Has the Pandemic Changed Our Conceptions of What Work and Leisure Mean?
Out there a new deadly virus threatens our lives once more. It’s hard to understand the extent of such a threat, for it has the potential to wipe out millions of us, including my family and yours, over a matter of weeks or months. The effects of the Covid-19 (coronavirus) are not just about those who have caught it. In the meanwhile worldwide economy is crippling with lost production and demand, devastating effects on families and communities in panic and folly and governments taking hasty and catastrophic decisions. As a result countries worldwide will spend years to recover. What about that new virus? Well, it may have started from a bat, but human activity and vanity set it loose. As a matter of fact the virus was first recognized to have infected humans late last year - in an open seafood animal market in Wuhan - and belongs to the coronavirus family. The SARS epidemic as well as the MERS outbreak was caused by coronavirus too. Think about it, human history was messed up with pandemics that have killed millions.
In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when it was just beginning to become clear that people who could stay at home would be doing so for a very long while, an argument began to emerge. It mostly played out on social media, but after a while it moved to news outlets, too: the New York Times, HuffPost, Forbes. It concerned working at home, because it is disproportionately easy for people like me who work in digital media to work at home, and the question it revolved around was: Is a pandemic the time to get extremely productive? Or is it the time to take a break? First, there was the King Lear argument. Shakespeare, as people reminded each other, wrote King Lear when he was quarantined during a plague. And it soon became clear that Shakespeare was just one of the many geniuses of history who accomplished miraculous things while confined to his house. Sir Isaac Newton discovered the laws of gravity and invented calculus under quarantine. Mary Shelley, well, was not under quarantine when she wrote Frankenstein and invented science fiction, but she was at least cooped up in the house because of the year without summer, so truly, can’t she serve as an inspirational figure as well? After a period, it began to seem somewhat astonishing that anyone ever managed to accomplish anything without some global catastrophe confining them to their home. And then, inevitably, came the whispered implication: Shouldn’t you yourself be using this time at home — dare we say this gift — because you are at home and not working in an essential field? Shouldn’t you be using this time to become more productive? Shouldn’t you be buckling down and writing a masterpiece or inventing a genre or discovering fundamental laws of the universe? At the very least, shouldn’t you be taking up a new hobby, mastering a skill, or perhaps be reaching your fully fledged form as what Forbes termed a “coronapreneur?” But then came the backlash. The push to be productive while sheltering in place during a once-a-century global catastrophe was the latest sign, critics argued, of capitalism corrupting our minds.
What we do know is that the world has changed. Like other global events with planet-wide impact, Covid-19 could potentially change how we see the world, the ways in which we think, and how we conduct our lives. Notwithstanding the human tragedy of lost lives, broken families, and scarred communities, the economic and social changes caused by a pandemic-driven lockdown will constitute a cultural legacy which will live long in our memories and those of future generations. The pain is personal, emotional, psychological, societal, economic, and cultural; and it will leave scars. In many regards, we view Covid-19 as analogous to that which Taleb (2008) calls a ‘Black Swan Event’ – a shocking event that changes the world (as similarly also noted concurrently by a number of authors and editors – see for example Grech, 2020, Mazzoleni et al., 2020). While Taleb (2008) discussed a range of examples of such past events (such as the events of 911) his analysis highlighted that human responses to such shocks tend toward critical reverse prediction. That is, after shocks that change cultures happen, people within those shocked cultures almost immediately rationalize such events by reflecting that they could have been predicted and probably avoided. Is Covid-19 an example of this – we think so? After Covid-19 the world will not be the same and notwithstanding numerous apocalyptic movies, conspiracy theorists, and political opportunists, we cannot but help to hope that future pandemics can be avoided if we learn the lessons, we cannot help but think should have been learned before Covid-19.
Generally speaking, while the pandemic forced us to reorganise our shared spaces, lockdown has given us the time to rethink what we want our social life to look like. And although we may have to wave goodbye to the lively, crowded bars, theatres and gyms that we used to love, at least for some time, we also have the unique opportunity to rediscover what togetherness means in new spaces – and to reimagine those spaces from scratch.
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Grech, Victor (2020). “Unknown unknowns – COVID-19 and potential global mortality”, Early Human Development, 144, May 2020, doi.org/10.1016