In brief

As social behaviour is disrupted by the Coronavirus, David Robinson says that disruption is neither good nor bad. What matters is what we make of it.

I spoke last night to a church minister who had already cancelled the Older Peoples Wednesday group and was seriously thinking about the Sunday Services. This morning I went to a meeting with some people I know well and others I know hardly at all. Normally we might embrace or shake hands. Instead we nodded and exchanged a feeble wave.

In the face of a global, life threatening pandemic these may seem like trivial adjustments but, even in the better case scenarios, it seems likely that our patterns of interaction will change over the coming months.

Social behaviour will be disrupted, suddenly and significantly. Contact will be restricted. More work and leisure time will be spent alone, there will be less travel and fewer communal activities, perhaps temporarily, or maybe not.

When I chaired a meeting online last week, I missed the subtle signals that help us to judge the mood, when to move on and when to encourage further contributions. I don’t particularly want to do it again, but I will do, tomorrow and several times next week. I’ll get better at it and I’ll grow accustomed to it.

We know that enforced changes in our behaviour can feel very uncomfortable at first but can become a habit surprisingly quickly. Think of the strikes on the tube that changed your commute, the health scare that transformed your diet, the shop closure that altered your consumer behaviour. Now add all those things together. Dr Adam Kucharski, associate professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says “its not going to be a matter of people making one small change to their behaviour. It’s going to be a series of changes across a number of aspects”. (Guardian 3/3/20)

Maybe we will eventually return to old ways , but I doubt it. I think it is much more likely that the pandemic will leave a lasting mark. The big questions are about scale and the aggregated consequences.

Maybe in the absence of large group gatherings we will stop congregating and find more singular pursuits. Or perhaps we will notice for the first time the individuals for whom the group activity is a lifeline and develop an individual bond that is more fulfilling for us both.

Maybe we will develop and expand the technology that effectively links some people but not others into something more inclusive. Every online service has a moment of fulfilment in the real world.

Perhaps we will learn how to turn the digitally enabled connection into something real and meaningful and respectful and worthwhile.

Maybe our confidence in machine learning will accelerate as we recognise that doctor’s waiting rooms are not a healthy place to be and that smart medical advice, diagnosis, even prescribing can be done without a face to face. Perhaps that time will then be spent, more generously, on those who really need the human connection.

Maybe big events will become lots of small local ones. The dislocated runners from the London Marathon will reassemble in the Park Run.

Maybe we will find more efficient, and more climate friendly, ways to do business. How often do we really need to be in same room? Perhaps we will work out how to make working from home a communal experience, with local networks and café lunches. It could also be more family friendly, with alternative working patterns and breaks for the school run, assuming, of course, that there still is a school…

Maybe distance teaching will replace the traditional institution for some or all of the week. Existing Cloud learning technology enables the student to see the white board and the teacher to see every student work book. Perhaps that will free up time for more focused and individual “tutorials” even for primary pupils.

Maybe these are smarter practices or perhaps they will sharpen division because we won’t all have the same options. An accountant might be able to work anywhere with a lap top but a cleaner can’t.

Maybe, when worship becomes a webinar and team meetings a Skype with the cat at the kitchen table, we will long for a swift return to normality or perhaps we will have found our new normal. Maybe we will become more separate, more self centred, more unequal and more divided or perhaps the crisis will force the pace on more welcome developments in our social behaviour.

Disruption in itself is neither good nor bad, it is only disruption. What matters is what we make of it.