Coronavirus

Let’s not bring back the worst of the old normal

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You’ve probably seen Dettol’s most recent adverts for TfL. Photos of them have spread like wildfire on social media, and they have been discussed endlessly in the advertising industry and beyond. And all for the wrong reasons. 

For anyone who isn’t aware of this astonishingly misguided attempt at brand consolidation, Dettol decided to release a series of adverts in London tube stations in partnership with TfL at the same time as rolling out more than 800 hand sanitiser units across the underground network. The adverts, initially mistaken for a government campaign after a cropped photo excluding the Dettol logo did the rounds on twitter, encourage travellers to disinfect their hands regularly so that life can go on as normal. Well, when I say life, the adverts reference only two things: commuting on the tube network and the daily routine of the office. 

One advert attempts to highlight the joys of ‘Minding the gap. Standing on the right again.’ and ‘Tapping out’, while another tries to remind us of the pleasures of ‘Taking a lift’, ‘Watercooler conversations’ and ‘Proper bands.’

Unsurprisingly, these adverts failed to instil any sort of enthusiasm for the office or commute in anyone, and probably dimmed people’s view of Dettol irreparably. 

The adverts coincide with the government’s big push to get office workers, many of whom have been doing their jobs (perfectly successfully) from home over the past few months, to return to offices and city centres. Yet only a few days later, it was announced that the government would be making social gatherings of more than six people illegal, with a few exemptions, including, notably, workplaces.

The back to the office spiel is already wearing thin amongst workers, and Dettol’s gung-ho adoption of this mantra has done the brand no favours. It is understandable that a government whose worldview is centred around capitalism and the cities that nurture it would want workers to go back into the office.  As Hettie O’Brien writes in The Guardian, private landlords and those who have invested in property stand to lose a lot should city centres see a drop in footfall. Rents in these areas will plummet, and many chain restaurants and cafes catering to city workers (and owned or invested in by wealthy individuals) will teeter on the brink of collapse. This is already happening, with chains like Pret a Manger (which depend on commuters and city workers) seeing sales plummet

We are now in a position where the government is trying to wrestle with a desire to restore life as it once was, and simultaneously follow the advice of health experts. Unfortunately, these attempts do not appear to be chiming well with the wider public. Scapegoating young people for passing on COVID-19 to elderly sections of the community might resonate with some sections of the population, but when coupled with all the contradictory government policies of the past few weeks, such a narrative does not hold much sway. Eat Out to Help out, the winding down of the furlough scheme, the lowering of VAT for hospitality businesses and, of course, the push to get workers back to offices. All these things betray the government’s anxiety to get us back to normal. And going forward, even though rules on socialising with different households are getting stricter, it does not look as though any of these hospitality businesses will see greater restrictions imposed upon them, except in local lockdown areas. 

The government has made its position clear – economic openness, economic normality, is of the greatest importance, even if social normality is not officially allowed to resume. 

But now that we have experienced a lockdown (and some areas of the UK have experienced more than one), perhaps the idea of total economic normality is not so appealing. The economy as it was before relied on the commute, and very often deprived workers of time to themselves. It made individualism and individual achievement central to success and failed to give us enough time or appreciation for our communities or families. With a rise in coronavirus cases, we know that the next few months are going to be tough for our mental health as a nation. We know that we may have to make sacrifices once more which could make us lonely or depressed. We may need to reevaluate the way we live – but this reevaluation cannot only take place in our homes, gardens and social spaces. Society and its economic pillars are not immutable. They shifted once when the pandemic first hit, and they can shift again – away from the old normal towards which they are slowly returning. Things like universal basic income, flexible working, working from home and community hubs – the pandemic heralded the first glimmer of these promises, and we cannot allow them to be taken away from us. So, as we brace ourselves for a tough winter ahead, let’s remember that things don’t have to be as they always have been. The government and the big corporations around us may want us to fall back into line – but we have seen that things can be better. Let’s hold onto that as our hope and demand going forward. 

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