While we’re being released back into the wild, I fear the Australia we left is not the one we’ll be greeted with.
Finally, the lockdown loosens. After months, people are starting to get the keys back to their lives.
So how will Australia change, post COVID-19? Obviously, there are still massive uncertainties. What if, by lifting restrictions to boost the economy (and keep us sane), we get the threatened second wave of the coronavirus? Do we all get locked up at home again? Does Australia shut down again? And for how long next time? When will all blocked state borders be cleared and when will international flights be renewed?
On that last question, my punt is not until next year. Domestic flights restored in two months. Maybe an Australia/New Zealand bubble in five months.
The two biggest issues have been getting kids back into physical classrooms around the country and getting people back to work. It is the back-to-work conundrum which intrigues me because working from home has been one of the most dramatic industrial changes in our entire history. I want to dwell on it because I believe what happens next in this arena will have a lasting effect on our economy, and could cripple and close many small businesses.
I imagine some dollar-conscious CEO going back to work and thinking: Why am I paying $100,000 rent a year when we could downsize, pay $30,000, use Zoom and Skype and have onsite meetings once a week (this is after they abolish hot desking which was one of the worst office ‘revolutionary innovations’ ever), such downsize thinking could devastate CBD rentals.
What has also changed corporate thinking, because of the lockdown, is the realisation that when staff say they are working from home, they really are actually ‘working’ from home. It is not a code for ‘goofing off’ on the company dollar.
I believe, if given the option, many people will elect to keep working from home. For comfort, family, and financial reasons. Not having to sit in traffic jams for tedious hours. Not having to sit on crammed trains and buses. A better quality of life.
Plus, the very real financial benefits: cuts in petrol, tolls, fares, lunches, dry cleaning. That’s thousands of dollars in tough times.
That last issue leads me to the lockdown ripples I have pointed to. I mentioned lunch and dry cleaning. Imagine you own a coffee shop on Collins Street in Melbourne, or Martin Place in Sydney. I’m guessing, but say, 5000 people (potential customers) walk past your joint every day. You re-open and discover that thousands of those people now work from home. They’ve gone. The drop off in business may make it untenable to stay open.
And the sandwich shop next door faces the same problem if thousands of city workers aren’t there any more to buy a chicken wrap at lunchtime. The same financial clamp can also be applied to taxi drivers and Uber drivers. The ripples are endless.
The two biggest issues have been getting kids back into physical classrooms around the country and getting people back to work.
I mentioned dry cleaners. If you are working from home, you will need them less. I know from personal experience. My Saturday ritual, for years, has been to take my shirts to my favourite Toorak dry cleaners every Saturday morning. I haven’t done that for nine weeks.
Will new habits die hard? Will people get their hair cut, or their nails done, so often? More money savers.
Another thing to watch is patron loyalty. We know that Coles and Woolworths have been raking it in like it is Christmas.
But innovative local traders have also been doing OK as they struggled to stay open.
In my nabe, local bars and restaurants have become pop-up corner stores. Classy eateries removed the tables and chairs and set up shops selling takeaway meals, plus eggs, flour, toilet paper and (especially) wine. When things get back to semi-normal, will customers still frequent these outposts? Moreover, will people still feel the need to go to expensive restaurants as often as they used to?
Then there are the changes in personal behaviour. I’ve seen reports claiming a massive increase in booze sales during lockdown. That ‘weekend drinkers’ have become daily drinkers. Will they find it easy going back to their old regimen?
Likewise, the slew of new people hitting the outdoor exercise track or taking their apartment dog for an extended walk. Will that continue? Or will a return to the couch potato position just slide back in?
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One of the phenomena from the lockdown has been the number of Aussies, male and female, who have been hitting the kitchen, especially in the breadmaking department. You only needed to go to Instagram or Twitter to see boastful examples of crusty, golden, homemade bread success. No wonder flour suddenly became as elusive as toilet paper.
I’ll put my hand up as a lockdown baker. Years ago, I used to make muffins daily to take to the staff at 3AW. Had not made them in more than a decade and, under lockdown, had to dig out the recipe for guidance.
Which makes me think. All our lives have changed. Basically, it seems, we have slowed down. Will that last, or will it be seen as a forced aberration?
I know, that in my case under lockdown, I have used the solitude to think more, reflect more, read more, write more, and certainly cook more. It has made entertainment services like Netflix and Stan boom and news services like the ABC and SKY flourish. I know I sit and, daily, devour TV news for hours.
For most of us, this has been the biggest national upheaval in our lives – unless you were around for The Depression or World War II. We will get through it, but Australia will never be the same again.