Will the coronavirus change us? It certainly should

If at the end of this pandemic we are the same people and if we haven't learned anything, then perhaps we will have failed

Days bleed into each other and time drips like a rusty tap. Fifty-six days working from home as of today. Tomorrow 57. Walls stare at you blankly. Couches have indentations. Smiles shrink. TV newsreaders recite the rising figures of the dead and the unemployed like grim accountants.

But I have no complaint for I am among the lucky. I'm not an out-of-work daily wage worker or an Indian migrant trying to walk 500km to his home state or a nurse with inadequate protection tending to the afflicted or a policeman trying to get partying idiots in America to go home. Suffering has multiple shades.

When this is over, and I am not even certain what "over" means in a Covid-19 world, but let's say when I can fly to see my 87-year-old mother who has seen too much to panic, when immunologist Dr Anthony Fauci, my plain-speaking reassurer-in-chief finally gets a full night's sleep, who will we be?

If we are the same people, we will have failed. If we, the ones for whom boredom is in fact a privilege, haven't changed, then what a waste. If we haven't learnt anything, even if it's just how to fold a bloody fitted sheet - I watched a video of it on Wednesday, seriously - then that's just time lost.

I was listening this week to a speech by Wade Davis, a former Explorer-In-Residence at the National Geographic Society and author of the grand book, Into The Silence, about the early assaults on Everest in the early 1920s. World War I, a time of unrivalled horror, had just ended and these climbs, said Davis, "became a mission of regeneration for a people bled white by conflict". Young men were trying to cleanse their spirits by doing something noble.

We don't have to go so far, but tragedy is useless if it only leaves a list of the dead. Something must be gained from a period so affecting. We might return to life as it was but perhaps not as the same people. Wiser, perhaps. Humbler, surely. More empathetic, hopefully. It's like an assembling of small, new parts into the self. My friend, Samar, is learning accommodation, patience under stress and the art of swabbing a floor. "If and when this passes," he writes, "I hope that I will do more than I did before."

This virus is extraordinary in its ability to pause lives. Confinement is intriguing because it is only when freedoms are curtailed that they are better understood. An explorer posted a picture on Twitter of a bleak day in the African savanna with a distant giraffe standing under a solitary tree. It made me think of the most natural thing we do but now can't: Roam.

The pause is an education and perhaps men, those swollen with chauvinism, will now see women and the truth of unpaid work more clearly. When the lockdown ends, perhaps the sharing of housework won't. Meanwhile, single and now maid-less, I am writing, hoovering, washing, folding and looking for a medal to pin to my versatile chest.

Fortunately, the customer service lady from LG gently punctured my smugness. She was generous in her politeness as I anxiously babbled about a key sign that had lit up on my washing machine. It means locked, Sir, she said. I am uncertain if she meant the machine or my brain.

This pause has been an invitation to reflection, for when cities close down there is no road open except the one inwards. For once, we have time for everyone and everything.

People everywhere are reaching out to each other - are these hellos or nervous goodbyes? - but once normality returns, will this concern come rapidly unstitched? My pal finds that her child, home for weeks, is "superb company" and "tells stories with great expression". This is discovery outside the ordinary routine of life and maybe she will rethink how they will spend their days henceforth.

We speak glibly of "community", but the virus can reveal selfishness. "Duty of care", it struck me, applies not just to nurses but also us, the wider citizenry. To say we're all in this together is trite until we behave by factoring in the "all".

I was mostly homebound but took long Grab rides to visit friends on weekends. Then I stopped. Partly because I realised that the nurse who can't hug her child at night because she's exhausted and possibly contagious, doesn't need another patient, doesn't need another person to deplete the number of ventilators, doesn't need to be endangered by my casual risk. I owe her something more powerful than evening applause from a balcony; I owe her my discipline.

During this pause, with people stuck at home, an odd thing has occurred: Nature has got a chance to breathe. The planet doesn't feel healthy, but it looks good. A puma strolled streets and a deer refused to walk on the pavement. It must feel vaguely familiar to them, for this land was once theirs. Stars can be seen and to look up in some polluted countries is to see what Ella Fitzgerald was singing about:

"Blue skies

Smiling at me

Nothing but blue skies

Do I see."


As we pause this is also something to consider: The more we rough-up the planet, the more we intrude into the natural world, the more we will create imbalance and affect climate and unleash viruses. When we return to everyday life, we have a choice on how we wish to continue to live.

Change, even if modest, has meaning, like my friend, an investigative journalist long married to her cigarettes, who has begun marching for an hour down her corridor. I did something, too, for the first time in 57 years, which is order weights online and then, by sheer chance, stumbled on a role model called Tommy Kono.

Kono was an asthmatic kid who was put with his family in a Japanese internment camp in California in 1942. So he lifted weights and years later won two Olympic gold medals (1952 and 1956) and a silver (1960). One year, as The New York Times recounted, a kid watched him - Kono was also a bodybuilder - and was so inspired that he ran home and started training. That boy's name is Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I face no injustice like internment and my body is beyond building into anything that might reflect well in a mirror but, for single folk, these accumulating routines become our companions. During long days, order helps fend off apprehension. The task is not just a job to be done but the spending of time. When life opens up, I hope I don't slacken.

Little things about ourselves we're hopefully finding and questioning and sorting and storing. Maybe to manage with less. To realise how much we waste. On TV, I admire most the stories of random folk, with 3D printers, who decide to make masks, who act, who change, who embrace one of the most powerful truths of this crisis:

We are not helpless.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 05, 2020, with the headline 'Will this virus change us? It certainly should'. Print Edition | Subscribe