Hitting the Reset Button: Lives and Livelihoods After COVID-19

On the 10 June 2020, AHRC Executive Chair, Professor Andrew Thompson, delivered a lecture at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Global Think Tank Forum: International Co-operation to Combat COVID-19. Speaking on the panel, Global Economic Recovery: New Goals and New Impetus, Professor Thompson discusses the importance of culture and the creative industries during these uncertain times.

Pandemic diseases are inherently global, and Covid-19 is above all a global crisis demanding global thinking. Yet the virus has provoked an array of local responses and the world has responded in fractured ways. In that sense what we have experienced during the last few months is a parable of the fragility of twenty-first century globalization. As societies have retreated inwards to protect themselves from the spread of infection, they have also seen they can’t afford to stop looking outwards. While Covid-19 is somewhere in the world, it remains a threat to us all, wherever we are. The disruption to global supply chains reveals our dependence upon them for essential goods including health products like personal protective equipment. Once the links in these chains are broken the effects are felt quickly and far away. Meanwhile calls for multi-lateral co-operation in the global search for and production of a vaccine speak to a wider truth: only by collective efforts will we be able to defeat this virus. We really are all in this together, notwithstanding the fact that national reflexes to the pandemic have proved very strong.

If globalization has been busy turning an interconnected world into an interdependent one, considerable uncertainty and anxiety have come in its wake. The pandemic has compounded that uncertainty and anxiety by the lack of predictability in the duration of the shock. One US newspaper likened Covid-19 to living in a science fiction movie where none of us know the ending. And for many, a life in lockdown has proved distinctly unsettling. Surreal moments, like the wearing of masks outside the home or mobile phones with QR codes to gain access to public places, suddenly seem normal. And the return to normality, like the re-opening of shops, bars and restaurants, feels strangely surreal.

Around the world the pandemic has triggered a wave of social experiments – a petri-dish of new ways of living and working on a vast scale. What is the future of money when over recent months we have moved to a largely cashless economy? What is the future of the office when, courtesy of Zoom and Microsoft Teams, we have been working remotely from home? (Is the notion of piling thousands of people into expensive office space a thing of the past?). What is the future of the high street or shopping mall when consumption has suddenly shifted online? (Amazon hired an extra two hundred thousand workers during the crisis when the majority of businesses have been furloughing their staff).

Faced with radical uncertainty, we are thinking more and more about what the recovery might look like. Two questions leap out. In debt-laden economies, who pays the bills? And, with waves of redundancies, how do we get people back to work? Government spending as a consequence of Covid-19 is higher than during the Global Financial Crisis. A mixture of job retention schemes, tax breaks, and emergency lending have been deployed to keep companies afloat. But solving a health problem has created an economic problem, the likes of which the majority of us have never experienced before. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have even compared the impending contraction or recession with the Great Depression of 1929-31 or the Great Frost of 1706. The World Trade Organization (WTO) says Covid-19 will depress word trade by up to one third in 2020. If this is true, the pandemic will be far more devastating than the financial panic of 2008.

Redefining the global economy   

As countries open up at different speeds and with different priorities, how is the pandemic set to redefine the global economy?  Digital-savvy firms have so far emerged as the winners. Netflix – the streaming giant – has added 15 million subscribers. iQIYI has seen a 23% increase in the number of its subscribers compared with the same period last year, reaching a total of nearly 120 million subscribers during lockdown. Will the primary effect of the pandemic be to haul us into a future where our work and relationships are shaped by new technology? The world was already moving very fast in this direction before this crisis. Machines and software were analysing, optimising, customising, and automating. We have at our disposal more advanced technology than ever. Will new tech be the thing that gets us back on our feet in a post-Coronavirus world? If so, which are the right technologies to invest in for economic recovery and for societal resilience against future shocks?

Pre-Covid-19 the data and digital revolution was begging the question, what is the economy of tomorrow into which governments should be helping their citizens to move?

During the crisis we are asking, what is the potential of new digital tech to help us navigate the strange years that lie ahead? And, by the same token, what are its limits? If there is a sector of our economies that has brought into sharp relief the contours of what the “new normal” may look like it is the cultural and creative industries. On the one hand, Covid-19 represents an unprecedented blow to our culture. Back in March the doors closed on theatres, galleries, museums, libraries and concert halls. They are not expected to re-open before the autumn, perhaps much later. Some may never reopen. None will survive without help. Productions have skidded to a halt. Tours have been rescheduled. Festivals cancelled. Many organisations have had to furlough as many as 90% of their staff. Panic in some capital cities has set in.

On the other hand, we have witnessed an unprecedented expansion of livestreaming, digital offerings and online content from many of the world’s leading cultural institutions. We can now see at the click of a button the many treasures they have to offer. Meanwhile games, video and subscription video on demand, and digital and recorded music have seen positive revenue and audience growth, and are operating at 95% + productivity under remote working. The computer gaming industry especially has enjoyed a boom since governments ordered citizens to stay at home. Amidst Covid-scarred stock markets the value of the video games sector has climbed. During a period of enforced isolation players have sought refuge in the feeling of engagement and the building of online friendships provided by games. In China the mobile game “Combat of Hero”, produced by Bytedance, became the most downloaded free iOS title in Japan for four consecutive days in March.

Blurring the boundaries

Aardman’s iconic duo, Wallace and Gromit will feature in their first Augmented Reality adventure, The Big Fix Up

New models for performance have been created while venues remain closed. The boundaries between gaming, TV, film and even live performance are blurring. Some parts of the cultural and entertainment sectors have shown themselves remarkably responsive to this trend. Aardman Animation’s “The Big Fix Up” brings the ever-popular characters of Wallace and Gromit to mobile devices. Combining humour and drama with home- and location-based experiences together with the playability of a game, “The Big Fix Up” is turning passive observers of a screen-based story into active participants. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Dream 2020” uses the latest motion capture and the computer gaming technologies to deliver a wholly new interpretation of Shakespeare and an entirely new global channel for live theatre. And the V&A’s new virtual exhibition, “Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk”, gives a tangible sense of the rich and dynamic history of this exquisitely beautiful Japanese garment through carefully curated video tours.

These real-time, responsive, spatially immersive experiences perhaps point the way to the audience of the future. Indeed, at first sight it may seem the world was actively conspiring for us to be at home over the last 20 years – letters replaced by email, visits to the shop by online ordering, a night at a concert by the streaming of music via our smartphone. But not all analogue or traditional forms of culture have been able to – or wanted – to migrate to tech-enabled platforms. New digital tech may have allowed major cultural institutions to keep up contact with their audiences, yet artists are chaffing at its constraints. Over the last few months we have discovered the digital world to be an amazing resource to sharpen our appetite for live events; even so, it is often a poor substitute for them. Online may amplify and extend cultural experiences in all sorts of ways, but it isn’t an alternative.

Live performance is distinctive. No two performances – or audiences — are ever quite the same. For many types of performance online is also intrinsically less satisfying. When we are together in a cinema or theatre we watch a group of people telling a story. But we are also part of a group of people receiving that story. When we sit in a concert hall singing aloud to a song we enjoy a sense of congregation that the internet can’t provide. When we go to a literary festival (rapidly mushrooming over the last decade) we love to have access to the authors. In each case it’s the human contact and collective experience we crave. A socially-distanced world just isn’t compatible with full-scale live performance. In some parts of China theatres have opened with strict limits on the number of seats per show. But if ticket prices have to be inflated to make up for reduced capacity in venues what impact will this have on widening access to the arts?

A balancing act

And herein lies the problem: many of our cultural institutions expect to be among the last to safely re-open on the long journey out of lockdown. Take New York, for example. The virus has plunged the city into the most dire financial crisis for a generation. Nearly one million people have lost their jobs since February. Broadway, the symbol of the Big Apple, was enjoying an extended boom on the eve of the crisis. Last year its shows grossed $1.8 billion with 14.6 million patrons. Income abruptly went to zero with lockdown. The theatre community has been devastated and has no idea of when a comeback will be attempted. Opening doors in packed venues too early risks triggering a second wave of the pandemic. And people may prove reluctant to return to their old routines after weeks of being told to stay at home and shun public transport. The “fear factor” will have to recede to get shows back on the road. Early signals suggest people are wary of crowded districts and large-scale gatherings – though attitudes vary considerably between age groups. An older demographic relied on by parts of the arts to make up audiences is the most uneasy about the end of confinement. Younger people seem more open to booking for events happening in the next few months.

The costs of the shutdown have, however, disproportionately affected the young. There are more young people now than at any time in history – 1.8 billion between the ages of 10 and 24. Entering the crisis, intergenerational inequality was a big issue. A 2018 survey revealed youth unemployment to be the biggest issue for nine out of every ten Ministers of Labour. Those in their late teens and early twenties are more likely than any other age group to have lost their jobs during the pandemic and are most at risk of having their careers scarred.

What is the economy of tomorrow in which these young people can achieve sustainable jobs and lead meaningful and purposeful lives? Will the price of nursing our economies back to health be to produce greater inequalities between old and young? Around the world the digital and experience economies are rapidly expanding, and, at their intersection, many new jobs are being created for those under the age of 30. What will happen to the up and coming generation of actors, artists, comedians, dancers, musicians, and writers who are waiting to play and perform, to exhibit and tour, and to engage again with live audiences? Government rescue packages, if forthcoming, may provide a bridge of sorts beyond lockdown to dry land on the other side. State stimulus alone is unlikely, however, to provide the whole answer. If humanity’s desire to be together is to be part of the new normal, governments will have to hit the reset button in other ways.

As fiscal efforts switch from employment support to different types of intervention, governments will need to re-examine what takes precedence. A defining characteristic of the Covid-19 is its differential impact and just how variably the pandemic’s effects have been felt. The way we entered this crisis, especially the design of lockdown, has hit some sectors particularly hard: travel and tourism, events and conferences, and the arts and cultural sector. Exit strategies must take this into account. What, in practice, does that mean? Publicly-funded R&D is widely recognised to have a key role to play in bringing economies out of hibernation. Investing in the arts and humanities is already driving forward innovation in new digital technologies and the cultural content upon which they depend. Emerging from this crisis there will be a ladder of learning as regards what has worked culturally in the digital sphere and why. There are big questions here. What are the advantages to being born-digital? How to get digital to pay enough to allow artists to live? Can we get people past the idea that online is free? What global scale of business is required to make the necessary investments in online?  

Health research should also play its part in getting creative organisations back on their feet. The scientific community sprang into action at the start of the crisis to enhance our knowledge of the spread of the virus and the causes of the disease. Yet we still don’t know enough about how the virus transmits. Take, for example, the question of “super transmitters” and the tracing of clusters of infection rather than infected individuals. More granular epidemiology modelling could help us to better understand transmission in situations where people are spending extended time together – the existing data on these higher risk settings is limited. Such modelling may reveal some types of activity have been spreading the virus without us knowing. Scientific knowledge bent towards the safety of human concourse and harnessed to economic and cultural ends.

Restoring public confidence

The UK’s “After the Interval” survey, conducted in April and May, highlighted that restoring public confidence is vital. Missing the buzz of a live event does not equate to a willingness to go back to them. What could be done to speed up the resumption of regular performance and the return to venues? South Korea, widely regarded among the most advanced in contact tracking and tracing, records exactly where people sit in cinemas and theatres. Although more of a control than preventive measure, the gathering of such data may help to get back to full-scale performing sooner than otherwise expected.  

All of the countries opening back up are engaged in vast and dangerous experiments with multiple trade-offs involved. The vaccine cavalry is unlikely to ride to the rescue for some time. Until then we remain stuck in a curious limbo. We may well be living with this virus for several years before it dies out. How different will the economy that returns be to the one that just closed? There is rightly much talk of the green economy reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities. As the Nobel prize winner, Paul Krugman, has recently reminded us, the economy’s purpose is not simply to generate incomes to let people buy things but to improve the quality of life. In the post-pandemic recovery, prioritising the cultural sector and the creative industries is a matter of lives as well as livelihoods. During this crisis we have fallen back on culture for comfort and consolation, to help us see beyond the times in which we live, and to keep alive the values that make us human. If tough policy and spending choices are to be made, we would do well to keep that firmly in mind.      

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