BRUCE WHITFIELD: Lockdown lessons to keep (and those to shed, fast)
The past two long months of coronavirus isolation has shown us just how much we can do virtually, and now is the time to appreciate how we have adapted
As you dream of getting back to many of the things you miss, and as SA shifts to level 3 of its lockdown schedule, you need to understand that’s not going to happen properly until we get the biology of Covid-19 under control.
In the meantime it’s worth considering what you might have gained in the lockdown. Unlike the extra 5kg and 4cm around your waist (which are definitely worth shedding), you ought to figure out how you can retain some of the positives you gained as you were forced to rethink your priorities.
Data shows that air pollution levels have dropped, the rate of violent crime has fallen and road accident deaths are lower. But while you may be gagging for your favourite drive-through, a trip to your favourite beach, or simply a medium rare steak accompanied by an outrageously priced bottle of your favourite estate red – all cleaned up for you afterwards – appreciate for a moment how you have adapted over the past two long months.
What you do when you are liberated to make your own choices is entirely up to you. But try to keep some of the better new habits.
Interestingly, internet search data tells us what you have missed, and much of what has been getting you down.
Direct-order wine delivery sites are reporting being overwhelmed by demand. Customers have even paid upfront for delivery (to be made when it’s allowed), which will not only guarantee a replenishment of stocks but helps preserve a job-creating industry.
Before the lockdown, Takealot.com routinely found that TVs and laptops were at the top of their most sought items. They were briefly unseated by hand sanitiser, and searches are now more evenly spread across home entertainment options, with Lego, Xbox, PlayStation and gym equipment particularly in demand.
It suggests that online shoppers are looking beyond lockdown to a more home-based life, and want solutions to keep themselves isolated rather than a plan to exit the home immediately for entertainment.
Last week Takealot’s top sellers include Canon ink printer cartridges, SIM cards, printer paper, face shields and digital thermometers. There’s also been a rush on robotic vacuum cleaners, which suggests middle-class South Africans are finally learning just how hard housework can be.
Now here’s a list of some things I missed during the lockdown.
Church: No, not really. But if I say so, then I can call the fellow members of my cult, um, The Venerable members of the Quaff, to the Slug and Cabbage for a sing-song and fellowship, say three times a week. We are very committed.
We promise there will be no kissing or shaking of hands. That’s not why we’re there, after all. Rather, we’re there to, well … celebrate creation … mostly of grains, hops, barley and grapes. But their creation gives us meaning and purpose. That’ll fly, right?
Seriously though, if lockdown has done nothing else for you — it should have caused a little introspection.
Being productive: If anything, being in lockdown has been busier than ever and relentless in its demand for Zoom meetings, webinars and digital face-to-face interactions, compared with the quick on-the-run call that used to suffice as an engagement. Somehow we spend more time talking on screens than we do during a phone call.
Maybe it’s because we miss the variety of our human interactions, or perhaps it feels rude to be talking face-to-face and to keep it brief because we are conditioned that if someone has made the time to sit down with you, it’s rude to simply state your business and move on. With the likelihood of face-to-face meetings being deferred until a vaccine is developed, we need a new guidebook on digital etiquette.
But for those of us who hate small talk face-to-face, doing it digitally is doubly draining.
Certainty: Or the illusion of certainty, at least. That comes with having a fair idea of what is coming next. SA has never been a place where the word “certainty” can be used with any degree of, um, certainty. But we still operated in the belief that we were in control, however delusional that might have been. It was a comfortable place to be — but now we can’t even pretend anymore.
Freedom: Being in lockdown with only the briefest of masked escapes, either to the shops or for a hurried autumn walk in the narrow gap between sunrise and 9am, doesn’t exactly fuel the soul. Still, chances are that if you are seizing those moments of freedom, you’re more connected than ever with your ‘hood.
I have never felt more at home in my own suburb. I’ve even explored parts of it by bicycle, since the roads are now quiet enough to ride on. The fact that there are actual people on the streets gives the area a glorious sense of safety in numbers, which you don’t have normally.
Holidays: The joy of planning a holiday is almost as great as the holiday itself. Whether it’s to somewhere local or a long-haul change of scenery you dream of, there are few greater ways to reward yourself for surviving the slog. With so much uncertainty, and planning almost impossible to do, dreaming is still allowed, at least. So, plan your fantasy trip now, and prepare to execute the idea — if not this year, then next. Just do it.
Movies: Few things beat the buzz of a cinema on opening night of a blockbuster — but that might not be enough to save the business model from extinction.
The pre-lockdown movie experience was extortionate, as Nu Metro and Ster-Kinekor sought to compete with increasingly versatile home entertainment systems. With seats rivalling those in first-class air travel, massive screens and sound systems to match, Covid-19 might sound the death knell of the bioscope, just as TV put the drive-in out to pasture. As much fun as it is to crunch your way through an oversized box of popcorn and a flat Coke with little care for the mess you leave, film’s time has come and probably gone.
The decision to launch Trolls World Tour direct to streaming services shows Hollywood may not be as dependent on movie theatres as it might have believed it was. The movie made $100m in the first three weeks of its release through digital sales only. Sure, it had half the world’s children as a captive audience in lockdown, but increasingly, cash-strapped parents will be less inclined to take two kids, some friends and themselves out to a cinema for an experience unlikely to return much change from a R1,000 outlay.
Choice: I want to go where I want to go, when I want to go there. If it’s a meeting at a local coffee shop, or an after-work dinner to carry out an interview or pitch an idea — being able to do that when you want to do it, for as long as you want, with whom you want, and where you want, is something you’d long taken for granted.
Perhaps now you will be more selective in the meetings you choose to agree to. Rather than trekking halfway across town for half an hour you will choose to do the discussion digitally. Ironically, by our choices being restricted we have had the marvels of technology exposed to us.
Some meetings need to be face-to-face — but most simply do not. How often have you boarded the red-eye for a meeting in Durban or CT, done your business in half an hour and headed back on a lunchtime flight? That meeting takes a day out of your life.
People: Even those I don’t like. Turns out they are even more annoying over Zoom than in person, as they seek to justify their existence by dominating the digital platform. They’re the ones who can never get the angles right, and you end up having to look up their nose. They look shifty and supercilious all at the same time.
But somehow, being able to despise their presence in the room is more gratifying than the seething resentment you feel when they dominate the screen before you and you can’t look round the table to see who feels the same way as you. One of the biggest issues psychologists are picking up now is the loss of human interaction for everyone, from school-going age to the elderly in care homes, where visits are strictly regulated.
My hairdresser: For someone who has a pair of clippers taken to their balding scalp at least once a month, going for two months and counting, without the prospect of a haircut in the immediate future, is a fate almost as dreadful as the virus itself.
At some point I fear I may have to opt for Jabu Mabuza’s style manual, but will hat shops be open to cover the only DIY haircut I will manage — the chiskop?
Flying: I miss the mad last-minute dash to the airport using Waze to find a way through torturous traffic and making it by the skin of my teeth. I miss the Slow Lounge welcome and the reassuring whoosh of the cappuccino-maker as milk is frothed and merged with the inky extractions of the finest Arabica beans known to humanity.
Comair, which may survive its business rescue process, has closed down Slow. It was in trouble before the lockdown. Being shut simply hastened its demise. Pity – it was awesome. But as much as I miss the travel, the reality is that it’s time-consuming and, like most things, best taken in moderation. Lockdown has taught us just how much you can do virtually, and how much business travel is less necessary than it appeared.
Gaming the journey: There is something deeply satisfying in buying the cheapest possible ticket as far in advance as possible, checking in and strategically selecting a seat that’s most likely to have an empty middle seat, or one as close as possible to the front of the economy section to that you can be last on and first off the plane and first up the escalator while you simultaneously hail an Uber to make sure that by the time you get to the pick-up point your car is pulling up. Then you toss your single backpack onto the empty seat, remove the appropriate device and work diligently in the half-hour afforded to you by the fact that someone else is watching the traffic.
It’s adrenaline inducing, but also hugely overrated. True, there are few better rushes than the rare upgrade on an overbooked flight — but those days are behind us for now.
Routine: There’s a new schedule: it involves getting up at 5am and working like hell till way after dark. It’s like being on a treadmill, stuck in a mode that’s too fast to jump off. But you have probably noticed a new rhythm. While the first couple of weeks of remote working were a frenzy of high expectations, many companies are now telling staff that less is more. One executive I know has banned online meetings between 12pm and 1.30pm to encourage his staff to have meals with their families.
Still, I miss making cool lunchboxes for my kids at 5am and tea for Mrs W, leaving barely enough time to park before boarding yet another aircraft to another city for another presentation to an expectant room.
Live audiences: Engaging with remote audiences is a hell of a job. It’s so much easier when you are in a room with 10, 50 or 500 people. You scan the crowd, looking for those who are not warming to you, and seek to connect in a way that makes them realise that you may have something to say that they might want to hear. More than that, you want the feedback loop from those who are in the zone and totally attuned to what it is you have to say. They provide energy. There’s nothing that can replace that.
But it will come back — as will the maniacal travel, the deadlines and the traffic jams — and we’ll forget many of the lessons we learned while our choices were limited. It’s up to us which of those lessons we shed, and which we retain. Ironically, the removal of choice has broadened our choices. It’s the upside in the down.
* Whitfield’s new book, The Upside of Down, was released in March and is available in all bookshops