Liz Milne does some deep delving and discovers the brighter side of global pandemics
We all know the downsides of the pandemic. First and most serious, the health issues faced by those who are in the high-risk categories, the potential to lose family members, the threat to medical personnel. And then there’s the more peripheral downsides – which are no less concerning. These are the crumbling economy, the slow but steady increase in unemployment rates, the threat to safety at work, play and leisure. Can there be any positives to COVID-19 sweeping the globe?
The short answer: there might be!
Since the late 70s, early 80s – economic history buffs will recognise that this was during yet another financial recession – the never-ending effort to trim the bottom line has been in full flood.
The Squeeze on Seating
The noticeable effect was seen in the space allowed per person on public transport and in restaurants. Airlines began to squeeze in a few extra seats, by taking measurements of the ‘average’ bottom width and adding three inches or so wiggle-room. But any average measurement will find remarkably few people of exactly those dimensions – and it seems the airlines did not realise that while ‘average’ is too big for half the population, which is not a problem, is it likewise too small for the other half? Which can be a big problem, pun only half intended.
Restaurants, calculating the average profit per ninety-minute seating, realised that cramming in another table for every five or so, would mean an instant 20% addition to the profits. That this leaves claustrophobes, bigger people (‘bigger’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘fatter’, it can also mean taller, broader, more muscled), and – most cruelly – many disabled people who need space for crutches, wheelchairs and walking aids, unaccommodated, was ignored by the people in suits who have calculator eyes and profit-margin hearts.
I have traumatised memories of paying a ‘ten percent of full price’ fare for an eighteen-month old baby, plus a full adult fare, for the pleasure of holding said very unhappy, wriggly (and loud) infant on a 10-hour flight.
Public to private space
Public transport was not left unspared – bus and train seats were given the same squeezing, as were planes. I have traumatised memories of paying a ‘ten percent of full price’ fare for an eighteen-month old baby, plus a full adult fare, for the pleasure of holding said very unhappy, wriggly (and loud) infant on a 10-hour flight. The plane was configured in such a way that there was no inch of space left for a service that had been commonplace just 20 years earlier, according to my mum: a fold-out cot in which infants could stretch out to sleep the flight away…
A Cycle of Time
Photographs of the early days of flight show people in evening dress, so grand was the occasion of taking a flight. Passengers were weighed along with their luggage, and any excesses charged, as now, but once on board the plane, you could spread out
comfortably, in comfortable armchairs and near full-size beds to recline in, rather than today’s tightly packed reclining seats.
We are now returning to those halcyon days now, with restaurants forced to move tables at least two-metres apart, with buses asking passengers to not sit next to one another (unless in a household bubble) and with planes leaving strategic empty seats between fliers. While evening dress is not de rigeur, it might not be long before long-distance travel once again becomes a special event to be enjoyed and appreciated as much as the reason for the travel! (Passing over the fact that emptier planes will ultimately mean higher prices…)
Lick and a Promise
Cleaning standards have dropped massively. With labour saving tools and materials readily available – steam-cleaners, speed-mops, multi-surface cleaners – employers often skimp on the cleaning budget, asking employees to wipe around or clean up after themselves. Even in places where cleaning is prioritised, it is often the first department to face cut-backs when finances are tight, with hours shortened to a point where cleaners
are lucky if they can give the whole premises more than a lick and a promise. There was certainly little understanding of the difference between tidy and sanitary…
Today, cleaners have gone from fighting against the encroachment of zero-hour contracts to having plenty of hours available. Cleaning is now thorough and done properly, with detergent to clean and disinfectant to kill any germs that might linger on surfaces. Far from being told to only clean the ‘visible bits’ as fast as possible, cleaners are now unsung heroes, vanquishing pestilent menace from our homes, offices and public spaces. But the work they are doing now is what should have always been done: we have, thus far, been lucky rather than responsible.
Being forced into allowing their employees to work from home has seen a lot of employers come around to accepting remote work as a viable solution for the long term.
Remote Work for the Win
I have worked from home for many years on and off, since 1998, across both hemispheres and on two continents, raising children and taking my degrees. For as long as there have been home-based internet connections – even the old noisy boing-boing-boing-screech ones that required the landline telephone cable to be unplugged from the handset and clicked into the back of the CPU – the potential for work from home has existed. But it has taken a lot of time for managers to realise the viability of this route and the savings to be found in taking it up: premises rentals and overheads can be slashed, workers tend to work more than their mandated hours because they begin to prioritise work by tasks rather than by counting down the hours to home time, and the freedom to work at unusual hours can see productivity levels shoot up – even without an increase in hours worked!
Being forced into allowing their employees to work from home has seen a lot of employers come around to accepting remote work as a viable solution for the long term. Quite apart from the benefits mentioned above, employers can also go further afield with new hires – living within X miles of the head office no longer matters when there are Zoom calls, Teams meetings and instant internet connections that span the globe.
However, even here there are caveats. Women and mothers who tend to carry the biggest burden of housework and childcare are already showing signs of stress as they try to combine a full-time job of work with the equally full-time job of mothering, previously forcibly separated by the physical distance between home and workplace, often with large overlaps where they are expected to do both simultaneously. Employers, while enjoying the benefits of remote working, should take steps to watch out for unforeseen disadvantages for their staff members.
Having the family home, even while they were being quiet: for a given value of quiet – the whispered ‘Sorry, just a quick word, I don’t want to disturb you, but where’s my other purple sock?’ is just as bad as blasting out amusing YouTube videos while sitting in the same room,
Lockdown, for me, was awful, like having the world squeezed into my workspace! It didn’t help that, having fallen through the cracks in every safety net offered, I was still working as hard as possible, often fighting to find work that had been readily available in the
months before lockdown... I was also accustomed to having the house to myself during school and work hours, during which time I could get a great deal of work done.
Having the family home, even while they were being quiet: for a given value of quiet – the whispered ‘Sorry, just a quick word, I don’t want to disturb you, but where’s my other purple sock?’ is just as bad as blasting out amusing YouTube videos while sitting in the same room, when it comes to completing a train of thought or crafting an elegant phrase! I took to working and studying in the wee small hours when everyone else was sleeping, a habit that I am struggling to break now that life has, to a certain extent, returned to normal!
From busy lives with no time to spare for self-reflection, self-care or exercise, people have made changes to their lives that include trying out hobbies they’ve always wanted to get into, or finally getting to binge-watch several series of their favourite show. Previously petless homes now have dogs or cats, some invested in as an excuse to leave the house more than once a day, others because it was always intended that ‘one day’ they would have a pet. ‘One day’ turned out to be during lockdown, when parties, pub socialising, and meeting up with family members was put on hold!
Another benefit of lockdown was that the ‘working parent’ got to see all the milestones that were previously relayed to them by the ‘parenting parent’. This may, in future, lead to a bigger uptake in the offering of paternity leave, which is seldom asked for, despite being a legal right since 2004.
A final, if rather tongue-in-cheek, advantage of the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown conditions it inspired is the validation experienced by introverted teens and young adults. After years of being told to get out of the house, meet people and switch
off their screens, they now have to stay inside, avoid people and use their screens for everything from work to socialising to shopping!
A global pandemic is not great, especially for those on the front line, in hospitals and care homes – even retail workers and cleaners are facing greater uncertainty than the payment of a minimum wage would seem to merit. But the pandemic will pass. Eventually. If we can look for and celebrate the positives, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant, perhaps we can make it safely through another day, another week, another month. And that would be a win.
Written by Liz Milne