, September 28, 2021

Will we return to kissing and hugging and shaking hands post-Covid?


  •   6 min reads
Will we return to kissing and hugging and shaking hands post-Covid?

Covid hasn't changed our humanity, but the way we manage the aftermath might. Will we return to kissing and hugging and shaking hands post-Covid?

They call it the tyranny of the moment. Covid-19 has become all-pervasive; In a funny kind of way, it has united all of us — Covid-19 has surely become the number one talking point worldwide. Listen to a stranger talking as you walk down the street: I don't mean eavesdrop. Just try to pick out a few words. I did that recently. It only applied to people speaking loudly, as I was practising social distancing. I only managed to hear a few conversations and only for a second or so each. I heard: "It depends on the vaccine," "the number of deaths," "he still doesn't wash his hands much!" and "I think Covid has been good for United." All of us seem to be having similar conversations; that is what I mean by uniting humanity. I have never in my life known an occasion when a single topic dominated our thoughts for so long.  In such circumstances, it is tempting to fall for the narrative that Covid has caused permanent change. I don't think it has; when we say otherwise, we fall victim to the tyranny of today — we extrapolate our thoughts at any one moment to an unknown future.  

But I think what we do next, in the aftermath, might leave a permanent shock.

Yuval Noah Harari turned to a similar topic in the Financial Times. After first discussing how technology has changed how we can react to a pandemic — for example, through automation, remote work, and speed of vaccine development, he proposed three rules to reduce the threat of what he called digital dictatorship:

  • Only collect data on people if it is used to help people, not manipulate or control them.
  • If authorities can pry on us via the mechanisms of the surveillance state, then they must be transparent; effectively, we must be able to pry on what they do.
  • Avoid data monopolies, with too much data residing in one place.
The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the risk of a surveillance state, and we have all had to put up with a little bit of erosion into our private lives

Implicit to Harari's comments is the fear that the techniques and processes put in place to use data employed to help defeat Covid may stay in place post-Covid.

I think there is an element of tyranny of today about these comments.  I don't think Covid has permanently changed our use of technology, either good or bad; it has merely accelerated a trend that was already in place.

Automation and increased remote working were happening before Covid. The virus accelerated them, but I am not sure the world will be a very different place in, say 2030, as a result. Covid changed the way we lived in 2020, will enforce similar changes in 2021, and no doubt the legacy will still be with us in 2022 and 2023. But by 2030, the amount of automation and remote working will be at the level it would have been at any way if there had been no virus.
As for the surveillance state — before Covid, there were real concerns about how new technologies threatened our privacy.

This is why the EU passed the General Data Protection Regulation. The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the risk of a surveillance state, and we have all had to put up with a little bit of erosion into our private lives — but I am not so sure it has changed the underlining issues. Yes, in the data age, the protection of our privacy is vital.  Covid-19 and the way it has been dealt with, has emphasised this importance, but I don't think the world will be significantly different in 2030 or 2040 as a result.
Maybe, post-Covid, we will be a little wiser (for a short while), a little poorer (on aggregate and for a short time), but perhaps Covid will soon be forgotten, relegated to history books, like Spanish Flu or the Black Death. There will possibly be just a few cultural references becoming permanent in how the children's nursery rhyme, A Ring, a Ring of Roises, has become a permanent cultural legacy of the Black Death.

But history does inform us that disease can create permanent change; as Jared Diamond explained in his book, Guns, Germs and Steel, disease (or germs) has been one of the greater geopolitical shapers history. For example, it was the great ally to the conquistadors when they invaded South America.
Maybe, Covid 19 has afforded a one-off advantage to those countries that dealt with it especially well, such as China, much of Southeast Asia and New Zealand.

The Covid-19 crisis has dealt a particularly severe blow to countries such as the US and UK, where a libertarian thinking philosophy is particularly pronounced. Libertarian philosophy stands at juxtaposition with the concepts of social distancing, mask-wearing and lockdowns. Maybe this is why countries with a more collectivism mindset appear to have coped better with Covid.

Suppose we go back to normal — we congregate in tight spaces, shake hands, kiss people on the cheeks in greeting, get up close when we talk, what then?

For better or ill, Covid may have given a permanent advantage to certain countries.

The libertarian idea reacts in horror; instinctively, the libertarian understands this threat, which may explain the especially vociferous response to the encroachment of our ideals' among certain people.

But there is another way in which the legacy may be more significant.  It depends on what happens next.

The aftermath

Like most people, I had initially assumed that once vaccines had been found and then administered, the virus would be defeated, and we could go back to normal — or normal-ish.

But now, it becomes clear that new strains of the virus are emerging. It turns out that the longer the virus is allowed to fester, the greater the risk it will mutate into something more severe and immune to vaccines.

It has become apparent we will need a vaccine booster every year.
But suppose we go back to normal — we congregate in tight spaces, shake hands, kiss people on the cheeks in greeting, get up close when we talk, what then?

The above activities define us as human — we are a social species. Make socialising something we do at a distance of two metres, then don't we lose something fundamental to being human? This was a danger anyway, with augmented and virtual reality, as was argued in Living in the Age of the Jerk, we risk technology changing us, from Homo sapiens sapiens, to homo subsunt res quarum habent — insubstantial humans.

Take mask-wearing. I see it as a necessary evil. I wouldn't say I like wearing a mask; I think it creates barriers between people. With a mask covering half our face, people can't tell if we make a comment as a joke or in seriousness. Those casual comments we might make to a stranger when in a supermarket, for example, you know, some mini witticism or just friendly banter, it feels weird if you are wearing a mask.

But that is okay — defeating Covid is a price we must pay with temporary sacrifices.
But if the fears of a coronavirus become permanent and we are constantly nervous about this new mutation, I think that, in time, it will change us.

It may depend on R. Let's say that, on average, it takes one week for the virus to be passed from one person to the next. If the R rate is two, and the virus is left unchecked, within ten weeks of one person getting it, the virus would be passed to 1,000 others.

I am not sure that distrust of strangers is something we want to import from China due to Covid

If the vaccines reduce the contagious level such that the R rate falls significantly below one, even without social distancing, then I would say we can go out and celebrate — hug strangers, kiss and shake hands.

It is well known that in China, there is a degree of distrust for strangers, which the paper in the link explains. Mask wearing has become a permanent feature in China, but maybe with so much distrust of strangers, it is understandable.

I am not sure that distrust of strangers is something we want to import from China due to Covid though.

By 2030 I hope we have largely forgotten Covid, and as a species we are as sociable as ever; but if we still practice social distancing and mask-wearing, I think we risk turning into Homo diffidentiae — distrusting man.

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