Peter Bye

When the COVID-19 crisis ends and normal life is resumed, will our behaviour change in the medium- to long-term, for example much more working from home and reduced travel? Before I try to provide some answers to that question, I’d like to consider briefly how the world reacted to the last significant pandemic: Hong Kong ‘flu in 1968-69. There were between one and three million deaths globally, of which around 30,000 were in the UK[1]. My wife and I were briefly in the USA at the time and yet do not recollect any significant coverage in the broadcast or printed media; everyone just carried on as normal. People I have recently asked in the UK, who were adults at the time, do not remember any significant coverage here either. It’s quite possible that taking more precautions would have reduced the death rate. It’s also possible that, although the situation today is serious, there is a degree of hysteria that was not there in 1968-69[2]. After all, we did not have social media and all the other instant communications possibilities .

A positive side effect of the lockdowns around the world has been the reduction in atmospheric pollution[3]. One reason is that many polluting factories are idle. Another significant factor is that people are travelling much less, both long distances and locally – commuting for instance. Instead of going to work, those whose jobs allow it are working from home. And long distance travel for business and other non-leisure reasons, such as conferences, has dramatically reduced, while vacation travel has collapsed. The reduction in travel is significant because transportation is the source of about 25% of carbon dioxide[4] emissions. One obvious side effect is significant pain for the airlines.

Will the changes in behaviour continue after the end of the crisis? To have any real impact on climate change, the biggest long-term threat we face, the behaviour patterns we have hitherto been used to will have to be replaced by much less polluting habits; the current restrictions are giving us a taste of what we will have to do. I believe business and other non-leisure travel will have to take the lead. As a good deal of it is not really necessary, reducing travel should not cause us too much grief. I’d like to offer some thoughts based on just over 50 years in the IT industry.

Start with working from home to reduce commuting. When I began work in 1965, the options were limited, being confined to working with a pencil and paper: designing and coding software, and perhaps a few other activities such as writing documents. Remote access to computers was possible but not easily done from home. Over the years, that has changed dramatically, thanks to Moore’s Law leading to a transformation in telecoms, and computing power and storage cost/performance. Remote access has gone from a teletype or desktop PC at a few hundred bits/second to a small notebook and multi-megabit network speeds. The technology has also made remote collaboration easy, using a variety of tools. There is no real need to travel to an office everyday just to sit at a desk doing what could be done from home. The result would be reduced pollution, and increased well-being resulting from the reduction in the time and stress of commuting. Some face-to-face contact may be necessary but not every day.

The amount of business travel apart from commuting can be greatly reduced. I think much of it is unnecessary, taking the form of meetings such as quarterly reviews, and could be replaced by remote conference arrangements. Many meetings, both local and requiring long distance travel, also suffer from a lack of preparation in advance. A lot of time is then wasted explaining the subjects on the agenda because the attendees have not read the necessary documents, possibly because others have not written them. The result is Death by PowerPoint in the meeting. Even worse, if a decision or direction is required, presenting the subjects in the meeting will not have allowed adequate time to think about the topics in question: yet another meeting may be the result. And don’t forget the motivation of ego gratification and accumulation of frequent flyer miles coming from business travel. Some business travel is necessary, for practical and cultural reasons; we can’t get rid of it all. But a great deal can be avoided; there has never been a time when technology has made remote contact easier[5].

I’d like to end on a different note, with a tribute to my brother-in-law, Richard Hill, who died recently at the age of 90. He was a contributor to BlogActiv for many years, recommending it to me in 2015, and assisting me with the first few pieces I posted. Richard was a true European, living in Brussels for over 50 years. He spoke a number of European languages, and wrote several books about European culture and attitudes: two notable examples are ‘We Europeans’ and ‘EuroManagers & Martians’. He will be greatly missed.

Notes and sources

[1] There are many sources for the numbers, some of them also providing numbers for the 1957-58 Asian Flu pandemic. See, for example, the Metro (12 March 2020): https://metro.co.uk/2020/03/12/coronavirus-xx-worst-pandemics-history-spanish-flu-xx-12386528/ . The Aberdeen Evening Express (3 March 2020) gives a figure of 80,000 deaths, which does not match other sources, so it may be an error. https://www.eveningexpress.co.uk/news/uk/history-of-major-virus-outbreaks-in-the-uk-in-recent-times/

[2] Lord Sumption has advanced this view, on BBC Radio 4 one o’clock news on Monday 30th March. See also https://www.standard.co.uk/news/health/uk-coronavirus-news-live-updates-covid-19-cases-a4401106.html Sweden has at the time of writing adopted a rather less restrictive approach than most other countries. See for example https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/28/as-the-rest-of-europe-lives-under-lockdown-sweden-keeps-calm-and-carries-on

[3] There are many sources of information about the reduction, just Google ‘reduction in pollution’. Here is one of the sources from Wired: https://www.wired.com/story/the-pandemic-has-led-to-a-huge-global-drop-in-air-pollution/

[4] Source: the BBC. See: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200317-climate-change-cut-carbon-emissions-from-your-commute . See also the IEA at https://www.iea.org/reports/tracking-transport-2019 . There are of course other pollutants apart from carbon dioxide, such as nitrogen dioxide.

[5] I’m not forgetting that computers consume power: the world’s data centres take more power than a number of countries. We must also focus on clean electricity generation.

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