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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Opinion | A new normal created by the ‘hysteresis’ effects of covid

We could see a hybrid model that worsens inequality but grants more people access to finer things

As we continue to live through lockdowns around the world, in response to the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, many are wondering when normalcy will return—or whether we will end up instead in a “new normal" that resembles the old normal in some respects but is fundamentally different in others.

It is hard to get a sense of this in a country in which cases are still rising, and in which lockdowns, having been partially lifted, are now being re-imposed, at least selectively and by region: such as India or the United States. Places such as this never had a chance to approach a new normal, to say nothing of settling into one. It is better to see what is happening in countries that have had success in “flattening the curve" of new infections and are gradually exiting their lockdown: these would be several countries in Europe, as well as Canada.

In Canada, where I am currently, re-opening has proceeded at a different pace in different provinces. As in other large federal states, sub-national jurisdictions in Canada, ironically, have considerably more autonomy during a time of crisis than they do during normal times. Thus, under emergency laws and the extraordinary powers that flow from them, governments in some provinces have closed their borders, not only to international travel, but to visitors from other provinces. Meanwhile, in most provinces, a gradual re-opening of commercial establishments, such as shops and restaurants, is proceeding slowly but surely.

In Ontario, for example, restaurants are allowed to operate their outdoor terraces, while the interiors must remain closed; shops are allowed to operate as long as they ensure social distancing and limit the number of footfalls at any given time. Meanwhile, the use of cloth masks while in public places is recommended but not mandated by the province, while it has been mandated by several municipalities, including Ottawa, the national capital.

So far, this new normal does not seem that far removed from the old, except for the inconvenience of wearing face masks, and the necessity of al fresco dining (which does not seem a terrible bother, at least in warm weather). Radically different, though, is the situation in large institutions, especially those in which normal functioning with social distancing is all but impossible—such as schools and universities.

The university at which I teach, Carleton, like many others around the world, has converted the fall semester into entirely online teaching, and even the winter semester looks like it could be largely if not wholly online. It might be conceivable to teach small postgraduate seminar classes under conditions of social distancing, but a large undergraduate lecture class—normally held in a lecture hall which seats several hundred students—cannot be shifted to online mode.

The interesting question is this: If face-to-face teaching becomes possible, perhaps in the fall of 2021, will students, and for that matter professors, want to return to campus? There are many obvious advantages to online teaching and learning for both teacher and student—after all, who wouldn’t want to sit at home and curl up in pyjamas, with their favourite beverage close at hand, to watch a lecture rather than trudging all the way to campus? So it is quite possible that online classes may well become the norm for years to come. This is what economists and physicists would call a “hysteresis" effect: an equilibrium disturbed by a temporary shock, which has long-lasting effects that could perhaps even be permanent.

Likewise, the world of the performing arts, which has been radically disrupted by the virus, may never be the same again.

Already, many major venues in Europe, although not yet in North America, have turned to live streaming of smaller events, and, in some cases, are even able to sell tickets based on the celebrity level of the performers involved.

Thus, the Indian-born star conductor Zubin Mehta has done a series of concerts from Florence, Italy, with tickets valid for the live event and for 48 hours afterwards that cost just under €10. The major classical music recording label Deutsche Grammophon has been doing something similar.

What is noteworthy in the case of both universities and the performing arts—to say nothing of the seminars (or rather, “webinars") organised by sundry think-tanks around the world—is that these online events are scalable to a high level and are completely global, at least in principle.

While such events thus lose their exclusivity and, by corollary, their snob value, they permit an incredible democratization of access to knowledge and culture, which has been technologically feasible in our digital age for quite a few years but has only recently been exploited at anywhere close to its potential, given the ongoing restrictions on live events with an audience present.

What remains to be seen is if the economics works out. Thus, Mehta’s Florence concerts also sold live tickets for €100 apiece, for a small socially-distanced audience. If this, plus online ticket sales, add up to what was being earned before, a new business model may be in the offing. What thus emerges is a two-tier world: the privileged few who can afford to travel to Florence to attend in person, and those watching from home. A world of accentuated inequality, paradoxically with greater democratization of access, may well be the lasting legacy of our current crisis.

Vivek Dehejia is a Mint columnist

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