Goa: Cancelled flights. Crackdown on trade in wild animals. Mount Everest closed to climbers. Early impact in developed, high-consumption countries. Even earlier impact in China, which supplies these high-consumption societies. The Covid-19 virus seems designed to deliver the agenda of the green movement.

This isn’t meant seriously, of course. While Covid-19 has reversed a common idea of viruses spreading from hot, poor, tropical areas to cooler, more affluent places, we still don’t know if this is just a quirk of its place of origin and the networks stretching from there, and also better detection systems in western countries.

It is quite possible, at the time of writing this, that the virus is moving, relatively undetected, soon to explode in tropical areas like India. And if the impact has fallen first on the relatively affluent areas, which moved quickly to curtail activities in an attempt to contain the virus, there is little doubt that the less affluent will be savagely affected, as layoffs ensue and send them falling, without the economic safety nets that the wealthy possess.

But the point is that, inadvertently and imperfectly, one effect of Covid-19 has been to deliver a number of things that the green movement has been advocating. Many of these, like the fall in flights, will be temporary, and changes in behaviour that take place under duress aren’t likely to be lasting. Marketers are probably already counting on a postpandemic boom in consumption to make up their current fall in business.

Yet some changes might last. China might now truly end the horrific trade in wildlife for consumption that seems to have caused the virus to jump to humans. This could be boosted by international pressure to give real teeth to the CITES convention that regulates trade in endangered plants and animals, with systems for monitoring and punitive actions for wildlife trade wherever it occurs, including India.

A year ago, Ogilvy & Mather vice chairman Rory Sutherland, who specialises in the application of behavioural economics and evolutionary psychology to advertising, wrote a column in the Spectator proposing an Institute of Underrated Technology.

Reset Switches for Societies

In the constant drive to reach higher technology standards, he pointed out, we often fail to make the best use of the technology we already have.

Sutherland argued that video-conferencing was one example: “If the internet had never been invented, but we had only invented video-conferencing, we would have regarded it as the crowning technological achievement of the age. Instead it came free with the internet, like a cheap toy stapled to the front of a magazine.” An atavistic attachment to face-to-face meetings, enabled by cheap and easy travel, stopped us using its full potential, Now, with millions told to stay at home and work remotely, and with conferences being cancelled across the world, there is obvious need to deliver on both these issues. If fear of contamination by Covid-19 can push us to use video-conferencing more effectively, and also push mobile companies to invest in high-quality audio delivery, it will show how, for all the horror they cause, pandemics can also lead to positive change.

Pandemics have functioned as reset switches for societies, forcing changes through the trauma and turmoil they bring. They have caused trading cities to lose and gain power (though studies show recovery usually happens in the following decades). They lead to shifts in manners and morals, as shown in Boccaccio’s Decameron, a startling collection of stories written in the 14th century, in a fictional setting where a group of young people have moved to a villa outside Florence to escape bubonic plague and entertain themselves by telling ribald tales. (Now, many must be doing the same, but with Netflix.) Most obviously, since the impact of most epidemics was felt strongest in urban centres, where infection could happen easily, it has led to the redesigning of cities. Leonardo da Vinci was inspired by the plague that hit Milan in 1484-85, killing a third of the city’s population, to imagine an ideal city designed to prevent the spread of infection. His vision of a multi-tiered city, with canals and underground layers for sanitation and transfer of goods, wasn’t achievable in his time, but it prefigures today’s metropolises with skyscrapers and underground tunnels for transport, sewage and communication networks.

One problem in tackling pandemics in earlier centuries was that, in the absence of an understanding of bacteria, viruses and transmission agents, people could only guess at the means to stop infections. John Snow, an English physician in the early 19th century, was one of the first to make a breakthrough when he tracked the spread of a cholera epidemic in London, interviewing the afflicted and connecting their stories till he found a possible focus in a water pump in one street, which was later shown to be contaminated with a sewage pit.

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