Coronavirus and the chance to change

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By Dr Roze Phillips: futurist, medical doctor and Absa Group Executive for People and Culture.
Every year, Oxford Dictionaries selects its “Word of the Year”, normally a word or expression that has attracted a great deal of interest over the last 12 months. In 2019, they chose the term “climate emergency” – a self-explanatory choice.

In the last few weeks, something happened that has changed the world as we know it. Towards the end of December 2019, a novel coronavirus that causes respiratory illness (called COVID-19) broke out in Wuhan, the ninth most populous city in China with 11 million people. The city was placed under quarantine on 23 January. Since then, the virus has rapidly spread across the globe. South Africa is in lockdown!

An unseen disruptor

We are only three months into 2020 and already “coronavirus” is being considered the uncontested title holder of “Word of the Year”. Who would have thought that the greatest disruptor of the technological age would turn out to be a silent, unseen virus capable of destroying economies and sending humans retreating into their homes with packs of toilet paper?

Speaking at the recently held Cape Town Design Indaba, the celebrated 69-year-old Dutch trend forecaster Li Edelkoort described COVID-19 as “a sobering force that will temper our consumerist appetites and jet-setting habits”. We have seen how the deadly virus has upset manufacturing cycles, travel plans, conference schedules as well as sporting and other events around the world. Edelkoort believes we can emerge from the health crisis as more conscientious human beings.
I hope so!

The coronavirus has changed the way we engage and associate with others. Social distancing is fast becoming the norm, so much so that this term is likely to be the runner-up in the contest for “Word of the Year”. The coronavirus pandemic is testing many of the assumptions of our highly interconnected, globalised world.

Protecting other people by being without other people

When we talk about social distancing or self-quarantine, or our current lived reality of country lockdowns, you may think: “How can I be without other people?” Humans are social creatures. We struggle to be alone. Joint research conducted at the universities of Harvard and Charlottesville in the United States found that people, particularly men, would rather receive mild electroshocks than be alone with their thoughts.

We pursue travel, change our personas, change our diets from Banting to plant-based, change our looks, our clothes, our homes, our friends, our jobs, even our spouses – “escaping from the disconcerting consistent status quo which is us”. “This might partly explain why we’re struggling so much with being alone with ourselves,” says Tim Leberecht, co-founder and CEO of The Business Romantic Society. “It eliminates the option to be somebody else.”

With the internet, we can now even escape our physical realities, using our smartphones as a portal into a virtual world where we can reinvent ourselves, exchanging a few deep genuine relationships for many shallow commoditised connections.

Slowing down and being emotionally present

As a consequence of this new form of ”connectedness”, we have trouble with free moments, even just a few minutes. We don’t want to miss anything and we battle to slow down. We task-switch from one tab to another and one screen to another, protecting ourselves from boredom and the fear of missing out (FOMO). If we don’t have something to show for our time, we think that we’re wasting it. And so we find it hard to be alone with our thoughts. It feels like a waste of time.

Along comes COVID-19. In these desperate times of social distancing or collective self-quarantine, too much distraction is immediately replaced with no distraction; FOMO is replaced with NOMO (the necessity of missing out). And we are woefully unprepared!

Once we sit at home, alone, doing nothing, in a time of #CancelEverything, we might realise that, having become so skilled at filling our lives with activity, busyness, chatter and noise, silence is an unfamiliar companion. In forcing us to slow down, the coronavirus is ‘helping’ us redefine productivity ... and perhaps even redefine ourselves. We now have time to appreciate all that we previously considered unnecessary in our lives.

A chance to change

There are some parts of our “slowing down” that are going to be good for us on a level we may not yet fully understand. Slowing down will mean different things to different people.

It may mean replanting your winter herb and vegetable garden, thereby boosting your intake of vitamins and homegrown produce. Learn to cook. Read a book; or, better yet, write a book or start a blog. Reconnect with friends and family on Facetime. Enroll for a short online course on a personal interest or passion. Learn a language. Play with your kids – have undistracted, creative fun. You may also choose to do nothing. Practise silence.

Most importantly, here is an opportunity to learn to appreciate your own company!

Let’s not waste this crisis

Former US President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, famously said, “Never allow a crisis to go to waste”, when he outlined the opportunities for reform that the 2008 financial crisis presented.

Leberecht encourages us to embrace NOMO, the necessity of missing out ... or at least NOSMO, the necessity of sometimes missing out. I cannot agree more.

Coronavirus has given us the unexpected gift of uninterrupted time. Let’s try and consume less. Buy less. Need less. And be more. While we may need to be socially distanced, we can most definitely become more emotionally present. Let’s make “emotionally present” our Phrase of the Year!

First published on Business Live.