Will the world ever be quite the same once the coronaviris pandemic is over? STEPHEN LEWIS looks at some ways in which things might change - possibly for the better

MORE than one reader of The Press has commented recently about just how fresh the air has been in York since lockdown began.

That's hardly surprising. For the most part, the streets have been eerily empty of cars; train journeys have reduced; and the number of domestic and international flights has dropped to just a fraction of what it was only a few weeks ago.

Our behaviour has changed dramatically in other ways. Lockdown has seen a surge in homeworking, with offices left largely redundant. And we're all relying on digital communications and social media platforms to keep in touch with friends and family like never before.

The coronavirus pandemic has also thrown up other questions about the 'way we lived before'. It has highlighted, for example, just how vulnerable a country like Britain, which relies so much on imported food, medicines and even power, can be at a time of global crisis.

And it has also illustrated how important it is for nations to be able to work together to tackle a global crisis that goes beyond national borders.

We still don't know how long this lockdown will last. But once it is all over, will we remember some of the lessons we have learned? And if so might it - could it? - just change the world, possibly even in ways that make it better?

Here, we look at some possibilities...

The decline of the office

One thing the lockdown has already proved is that many of us - particularly those in office-based jobs - can work perfectly well from home. Modern digital systems enable us to work from our own front rooms, while remaining connected with colleagues through online company systems. Video conferencing using software like Zoom or Microsoft Teams is surprisingly easy.

So will we all need to return to the office once this is over - or will all that office space become redundant?

A York-based expert on international relations and politics, who wanted to remain antonymous, thinks that we might well be seeing the beginning of a long-term change in working patterns. "Lots of people are questioning the pros and cons of being in an office," he said. "Will Aviva still in future need to have say 1600 people sitting in an office, or might it be more like 500, with the rest working at home?" We'll soon know...

The rise of social media

The lockdown has seen many of us - including some older people who were previously resistant - making use of modern technology like never before, says Mark Parvin, the boss of York-based IT firm Mark-IT Trading & Services.

"We are using our computers, tablets and smartphones to keep in touch with family and friends through the myriad of apps available," he says. "Whether it’s Facebook, Skype, Whatsapp or Snapchat, the internet and these programs have allowed us to enjoy each other’s company, even if it’s not quite the same as face-to-face."

Such programmes were already hugely popular amongst the younger generations before the lockdown. But will they continue to be more widely used by older people afterwards - and will we even see an explosion of new ways of communicating digitally as a result of the experience we're going through now?

Greg McGee, the boss of York gallery According to McGee who has long been a devoted user of social media, believes there is no real need to develop new technologies - the communications technology we have now has proved it is up to the job, he says.

But what he has seen changing since lockdown is the tone of the discussion on social media. Over the last ten years, he says, Twitter for example had become increasingly vicious and unpleasant. Hiding behind fake IDs, people used it to unleash all sorts of vitriol - including vicious parodies of other people's Twitter handles.

Part of the problem has been that many social media platforms also operate as 'echo chambers' - because we select the feeds to follow, we choose only those that reinforce out own views. Go down to the pub for a pint and you could find yourself chatting very happily to someone who has completely different political views to you, Greg says. That won't happen on Twitter.

But he has seen signs of that changing. Twitter, he says, is becoming 'less brutal'. He thinks that would perhaps have changed anyway. "You can't keep up that level of cynicism." But will it continue once we emerge from lockdown?

"I'm an optimistic guy," he says. "The virus has been a massive leveller and I think it has forced a retreat from all that." Let's hope so...

The environment

There is absolutely no doubt that the air all around the world has got cleaner since lockdown, confirms Professor James Lee, an atmospheric chemist who works at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science based at the University of York.

All across Europe, the levels of harmful nitrogen dioxide - a pollutant emitted as a result of transport - is down between 30-40 per cent. Carbon dioxide is less easy to measure, and there are more complex factors, but it is likely that that, too, will be down, though not as much, he says. "So the air is cleaner," Prof Lee said.

But will we maintain that? Prof Lee thinks there might be a short-term 'spike' in air pollutant emissions once lockdown ends and we all rush off to see friends or family. But he thinks that in the longer term, air quality will be noticeably better than it was before - partly because of home working, partly because he can't see international flights ever returning to pre-pandemic levels. Some airlines are going to be put out of business before the pandemic is over, he points out.

He believes it will be the widespread arrival of electric cars 10-15 years from now that will make the big difference, however. "But I think we're getting an interesting insight now into the way things will be in the future."

Dr Mark Roodhouse, a Reader in Modern History at the University of York, is less convinced. He believes people will 'make up for lost time' when the travel restrictions are lifted. "These changes are are likely temporary."

Some people will learn to consume less and emit less, he says. "It all depends how long the crisis lasts. The longer it lasts the more likely it is that habits will form." But the lessons of history suggest we will return to our love of travel, he believes.

There was a surge in overseas travel by Britons after the Second World War, when men who had seen a bit of the world during the war wanted to go back and see it again in peacetime. "When restrictions eased and money allowed, many people wanted to travel overseas again," he says. "If I were a betting man, I'd lay bets on a post-pandemic travel boom, first domestically and then internationally."

The global world order

The pandemic has highlighted how vulnerable we are to food shortages while we rely so heavily on imports.

So will we become more self-sufficient in future? And will there be an end to the process of 'globalisation'?

"In the food and farming sector there will be a renewed emphasis on ensuring continuity of supplies," says Dr Roodhouse. "The current crisis has revealed the precariousness of our 'just in time' supply chain. DEFRA will encourage store holding and may even encourage domestic producers to reduce import dependency."

And will nations around the world retreat into isolation from each-other as they become more self-sufficient?

Dr Roodhouse isn't sure. "This is finely balanced. We don't know whether America First, Britain First, China First, etc, will deliver the goods or not. If it fails, greater cooperation is likely."

The expert on international relations The Press consulted agrees with that. After the First World War, there was a general retreat into isolationism, he said - which ultimately led to the Second World War.

Once that second great war was over, however, the international consensus was very different. A host of international institutions were set up - the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, NATO, the World Health Organisation - in order to help regulate international relations and co-operation. One of those organisations - the WHO - has been playing a major part in co-ordinating the global response to the coronavirus.

The expert believes international institutions like these will if anything become more important in future. In the last decade or so there has been increasing scepticism about such organisations, he admitted. "But I believe cornavirus will act as a wake-up call. It has reinforced the fact that to deal with global problems you need a global response."