I am hoping (and counting on them) to keep this option of ‘hybrid’ PhD-defenses also after this pandemic available.

Another technological advance is that since we all started to teach online, it’s easier to have a guest-teacher in your class who lives too far away to simply pop in for a guest lecture. For example, a philosophy professor from Belgium had been teaching my work on economic limitarianism in his political philosophy course; this year, he will start the class in which he teaches this topic with a short interview that he conducted with me via Teams. I needed 10 minutes to prepare the answers to his questions, we conducted the interview for 25 minutes, chatted for another 5, and that was it. While most teachers seem to find the overall balance of online teaching to be negative (compared with in-class teaching before the pandemic), it is also the case that putting the technology central has led to some creative experiments.

At the personal level, a crisis like this is a good time to question one’s habits and priorities: why one is doing what one is doing, whether the way one is doing it is the right way, and whether one has one’s priorities right. Though I’m very conscious that people who worry about jobs and health all the time can’t afford such existential musings, I’ve seen several people around me ask such questions. But perhaps, since I’m 48, that may have more to do with my age than with the pandemic, perhaps…

{ 27 comments }

1

anon 10.31.20 at 11:38 am

The Athlete/Rock Musician/Actor nexus has lost a great deal of its political and cultural pull.

anon

2

Matt 10.31.20 at 12:40 pm

I’ve saved some money because I don’t (can’t) eat or drink out much, and drive less, but I’ll admit that almost all of this (my points, and the above) remind of how, when I spent a week in the hospital a couple of years ago, I tried to make myself feel better by noting that I’d lost some weight while I was in there.

3

DCA 10.31.20 at 1:38 pm

I think work-related travel of any kind will never go back to where it was. Much that is needed will remain, but “spend three hours in your car every day to get to and from the office” [not me, but I do live in Southern California] is going to look much more unappealing than it already did–and employers will be looking to, if not shed space, not build any more. Likewise “let’s all spend a day and night to be in the same place and have a meeting” has to be, if not dead, greatly enfeebled. So lower emissions, both from the travel not done and all the cement not poured to meet a demand that was projected to grow.

I suspect there will be a second-order effect on air travel (and hence tourism) because, without the business traffic, airfares will go up for everyone else: good for emissions again, but otherwise bad.

4

Dwight L. Cramer 10.31.20 at 3:51 pm

A possible candidate:

In the United States, the pandemic may have killed the Republican Party’s generations long effort at voter suppression. Steps necessary because of the pandemic to facilitate voting (early voting and mail ballots, principally) just may have transformed the participating American electorate, which historically has been whiter, older and more rural than the voting age population generally.

We will have to wait until after the election for the data, but at this point the astonishing surge in early voting (already 50% greater than in 2016) suggests, assuming anybody at all shows up to vote on election day, a level of voter participation unseen in over a century. Depending on who these people are, most of this year’s polling (which depends in part on the accuracy of its assumptions concerning the turnout and composition of the electorate) has suddenly lost its predictive value. (BTW, this was the problem for the 2012 Romney campaign–so much commentary has been focused on the 2016 polling that other useful lessons from the past get ignored).

Hopefully, it will be very difficult to stuff this genie back in the bottle, and hopefully, the massive influx of new voters will dispatch a generation of politicians who should have been put out to pasture years ago.

5

JanieM 10.31.20 at 4:57 pm

This is more a question than an item on the list, and it may be a really dumb question with an obvious answer to someone who knows something about the subject matter.

If a lot of companies decide to “shed space,” as DCA said, what’s going to happen to that space? I think of the Boston area, where the company I worked for was located. I’m retired now, but I worked mostly from home (in Maine) for thirty years, so the pandemic shift would have been nothing new to me. But now almost everyone at that company is working from home most of the time, and the people I’ve talked to expect that to continue to some extent. I.e., the company will “shed (at least some) space” once its current lease runs out.

The Boston area has an acute housing shortage, and housing is hideously expensive. Is there any chance that some newly-unused office space could/would be converted to affordable housing? Or indeed, any kind of housing? It’s all tied up with the question of who might need the housing if many fewer people are commuting into the city in the future, all the more if what I did becomes widespread (do my work 200 miles from the office; one of my colleagues did his from New Zealand). If a lot of companies do end up shedding space, what is going to happen to all that space?

(Ingrid, apologies if this is too far off topic. I’m assuming you’ll catch it on moderation if you feel that it is.)

6

RobinM 10.31.20 at 5:06 pm

Another technological plus (though I tend to be unimpressed by technology, or at least cautious about it): I just watched a, to me, quite amazing production of a Eugene O’Neill play by the Irish Repertory Theter in New York which almost achieved the creation of the sense that we were watching actors interacting with each other on a single stage though the actors were actually performing in New York, New Jersey, Utah, Florida, and Berlin, Germany (I hope I’ve got that right). I imagine it won’t be long before the technologists will iron out the small oddities. But as it stands it was still amazing, when one kept in mind their actual physical locations, to see people seemingly sitting talking across a table, pouring drinks for each other, exchanging places in a room, and even engaging in seemingly physical contact from a kiss to a slap

7

EP 10.31.20 at 5:31 pm

One more positive change: further opportunities to attend online conferences/give presentations for academics without research support.

8

sc 10.31.20 at 8:37 pm

dwight w cramer:

it would be nice if what you’re saying is correct, but it’s clear that since preventing voters from voting has mostly failed this year, republicans are moving to simply attempting to invalidate votes.

9

hix 10.31.20 at 9:14 pm

This might sound weird, since the technology is so cheap these days: If you can enjoy video technology alternatives to in person meetings, you’re probably a privileged minority.
I’ve pushed since the beginning of the pandemic to get any mental health support of the preclinical/therapist level organize, mainly the just talking non-therapeutic offers against isolation. It’s just not happening, at least not with any professional participation.

10

Ray 10.31.20 at 9:27 pm

After starting weekly Zoom meetings to combat boredom, we’ve grown closer to our extended family members that we would otherwise only see once every 1-2 years. This has encouraged us to collect photos and other family history to start an online archive project.

Also — if not for COVID, Trump might not have a chance of getting voted out of office.

11

marcel proust 10.31.20 at 9:39 pm

12

dilbert dogbert 10.31.20 at 10:24 pm

Re: #2 up thread
My son in law delivers mail in Portland OR.
“Alan is working a gazillion hours and has put in for a transfer to a different route since his route will have over 100 apartment units added to it. He says that’s not sustainable. He’s working 10 hour days and losing his day’s off. (those big pay checks are nice, but with no energy or time or places to spend the money, what’s the point!”

13

nastywoman 10.31.20 at 11:45 pm

There is no better effect of the pandemic -(if it’s allowed to ”go there”) – than the removal of the Horrific Stupid Racist and Science Denier – who caused so many deaths –
form the US Presidency.

14

Sumana Harihareswara 11.01.20 at 3:03 am

Some parents are finding that homeschooling and related options are actually better for their children than they had previously expected. This NYT story and these tweets talk a bit about the fact that when students have more autonomy over what they see/hear and the rhythm of their work, and when parents can overhear bad behavior in the school environment or racist teaching, parents can intervene faster. A bunch of these realizations would not have happened if the pandemic hadn’t forced so many schools to move to online teaching. A silver lining.

Videoconferencing software got better. I’m so glad that WebRTC was standardized and implemented prior to this year, making it much easier to do teleconferencing directly in the web browser (Google Meet, Jitsi, Whereby, FocusMate, the in-browser option for Zoom, probably other options as well).

A ton of conferences and conventions moved online this year and this let a lot of disabled people participate more fully or for the first time. Here are some retrospective thoughts on WisCon 2020, for example. A lot of conrunners have learned a lot about what conferences/conventions are for and can thus, in the future, provide better hybrid options for partial virtual participation.

15

Thomas Lumley 11.01.20 at 5:10 am

We’ve had video or hybrid PhD defences here in NZ for a few years already, because we already wanted examiners from Abroad to be able to attend, and (to a lesser extent) because it was obviously inefficient to make students who’d started overseas postdocs or other jobs fly back for their defence. They’re definitely a Good Thing.

Pre-Covid, we did have in-person attendance by anyone involved who was actually local — the supervisor, often the student, the independent chair. Losing that makes the defence a bit anticlimactic.

16

DocAmazing 11.01.20 at 7:21 am

The rate of transmission of respiratory illnesses other than COVID19 has declined, probably due to mask-wearing and social distancing. In previous years, people who wore masks during flu season were seen as a bit crankish; hopefully post-pandemic it will remain generally acceptable.

17

Helen 11.01.20 at 10:13 pm

In Victoria (AUS) where we have had a severe lockdown, we have had an outburst of children and parents exercising and playing outdoors (we were allowed first one, then two hours of outdoor activity.) Bicycle sales have soared and the bike paths are full of newbies (a mixed blessing for me atm, but hey that’s what we want.) New bike infrastructure is going in at a greater rate. The local creeks and rivers are running clear and birds and wildlife have had a reprieve.

18

John Quiggin 11.02.20 at 6:58 am

The early response to the pandemic showed that we could collectively do all sorts of things if we wanted to: end homelessness, give decent support to the unemployed, live more simply and still be happy. A lot of that has ebbed away, particularly where there has been a failed response to a second wave, but it’s worth remembering.

19

John Quiggin 11.02.20 at 7:06 am

At least in Australia, we’ve learned we can do without most travel if we have to. International borders are locked tight, and many state borders are also closed to nearly all travel. I haven’t seen my grandchildren in Sydney for nearly a year, except on Skype. But the upshot is that other people’s grandparents are alive*. We’ve only had six deaths in Queensland (and, as DocA notes @16, saved a lot of lives because the flu season didn’t happen this year. The state government resisted a lot of pressure to reopen borders and was comfortably re-elected.

  • The hard cases have been people who’ve been unable to visit dying relatives. The government has gradually improved its handling of these cases, but not always. OTOH, funerals have been big spreader events elsewhere.
20

Ingrid Robeyns 11.02.20 at 9:08 am

I heard a story this morning on Dutch radio of a man who claimed that the pandemic has increased social cohesion in neighbourhoods. He mentioned that during the first lockdown, every morning he was sitting outside his house with a cup of coffee, watching his children play, and his neighbour did the same. Over time, they became friends. This of course requires specific circumstances, such as people having a place to sit outside, and it will also not work in our second lockdown (which we’re approaching), since this might work well for Spring/Summer, but not for Autumn/Winter…

21

Matt 11.02.20 at 12:04 pm

Responding a bit to Helen in 17 above, I’m less sure about the local creeks and rivers running clear. I’m a kayaker, so spend lots of time on the local rivers. Alas, that has mostly meant the Yarra lately, with the travel restrictions, and soom local urban creeks, but these have, if anything, had even higher amounts of the sort of appalling trash in them that’s all too common on Australian rivers. And, the reason is pretty clearly the other thing mentioned – many more people out in parks, trails, and the like, as they couldn’t go shopping or do other things. It’s easy to see the over-flowing trash bins, and to see people throwing their litter everywhere. I see huge amounts of it in the Yarra, even more than normal, as people crowd the areas around it. There is a lot of other damage to the parks and trails, too, from heavy use. It is good for people to get out – but it’s also putting some very serious stresses on things, and the major littering problem in this area has, if anything, gotten worse, I’d say.

22

Tm 11.02.20 at 4:32 pm

A good effect that should have been observed but hasn’t:

Atmospheric carbon concentration hasn’t declined, not even by a minuscule amount. It seems that any Covid-induced decline in emissions was more than offset by enormous forest fires.

https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/covid2.html

23

MPAVictoria 11.02.20 at 4:37 pm

Thank you for providing a space for this Ingrid. My experience with the Pandemic has been a very disorienting mix of good and bad. I am a Type One Diabetic and as such I am a member of an “at-risk” group for COVID. This has been a source of stress and worry these past 7 months. The circle of my life has drastically shrunk in an attempt to limit risk and exposure. Basically I only leave the house to get groceries/medications, walk the dog and occasionally meet friends for outdoor get together. It is a rather lonely existence. I am trying to fill space with books, films, music and television but I am also spending more and more time doom scrolling on Twitter.

On the other hand, my job allows me to work entirely from home and this has been a revaluation. My partner has suffered from pretty serious mental health problems for more than a decade. These problems have prevented them from keeping a job or even being capable of doing simple things around the house. The stress of carrying for my partner, working full time and looking after the house/pets have been a heavy weight on my shoulders for a long time. This has all changed since I have been working from home. I almost feel guilty over how much my home life was improved by the pandemic.

My partner, after years of striving and failing to work full time, has both found a full time job they can do from home (for now) and also hasn’t used a sick day for mental health reasons ONCE this year. This is such an incredible change that I almost can’t full explain it. They are working, helping around the house and not losing days and days to depressive breakdowns every month. I attribute this improvement almost entirely to the ability to work from home on (mostly) their own schedule. I truly never thought I would see the day and it has improved my own mental health and mood immeasurably to see my partner productive and, if not happy, at least happier.

Now of course I am worried that when this all ends my partner’s work will revert back to the pre-pandemic status quo of working in the office but I am trying not to think about that. Stay safe everyone.

24

Trader Joe 11.02.20 at 9:08 pm

Someone said it above – but I think the overall simplification of life has been immense and maybe the + state of mind that produces offsets some of – mental health benefits from reduced socialization.

I’ve only put fuel in my car twice since February (about 300 actual driving miles) and this will prolong the life of my car, save maintenance and the environment. All the reduction in work travel (10s of thousands of miles per year) has meant less restaurant eating – more home time means better home cooking, both in terms of skills and the quality of what I eat.

I spend around the same dollars in the grocery store, but before where I had paid for convenience (and the salts and carbs that come with it) now I pay for fresh produce and the health benefits that go along. I find I’m actually doing strict gym cardio/weight a little less (not much, but a little) since I don’t feel the need – I’ve lost weight, I’m not as stressed and don’t feel the need for the outlet.

I’d also agree with above – neighbors are friendlier and more visible. Our neighborhood has a lot of dual earners who didn’t spend much time outside apart from yardwork and we socialized less among our neighbors than we did with work or ‘cross town’ friends. Now we’ve added a circle of acquaintances and have mostly kept good contact with our prior circle – a net gain in any event.

I’d never wish another pandemic and I’m happy for this one to leave ASAP, but I can’t say its been all bad – definitely a few wins to compensate the losses and over time some of the wins may be more important.

25

PatinIowa 11.02.20 at 10:01 pm

I did AIDS work in the early 90s. It was not uncommon for someone with HIV to say, “I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, but it’s been a huge wake up call for me, and I’m grateful.”

Then a far too high percentage of them died horribly.

Human beings are resilient; it’s one of our species’ more endearing features. The fact of the matter is, however, those of us who are “benefiting” could be doing all this stuff without the obscene human cost among people who aren’t as lucky as we are.

Even if COVID provokes the Revolution™ and we ease the plight of the hundreds of millions in extreme poverty, you’ll still have a hard time getting dyspeptic me to be cheery about it.

Now I’m off to take one of those lovely walks I seem to be doing more of.

26

RichL 11.03.20 at 5:15 am

The biggest benefit here has been an unexpected extra year of living together with our young adult children, two home from college and one still here during her first job. Putting off the empty nest for another year feels like a guilty pleasure for us, knowing it is not the best for them, but enjoying it ourselves.

27

Tm 11.03.20 at 10:41 am

The pandemic is a global crisis that demonstrates our global interconnectedness as well as the indispensability of solidarity and the institutions of the welfare state. And it’s not man-made. Of course human agency has an influence on the appearance and spread of diseases but most people (with important exceptions confirming the rule) understand that it’s a virus, not human malice, that causes it. There is nobody to hate for causing he pandemic. Most people understand that. Of course, some haters always look for somebody to hate and they are struggling to find suitable targets. Hating doctors for treating Covid patients, as Trump has suggested? Not gonna fly. The haters are on the defensive.

And that, I think, is why there might be a good effect. I guess this is just how the human heart works, we are looking for a silver lining, perhaps it’s delusion. But as far as crises go, a global crisis that might bring us closer together in solidarity and put the haters on the defensive might have some good effects. It now depends on what we make of it.

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