More than three months after we learned of the outbreak of the new coronavirus in Wuhan, China, the Japanese government has finally declared a state of emergency over the domestic infections of COVID-19. While the government says the measure is not a lockdown as carried out in other countries to contain the virus, with punishments for people who don’t stay home (except for essential tasks), it is expected that a majority of people will follow the government’ request.
What kind of opportunities does this “semi-lockdown” situation provide us? The following is my take based on the observations on how individuals, rather than society in general, followed the requests to stay home over the two weekends prior to the declaration of a state of emergency.
We are given an unprecedented opportunity to be on our own, making choices/decisions and taking actions. It is rather ironic that we have this freedom under the very restrictive environment of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of mid-March, the ratio of full-time regular company employees engaged in remote work/telework stood at 13 percent, according to a survey by Persol Research Institute. As of April 5, just a 13 percent decline in mobility trends for places of work was recorded by the Google Community Mobility Report. But the number of office workers who will do remote work from home is likely to increase now that the state of emergency has been declared.
Online meetings are increasing at a very rapid pace, and company workers are required to prepare for those meetings and participate from home. Some may be asked to file a daily report of their activities. When people work at home, however, they are not being directly “supervised” by their bosses and peers as when they are at the office.
The rest of the day is up to their own discretion and choices. They are “empowered” to decide how they spend their time instead of going to the office on crowded trains at a certain time each day and working through the day with others. As schools are closed, families spend much more time together at home and more decisions to juggle activities need to be made — some of them almost for the first time.
This newly acquired freedom to make choices will come with the opportunity to face the reality about ourselves. Parents with small children can make choices about trade-offs about how to divide house work such as cleaning, cooking and other chores with their spouses and decide how much time and how to spend time with their children, whose schools are closed. This is not an easy decision since the typical home is small in Tokyo. Fights and even domestic violence could increase if the parents become stressed out by the situation.
Apart from work-related and family-related activities, people are confronted with the question as to how to spend the time that has been freed-up by not commuting.
What kind of activities are we interested in? Do we just sit around and watch TV? Do we read books we bought but have not had time to read? According to a survey about how people spent time in mid-March, time spent on watching TV was highest at 44 percent, followed by exercise/reading at 17 percent.
Do we take online courses to learn new skills such as programming and/or foreign languages? Do we join seminars/workshops offered online? Do we try to learn more about how to use IT devices and apps so that we can expand our world beyond physical space? Do we start new activities such as drawing, playing music instruments, yoga and other exercise with the help of YouTube videos that give step by step instructions?
Or do we keep watching “depressing” news about COVID-19 and worry about the pandemic and the economy?
What do we do if we are avid sports fans who always watch live events such as football, soccer, baseball or tennis? We may ask ourselves, “What other things can I do to keep myself entertained and not depressed?
As the call for social distancing and the semi-lockdown continues for several weeks, the questions may change to “Are we disciplined enough to continue activities to keep our spirits high and motivated? “
Being physically restricted with the loss of “real” experience and “face-to-face contact” forces us to think what relationships and people we cherish. Do we try to communicate with friends we have lost touch with, or call elderly relatives? Each one of these actions require our own will to act.
Though we face many restrictions, we may find out what we really like, how we behave under serious conditions — disciplined or not — who are the people/relationships we value, and even the purpose of our lives. When you face the danger of losing your loved ones and even yourself to the pandemic, your priorities in life and purpose become clear.
Each one of us is given an almost infinite freedom and possibility to decide our own activities for ourselves. This is such a rare opportunity for many Japanese — who tend to follow the norm — to take control of their life, even for a part the day and just temporarily. This is a great occasion to find the reality of our own capabilities, motivations, interest and propensities.
We may see how narrow or wide our world has been. We may find that our own activities are limited to those with people we know through work, and not beyond. We may find that we do not have a diverse network of people outside of work.
We may find that we are not self-driven as we perceived ourselves to be, as we shy away from learning something new when left alone.
On the other hand, we may see ourselves with newly found interest in cultural activities such as music and art, as we are exposed to free live streaming of concerts, performing arts and online visits to the well-known museums throughout the world.
We may find new strengths within us, if we maintain high spirits and cheer up others during this hard time of “stay home” restrictions.
Some facts about ourselves may not be so positive and encouraging, but with the new discovery we can start doing something about it. The state of emergency declared by the government has given us a launching pad to start transforming ourselves. Let us use this opportunity to find out more about ourselves and move forward.
Yoko Ishikura is a professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University and is an independent consultant in the area of global strategy, competitiveness and global talent. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Expert Network.
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