Covid-19 is the word on everyone’s lips. It’s put ~3bn people under lockdown, closed countries borders, brought television and sports production to a halt and sent global stock markets into free fall. Everybody is asking the same question: how is this effecting us?
People are worried about how their employment will be effected. Many are worried about their health and hygiene, and that of their friends and family. People are worried about the effects on their businesses, regardless of whether they are owners or patrons. The media report daily with a minute by minute update on the latest casualties, whether they be business or personnel. Some are even worried about the effects of running out of toilet roll. However there is one question few are asking: in a time of unprecedented change, how will this fundamentally change us?
In 2009, research out of University College London found that on average it takes 66 days to form a new habit. In other words, roughly the same number of days ~3bn people are likely to be in mandatory, government-imposed lock down — or a lesser version with significant restrictions on movements. Even more interestingly, the participants in this study had freedom of movement and decision. One could hypothesize that the aforementioned restrictions would only accelerate the habitual learning curve. Surely an incarcerated man succumbs to routine faster than a free man?
So, how will this fundamentally change us? As swiftly as the globe wills to get back to times of precedent, how will we look on the other side? I’m not talking about the other side being a dystonian, post-apocalyptic world. I’m talking about figuring out how the simple habits that we pick up over the coming months, could have a greater impact that even what we see today. Let me explain.
One of my favourite physics stories of all time is the millennium bridge. In 2000, London opened a brand new bridge across the Thames. Almost immediately after opening, it began to sway uncontrollably. It turned out that when people walked across a bridge, they largely walked in sync with the person in front of them. And, when the steps were at the resonant frequency (Matt Parker goes into great detail here) of the bridge, the bridge began to oscillate from side to side. It was closed down for two years whilst repairs where made.
Right now, many of us are doing much of the same thing: we wake up, we bathe, we eat, we work (from home), we watch television, we sleep. 3 billion people are effectively, in sync. Will all 3 billion people suddenly return to normality afterwards? No. Ergo, if enough people pick up new habits and ways of life, then will we hit the resonant frequency of the worlds economy and will it continue to oscillate?
Right now governments globally are racing to prop up businesses in an attempt to “weather the storm”. This can’t go on forever and will inevitably finish once Covid-19 ceases to be an imminent threat. The problem with this approach is that we may be providing an umbrella to a business in a storm that could continue long after Covid-19 subsides. Thus, some businesses and people are going to get wet. Things will not be all sun and rainbows on the other side.
Think about it: you’ve started shopping for food online, will you return to your local independent supermarket? Or, will you stick to what — through exposure — you’ve come to find quite convenient. Will you return to bars and restaurants when they reopen? Or, will you continue the rhythm of opening and closing your 10-minute cookbook and glugging on cheap rose? Will you suddenly jump back on a plane? Will more you continue to work from home? I poked fun at the “monkey see’s, monkey do’s” that rushed out to hoard toilet roll, but will those that couldn’t hoard enough find solace in the soap and water practices employed by millions globally.
If the answer to any of these questions is a yes or a maybe, then you are one of potentially billions around the world that will resurface on the other-side different from whence you came to this mess. As we attempt to rebuild from our economic knees, I can’t help but ask: who’s going to pay to sort out the next stage of this mess?
p.s. I haven’t written in years — does this mean I’ve picked up a new habit?