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Finding some hope in the Covid-19 crisis

25 March 2020

The coronavirus infection count has skyrocketed and countries across the world have shut down cities. Even in New Zealand our "business as usual" is changing.

People have reacted to the crisis in a number of ways. Many people have been confronted with the constant stream of Covid-19 coronavirus updates will no doubt be scared of the virus and its effects. Others may be simply frustrated with onerous travel restrictions and event cancellations.

However, some have reacted to the crisis with positivity and hope. Last week, videos emerged from the streets of Italian cities where people were singing together from their apartment windows and balconies. One man in Rome explained that the joining in song was "a moment of joy in this moment of anxiety".

As the disease spreads and disruption continues, times will be hard but we will get through it.

This is not the first pandemic that has faced humanity and it most likely will not be the last. Indeed, history suggests society will change because of the crisis which may benefit generations to come.

The black plague outbreak of the 14th century was one of the most devastating pandemics throughout history, resulting in the deaths of up to 200 million people throughout Europe and Asia.

But the plague also resulted in a breakdown of the strict hereditary class divisions where lords relied on unpaid peasants to work on their land. As communities recovered, landowners were forced to renegotiate peasants' working arrangements and offer wages. Some historians even link the increased social mobility to the Renaissance.

Plague outbreaks continued for centuries after the Black Death, but life went on. For example, William Shakespeare wrote many of his plays during plague outbreaks in London that closed down theatres.

Similarly, Isaac Newton turned to private study when Trinity College, Cambridge, closed due to plague in 1665, and it was during this time he began to develop his theories of calculus, optics and gravity.

Even in recent times, outbreaks have been the source of technological advancement. The Sars pandemic of the early 2000s reportedly boosted internet usage among the Chinese population as they looked for connectivity, entertainment and sources of credible information.

It also resulted in a substantial boost to China's e-commerce sector as people stuck at home looked to shop online.

These outbreaks resulted in widespread tragedy and disruption, but through them all, people persevered and found ways to keep some kind of normality.

The Covid-19 outbreak is already resulting in some noticeable changes. Some commentators have raised that behavioural changes like social distancing and working from home will be reducing our carbon emissions, which could be a positive development in the fight against climate change.

It could also be the genesis for permanent change. Organisations may find remote working to be more efficient for their workplace, leading to permanent changes.

I wonder if the high-rise buildings in Queen St, Lambton Quay and central Christchurch will change? Will the workers of the future work from their home or from a cafe or from increasingly popular shared "co-working" work spaces?

If so, there will be a new employment jurisprudence to be developed. Employers owe a duty to employees to ensure their health and safety so far as is reasonably practicable.

How will this apply when entire workforces suddenly have to work from home and employees are making do with kitchen tables and outdated PCs?

What will this mean for confidentiality, data security and employee mental health?

These issues are largely untested by the courts, and employers will have to approach this new frontier with good faith and common sense.

Perhaps the most hopeful thing to come from this crisis is how we have mobilised as a global community.

Governments around the world have taken whatever action they can to attempt to curb the spread of the disease. While the fatality rate is low for those who are not in key risk groups, people from all groups across New Zealand and the world are doing what they can to prevent the death rate climbing.

For New Zealanders, the calm wise voice of director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield and daily Government guidance are priceless.

Stories of mobilisation have been overshadowed by tales of violence, chaos and toilet paper shortages. But I believe basic human decency and kindness are much more prevalent and we will find new ways of caring for each other and giving each other hope despite the passing calamity surrounding us.

Even in the worst of times, life goes on. It is likely in due course a vaccine will be found and this crisis will pass.

We must find hope in lessons we have learnt from the past, care for each other in the present and look towards how we may progress in the future.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm and Women's Refuge are partnering to bring your business an understanding of the effects of domestic violence and the new laws assisting victims of domestic violence at work. Contact us to discuss your needs.

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