Post pandemic visions: how realistic are they? Reflection by Dr Zahid Parvez

Will our society and world change fundamentally after the pandemic is over or will things return back to normal? A range of views are emerging and so it is interesting to reflect on how realistic are the post-pandemic visions presented by thinkers and policymakers.
A cursory glance over the last few decades suggests that during periods of crisis or technological innovations, we tend to see the emergence of a range of utopian and dystopian visions of the future. In the context of this pandemic:

1. Some suggest our world is going to change for the better such as better work-life balance will emerge, working from home will be the new norm, end of 9-5pm working day, cleaner air due to less travel, and many other positive changes in business, economy, education, administration of justice, etc. So we have no choice but to embrace the change coming at us. e.g. we must go online, learn to work from home, and develop new skills for the networked society, etc.

2. Others argue that our world will change for the worse as we are likely to witness increasing social isolation, loneliness, undermining of workers’ rights in online environments, job insecurities, discrimination and reinforcement of inequalities, etc. So we must resist or exercise caution in embracing the change ideas - and that we need put in place policies to protect ourselves from the likely harms of them.

3. Still, others say please hang on and don't get too excited. They suggest something in between.

4. Some others caution us to be careful of both utopian and dystopian views and argue that very small fundamental changes are likely to occur because social change is normally managed through a controlled process of public deliberation and policymaking.

The drivers behind economic and social changes, and the emerging new technologies, all do indeed present us with new opportunities and possibilities. However, we can also be constrained by the proposed changes in certain ways. The extent to which we capture these opportunities is also dependent on how our embedded economic and political structures moderate and mediate the process of change.

The way crises and issues are framed do impact on how solutions for the future will be shaped and the direction society will take. So social change is very complex and is always less radical than the gurus want it to be.

New solutions, policies, and direction of a society is influenced by the way society frames issues, crises, and problems. It is clear that this pandemic was framed as a security issue, and proposed and accepted by the majority of society as a security issue. Thus, framing the issue as a national security threat, as terrorism and other issues were proposed and accepted as security issues in the past, alternatives views to the whole debate were cut out. This framing of the pandemic will, therefore, influence the direction a society takes in the post-pandemic period.

Whatever is our vision of the post-pandemic society and world, it is important that we are not passive spectators of change - but we make an effort and inform ourselves of what is likely to emerge, engage in the public debate to ensure issues are framed in a balanced way, and critically evaluate what is being proposed by our government and opinion formers. At the end of the day, we all want to be living in a world in which no one is socially or economically disadvantaged or live in fear and anxiety about the future.

In the context of higher education, again we are seeing both utopian and dystopian visions emerging. The dominant approach agreed by society (e.g. lockdown, social distancing, hand washing, etc.) to protect itself from the virus also impacted the short-term strategies employed by higher education institutions. The coronavirus was primarily viewed as a security concern and hence the need for taking emergency measures to protect staff and students (e.g. by moving to e-learning modes and working from homes). However, this dominant concern undermined the discussion of the value of education in the debate. Moving forward, there does need to be a greater public deliberation on numerous issues such as how quality and standards of education are assured in online environments, quality of students support, whether online learning environments would enable access to education to all or would it reinforce or perpetuate structural inequalities of class and education support, etc.

Dr Zahid Parvez
Markfield Institute