The Covid-19 pandemic, which forced more than half of the world’s population into lockdown, has bluntly revealed weaknesses in our society, which is subject to a globalised economic growth model, weak public services and an environmental crisis – the effects of which continue to be felt and the causes are still not being addressed efficiently.
But lockdown was not all bad news. Citizens, associations and local communities rolled up their sleeves and got to work making aprons and masks, distributing food and helping the vulnerable. Remote working turned out to be a powerful tool, for those who were unable to go to the office, whilst our “frontline heroes” exposed themselves daily to the possibility of catching the virus to keep supplies moving, and provide care and cleaning services. Their commitment was literally life-saving. “These are fully fledged territorialisation processes that are extremely interesting in terms of addressing the crisis, obviously, but also for building the future, if we can intensify the various dynamics”, explained Stéphane Cordobes – a research fellow at the Ecole urbaine de Lyon – in an interview with us. What reassuring news!
Edouard Bard, a professor at the Collège de France and a member of the Académie des sciences, sees the crisis caused by coronavirus as a “dress rehearsal, or a crash test, for human society”. In a column appearing on 25 April for the newspaper Le Monde, Bard stated that it “presages a fast-tracked increase in global warming that will occur in the next few decades”
Accentuated social inequality
On 19 March, ducks waddled along deserted Paris streets, deer roamed the Morbihan beaches and dolphins were seen in the ports of Venice. An astonishing calm reigned and people everywhere were able to hear bird song! According to data collected by Orange, 17% of Ile-de-France residents left the region on 15 and 16 March, with an additional 2 or 3% following not long after. For the 80% who stayed behind, the environment improved significantly. According to Airparif, a direct consequence of the restriction of movement was the best air quality that has ever been seen for the last 40 years.
Inside homes, however, families were not all enjoying the same quality of life. Whilst some families benefited from having a sound-proofed room each, terraces, gardens or balconies, others were living on top of each other, suffering with noisy neighbours and comparing themselves to prisoners who were now locked up “alone or in cells in pairs” as “10,000 prisoners were released in less than one month”, as reported by the newspaper Les Echos on 16 April. A article appearing in the newspaper Parisien with the headline “Five people and a newborn baby locked down together in 11 square metres” at the end of March touched readers and caused an outpouring of solidarity. Some Parisians living in two or three room flats and who had left Paris offered their apartments to the family – and other families who were in similar situations – for the duration of the lockdown.
We are also learning about the heavy price paid by our senior citizens during this Covid-19 epidemic and the extreme sense of loneliness that they face inside care homes. According to figures published on 26 April by the French public health authorities, 8,654 senior citizens have died in care homes. Calls by women and children, victims of domestic violence, doubled at the start of May. And the vulnerable were left more isolated than ever.
The digital divide, an expression coined to refer to digital illiteracy and which affects 17% of the French population according to INSEE, is widening with the acceleration of digitalisation in society and “remote” activities (derived from the Greek word “tele”).
Homeschooling and remote working became essential in March with 8 million people across France working remotely at the start of May, according to the authorities. Whilst homeschooling appeals to only a small percentage of teachers and parents, working from home is seriously attractive to those who are able to so. A study carried out during lockdown by Malakoff Humanis, a group specialising in health and life insurance, found that 73% of those working remotely would like to continue to do so. 32% of these workers would to do so on a regular basis and 41% on an occasional basis.
The rise in medical teleconsultations, which increased 15-fold between 1 and 28 March, is also notable. We are witnessing an e-commerce boom. According to Nielsen, 2.4 million households across France made the move to online shopping during lockdown. Orders placed with Amaps (associations supporting local French agriculture) or directly with producers have doubled since April, underlining the interest from French consumers in cutting out the middleman.
Acts of solidarity, also performed remotely, increased during lockdown. According to the results of the third Baromètre de la fraternité (a study performed each spring by Ifop for Labo de la fraternité, a grouping of 26 associations who work to promote social cohesion), 50% of French residents clapped for healthcare workers each evening at 8pm from their windows, to thank them for their work and to provide encouragement. 72% called someone they knew who was isolated, to check how they were coping, and 21% made a donation to a humanitarian or charitable organisation. 77% of the French population felt that they wanted to “commit to helping all those who needed help, without putting their friends and family first at all costs”.
It is still too early to say whether these new practices are here to stay. Remote working was the subject of a new study, performed by OpinionWay two days after lockdown was eased, showing that only 40% of French workers wanted to adopt remote working whilst 9% said that they wanted to work remotely full time. Despite some reservations (such as encroaching on private life, missing working with others, an over sedentary lifestyle and the related expenses incurred by employees), it appears that remote working has a bright future once the epidemic is over.
Teleconsultations as a last resort. The Doctolib website saw an increase in the number of appointments booked at the end of May, and a drop in the number of teleconsultations, which returned to their pre-Covid-19 crisis levels.
However, initiatives put in place by local councils or charities like the Red Cross (“La Croix Rouge chez vous”, the Red Cross at home) providing volunteers to help the vulnerable, continue to operate.
But it is barrier measures and the contactless approach that the population seem to have adopted definitively. It remains to be seen what will replace the bises (kisses) and handshakes. Will it be bowing? Or the namaste? Or masked smiles?