Single-handed sailors spend many months at sea only ever sighting the faintest smudge of land let alone another human being. A British Antarctic Survey zoologist spends 18 months at the Bird Island Research Station, South Georgia studying wandering albatross and other wildlife, alone but for three colleagues.
With the luxury of time and a singularity of purpose, they immerse themselves in the detail of daily routine – sleep, work, eat, repeat – interspersed with recreational reading, music and learning. Much as we are required to do now. If such people – in surroundings far more hostile and restrictive than what we are facing – get through their confinement, then we can survive ours. There is one important difference. They plan their isolation to be wholly independent of others. Ours is not.
In a sense, the global lockdown could not have come at a time when we have been better equipped. When, for those of us with internet access, have we ever had greater ability to undertake remotely the pecuniary and social transactions of daily life?
Banks have encouraged us to manage our accounts online. We increasingly carry out much of our business online, around the clock, and from wherever we happen to be. The internet has for years facilitated faceless communication through email, less-than-anonymous social interaction on Facebook, deliberately revealing dating encounters on Tinder (so I’m told), and wholly visible conferencing with various electronic systems. Today we can invite friends, family or colleagues to virtual pre-dinner drinks. While their images sit in the palm of our hand, we can lounge in the lens of our iPhone sporting a two-day old shirt. Where businesses once created multiple carbon copies of transactions, they now create digital records replicated and stored offsite for security. Vast amounts of corporate transactional data are backed up over the internet throughout the day, to cloud-based servers.
The Covid-19 experience will cause companies and employees to re-evaluate the merits of working from home. The elimination of travel would save time and reduce stress, although some research suggests that it can result in employees working longer hours. A significant reduction in travel would reduce carbon emissions and help to meet climate change targets. It might reduce the need for expensive office space. Businesses struggling to get back on their feet will reduce air-travel budgets and accelerate the use of video conferencing.
There is one sizable question mark. Our personal, business, and social transactions, whether in quarantine or in freedom, are now inextricably dependent on access to the internet. Chaos would ensue if it was to fail. Conventional wisdom reassuringly suggests that internet failure is implausible – the planetary network of computers and servers is just too big and decentralised to fail all at once. Anyway, there is considerable redundancy in the system. But how many times have we heard the word ‘glitch’ in connection with things IT? Couldn’t the continuous expansion of the network result in an unforeseen breakdown? Was that a black swan flying by? And what of the possibility of deliberate sabotage by an evil genius or rogue state? The consequences would wreak havoc.
Many of us are eking out our lockdown like prisoners. We recognise our frightening dependence on those who provide our TV, mail, internet, power, water, healthcare, security, food and funding. Now we have time to ponder the weaknesses in our supply chains. We can see their fragility, their interdependence, and the consequences of disruption. As the virus spreads, fewer people are fit to provide us with vital services. Each day the risk grows on imports from other countries. If they have shortages won’t they first meet their domestic needs before supplying us? Each day global demand for scarce resources will bid up the price. Only the richest will win the auction.
Such worries prey upon many in isolation. Some will be confined in anguish, unable to do anything but witness the demise of their businesses and livelihoods, despite official support packages. Others will suffer the greater loss of loved ones who may die alone. Enforced isolation may precipitate depression and other mental health challenges leading to even greater demands on healthcare resources.
The lockdown has made us focus on what is important. Health, loved ones, food and shelter. We no longer sally out to high streets for idle prospecting prior to acquisition. The coronavirus episode magnifies our reflections and anxieties. Realisation that we can live without shopping for anything other than groceries may not be good for the economy but – a small mercy amid much tribulation – it will be better for the planet.
Justin Besley is a round-the-world sailor and former Group Treasurer, Compass Group PLC