Thursday. 27/8/2020

The Monocle Minute

Opinion / Tyler Brûlé

Enough is enough

Over the coming days, many in the northern hemisphere will be shaking off the sand, shuttering summer houses and preparing for the great race to the year’s end. Or will they? While many are hopeful that schools will reopen and parents can go back to work, that companies will loosen their work-from-home policies and there can be a return to desks – not all businesses and governments have the same ambitions. For months we’ve heard from CEOs, heads of state, senior ministers and assorted policy folk, all talking about the need to get the economy going while ensuring “safe” environments (“Is any environment truly safe?” I hear you ask.) But nearly half a year into this pandemic, our hard-won trust is being eroded, confidence sapped and fundamental rights stripped – yes, Australia, you’re starting to resemble some former Soviet-era state.

Since March, Monocle has been living a tale of two cities. In London one part of our team has had to endure slow government responses, confused messages from the cabinet, scare-mongering media and a nannying approach to managing the population. In Zürich it’s been rather freer, with the possibility to gather, travel, and work from offices, and a fast-track approach to reopening all parts of the economy and society. Like Sweden, the Swiss route has not been without risks but, so far, it’s managed well and has done a good job to keep citizens on side by pushing as hard as possible to keep daily life looking and feeling normal. Over the past few days, however, the mood has changed. The arrival of a mask rule in shops in Zürich (from today) is seen as a turning point and has eroded confidence in all levels of government. From a previous position of being anti-mask (indeed, many in government are still against it and looking for clinical evidence about the necessity for use in shops) to now imposing the rule on shopkeepers, the formerly pragmatic Swiss approach is unravelling. It raises questions about why waiters don’t have to wear masks and why it’s OK to be in a busy restaurant without one. At the same time, quarantine roulette is becoming the new late-summer pastime as daily leaked government memos threaten more travel curbs for all corners of Europe and throw schedules into disarray. To be clear, this has to stop. Now.

Last week, Switzerland’s federal council took a “we need to live with the virus and move on” stance and it was met with positive nods up and down the country. The government in Bern now needs to come good on this. Other European capitals should follow with strong leadership and stop talking up a vaccine. As we heard from Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan on Monday, it’s time to settle in, adapt and move forward. Indeed, a vaccine might never come.

As the UK, Canada and the US head off on their big pre-autumn long weekender, the remaining French and Italians on the beaches fold up their loungers and the Bavarians wrap up their school holidays, we’ve assembled a few thoughts, provocations and truths on how we need to get things moving and rekindle what it means to have ambition, curiosity and optimism.

  1. We’re creatures of habit – we have good ones, we have bad ones and habits are hard to break. People need to socialise, interact and have fun. These are human traits that cannot be curbed indefinitely. Trust is already being eroded and, as one Swiss newspaper put it, “Adding mask rules is just a measure of last resort when governments have run out of ideas to show they’re acting responsibly.” Whatever happens next, the citizen needs to believe, not just adhere.

  2. Nothing adds up. When confronted with the absurd, all measures fall apart and are impossible to implement. “Please keep your distance in all walks of life but happy travelling in a packed TGV carriage.”

  3. Your company is not Google! Letting people work from home for over a year will not work for 99 per cent of companies or for society. Neighbourhoods will hollow out, property prices will plummet, the over-leveraged will default and on it goes. Having a five-year transition plan to “home office” working is one thing. Doing it overnight and then attempting to make it stick will fail.

  4. Fact: the pandemic saved the QR code. Hopefully a return to sanity will also kill it off as Perspex cubes that push you to download a menu are unlikely to be making much of a dent in curbing the virus. To this I would add the pepper grinder as well. I was recently told by a waitress at a fine hotel that I couldn’t have fresh ground pepper because of coronavirus. Really?

  5. Another fact: paper is not our enemy. That means that airlines, doctor’s offices and grand cafés should put magazines and newspapers back in circulation because paper is less likely than Perspex to retain the virus. I believe this because my doctor told me so. I have more faith in her than in the ever-changing roster of “experts” trotted out by governments.

  6. The imposition and abolition of quarantines that change daily across Europe make no sense. Why should the Swiss have a quarantine against Belgians and vice versa? If the infection rates are the same in both countries then it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference if you’re just as likely to get the virus in Ascona or Antwerp. And where is the leadership in this area? Is there not a Schengen executive who can explain that it’s problematic to shut national borders when regions are completely interlinked?

  7. Were you around in 1988? Remember Aids? Do you recall the fear and panic around the disease? We learned to live with it.

  8. Did you cross the street today? Did you manage to avoid the banana peel on the sidewalk? Did you overtake a car on the motorway at over 100km an hour? Life is full of risks. Yes, we work very hard to minimise them but being human comes with the thrill and threat of things going wrong. There might never be a vaccine (see above). We need to learn to live with it.

  9. If the WHO wants to redeem itself, it should pull Carla del Ponte (remember her?) out of retirement and start a special tribunal to put useless heads of state on trial for poor decision-making and zero leadership.

  10. Finally, let’s stop looking for silver linings and life-changing moments from this virus. Face it: not much good has come from these past six months. Yes, you might have lost a few kilos, discovered books, talked to your children and reacquainted yourself with extra features on the oven dial but we are not in a good place. So let’s accept that some positives have happened but we now need to pull ourselves together, find our groove and move forward. At speed.

Diplomacy / Europe

Quarantine games

France’s European affairs minister Clément Beaune was clear: “We will have a reciprocal measure so that our British friends do not close the border in one direction only.” His comments were in response to the UK’s decision to reimpose a quarantine on travellers coming from France (writes Christopher Cermak). But it’s such a bizarre concept.

Politicians claim that, when it comes to making decisions about which borders to close or leave open, they’re focusing on the science. Leaving aside for now the argument that borders themselves are not gatekeepers of the virus (better to introduce localised restrictions on cities or regions, which has been Germany’s approach by naming “risk areas” in Europe), does “reciprocity” have anything to do with health and science? Rather it resembles the language of diplomacy or trade: you recall my diplomat, I’ll recall yours; you tax my beef, I’ll tax your wine.

“The positive aspects of diplomatic reciprocities have been lost, such as ‘I trust your management of the pandemic, you trust mine’,” says Benno Zogg, senior researcher at ETH Zürich. “We should be working together to ensure that businesses or couples are not separated by a border.” And this tit-for-tat approach has terrible consequences for people’s jobs and mobility.

Society / Sweden

Positive outcome

Sweden’s lack of a lockdown has gained plenty of press since the start of the pandemic but most Swedes have been onboard with the decision to stay open more or less as usual (writes Liv Lewitschnik). The latest figures indicate that the country’s economy will emerge in better shape than most other European nations. Sweden’s GDP contracted 8.6 per cent in the second quarter of 2020, which compares favourably with the double-digit drops in Spain, France and Germany, for instance. A significant fall in the number of infections, intensive-care admissions and deaths over the summer (excluding a lamentably high death toll in care homes) also seem to validate the Swedish approach. And, aside from some physical distancing, schools are opening for the autumn term as normal. The crisis will undoubtedly leave its mark on the social and financial fabric of Sweden for years but most people are hopeful that the road to recovery looks less bumpy than was initially feared. Yet we wonder how many ministers from other nations have bothered to visit to assess the Swedish method of keeping a country open.

Aviation / Global

Test cases

Aviation industry reactions to the pandemic have ranged from the efficient and logical to the severe and pointless. But there are examples of good practice (writes Gabriel Leigh).

Iceland decided to open its borders early, allowing visitors to skip quarantine provided that they have a same-day negative test result on arrival. It has worked: flights and visitors have returned. After a small uptick in new infections, Iceland reintroduced quarantine but only for four to five days until a second negative test – a sensible response for a small island with attractions such as Skogafoss (pictured). Then there’s Jamaica, which is now doing risk assessments on travellers before departure and testing on arrival. Business travellers only need to quarantine for up to 48 hours – a negative test allows for daily outings to conduct meetings. These measures entail some inconvenience but they make it possible to move around when necessary.

The economic powers of the world – or Europe, at least – should come to an agreement to facilitate essential travel and standardise requirements. The Germans are attempting this, having set up testing centres at Frankfurt and Munich airports, with the option to officially tie a negative result to a connecting boarding pass. With the infrastructure in place, they’re imploring North American airports to follow suit and revive transatlantic travel. Will anyone listen?

Hospitality / Global

Lobby for change

Headlines about the hospitality industry have made for glum reading over the past few months but there are reasons to be hopeful (writes Josh Fehnert). Large and medium players are slating dates for delayed but long-planned openings. There’s Bulgari’s Rome homecoming, which will revamp a 1930s building by 2022, and Marriott’s latest Edition, overlooking the Tokyo Tower in Toranomon, opens this year. Then there’s the Sydell Group’s first Nomad property in the UK, an arresting new space in a former magistrate’s court by London’s Covent Garden, which will open in winter 2020.

Hotels are for the overnight crowd, of course, but they’re also agents of urban change that can revive neighbourhoods, provide jobs and create communities around them. While it’s good news that larger brands have the reserves to weather this storm, more could be done to accommodate the independents without the same cash reserves or much prospect of greeting guests in droves any time soon. They need something to tide them over. Keeping a healthy hotel industry will be a crucial pull for visitors when flights fill up again and the pandemic passes.

Monocle Films / Global

Monocle preview: September issue, 2020

Monocle’s September issue is chock-full of ideas on how to chart a new course for yourself and your business. We scoured the globe to find pockets of opportunity in a suppressed economy. Dive in to find out about the new entrepreneurial hotspots, why well-designed global HQs are here to stay and how media brands can stay nimble for their audience. We also lined up a few tasty stopovers along the way and a dashing selection of sports attire to keep you in shape. So get moving and order your copy here.


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