The leveller of cities

It is becoming increasingly clear that, whether we like it or not, the Covid-19 pandemic is here to stay. The optimistic spirit in which we greeted the first lockdown—with Prime Minister Narendra Modi telling the nation that the battle of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata was won in 18 days, but defeating the coronavirus would take 21—seems absurd today.

More than six months have passed since his speech, India has today the highest number of daily cases and daily deaths from Covid-19 in the world, and neither Mr Modi nor his government is making any confident assertions about the end of the pandemic. A vaccine may or may not come by March 2021, and it may or may not work, but even in the most upbeat of scenarios, it will take several months more for everyone vulnerable to be vaccinated, and even then, we will not know how long the vaccination will remain effective.

But if we have to continue to live with Covid-19 for an indeterminate period, while somehow safeguarding both our lives and our livelihoods, it is also clear that many things will have to change. The obvious area of change will be in the world economy; in an earlier column here, I have already written of the visible risk of “deglobalisation”. There is a worldwide rush to reset global supply chains and raise trade barriers. The demand for more protectionism and “self-reliance” (echoed in Prime Minister Modi’s call for “atma nirbharta”), for bringing manufacturing and production value chains back home or at least closer to home, is mounting. But today I am thinking more about the impact of the pandemic on our daily lives.

Much of what we took for granted till recently—and which seemed to be knitting the world ever closer together—seems vulnerable in the post-Covid-19 era. The pandemic and the resultant lockdowns have already ended regular international travel across free and open borders. Restrictions, mandatory Covid-19 tests before departure and upon arrival and inescapable quarantine rules in each country have all hemmed in the allure of international travel.

Professional life is another major casualty. Already, new patterns of work, following strict social distancing norms (and often with working from home a few days a week), have become the new normal. Many companies—most famously Twitter Inc—have decreed that their employees may work from home indefinitely. Teeming office buildings and crowded workspaces may soon be a thing of the past. Managers are beginning to grapple with questions they never needed to ask themselves before: do we need the expense of physical offices if people are mainly working from home? But what happens to camaraderie and team-building if co-workers are not exchanging gossip at the water cooler, arguing in the conference room or flirting in the canteen?

Our cities will change, too. Urban planners have given us cities with a high population density within small radii. But if we are working from home anyway, do we need classic “urbanisation” anymore? Given 24/7 electricity and high-speed broadband, we could just as easily live in villages and work. Once proximity to your job is no longer indispensable, and free mingling is discouraged, the appeal of the city wanes.

Working life is going to be very different for Generation Z (which may as well stand for zoonotic, the adjective that describes viruses that leap the divide from animal to human). Student life already is. Classes at both high school and college have largely migrated online. There seems little prospect that normal student life, with easy mingling on crowded campuses, will simply resume.

Fear of a virus, a deadly unseen enemy, may mark our lives for a long time to come, even after this particular pandemic ends. We have already learned to fear danger in the stranger we meet, the friend we hug. The post-Covid-19 world, whenever that comes into being, is likely to bear the imprint of this disaster in far-reaching changes to our lives. To update a cliché: we may need to start dating our times as BC (Before Covid) and AD (After Disaster).