By Edna dos Santos-Duisenberg
After a century, the world population faced a new pandemic that fast spread globally, affecting individuals both physically and mentally. Covid-19 started in late 2019 in Asia, spreading so fast that despite the global connectivity and highly sophisticated information technology and communication systems, the interconnected society of the 21st century was incapable to fast react in order to avoid contagion and prevent the worst. Gradually, the pandemic is making a tour around the globe contaminating citizens even in rural communities from all continents. Worldwide, there have been 32 million confirmed cases with over 1 million deaths during the first 9 months of this year.
From this universal pandemic we learned that the interdependent globalized world of 2020 is connected but not synchronized – or as earlier in crisis, prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic well-noted ‘world on autopilot’. All scientific, technological and digital knowledge accumulated over centuries remains inept to protect our civilization from an invisible virus that, ironically, can be eliminated with just soap and water. Obviously, the magnitude and the economic, social and cultural impact of this pandemic took humanity by surprise.
Society was already undergoing a deep process of transformation on all fronts. Debates were focused on the fragility of democracy, climate change and sustainability, inequality and inclusion, gender and race, social media and fake news, virtual payments and crypto currencies, artificial intelligence and blockchain. Science, knowledge and technology were advancing at a fast rate in all fields including genetics, neuroscience and biotechnology. Nevertheless, health-care was not a top priority for public investments or national budgets. Yet, with the eruption of the pandemic, priorities had to be immediately revisited. A human-centred and inclusive approach became imperative in every corner of the planet. Incontestably, the 2020s is bringing irreversible disruptions.
Lockdown measures and social isolation deprived individuals of free movements, restricting social gatherings and citizen’s mobility. The home-office dismantled solid organizational structures of daily work conviviality. Closure of schools prevented children from accessing formal in-person education, creating a childcare crisis for working parents. Crowded metropolis became empty urban centres, no shopping, no restaurants and no city life. Cultural festivities and spaces such as theatres, cinemas, and museums had their activities suspended leaving artists, cultural and creative professionals as well as street-vendors out of jobs. Parks and sportive centres became inactive and international tourism ceased.
Conversely, family life became the heart of social order. Parents that were extremely busy with their jobs had to juggle between work and the education of their children. People became less egocentric and started showing more empathy with the needed ones. Solidarity has been manifested in donations and collective assistance by civil society. Companies engaged with social responsibility. Artists, cultural and creative workers were defied to work even harder at home to find new niches in the virtual domain. The confined society had to rediscover its ethical values, principles and priorities.
Free-time and leisure at present
Paradoxically, this shift in human behaviour brought us back to a theory of economics that emerged a century ago (Ruskin, 1900) “There is no wealth but life”. In this new-old context, free time, leisure, well-being and culture are closely associated. Usually, we use our free time to carry out activities that are not directly related to work, duties or domestic occupations. May be free time is an illusion because only in exceptional occasions our time is completely free. Leisure, however, is a subjective concept which varies depending on the society which we belong. It is connected with our participation in cultural life, reflecting the values and characteristics of a nation. Thus, it can be considered a human right according to the UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and in particular the International Convention on the Economic, Social and Cultural rights (1967).
Despite some divergent definitions of leisure there is convergence around three distinctions: (i) leisure as time; (ii) leisure as activity; and (iii) leisure as a state of mind. Firstly, it is defined as the constructive use of available time. Leisure as a variety of activities includes the practice of sports or actions related to intellectual and human development like reading, painting, gardening etc. and those can be leisure for ones and work for others. Understanding leisure as a state of mind is complex since it depends on individual perceptions about concepts such as freedom, motivation, competency etc. Certain skills can be considered leisure depending on the degree of satisfaction, emotion or happiness it causes. Yet, the most important is the possibility of free will.
Time available for leisure also varies according to cultural, social and even climate considerations. The notion of time can be different in Africa, Asia, Latin America or Europe. Usually people who live in areas of hot climate enjoy outdoor activities and sports while Nordic people whose habitat is in cold weather prefer indoors socialization and hobbies like playing chess, classic music etc. Social leisure embraces communitarian happenings such as going to the beach, practicing sports in a club etc. Behavioural studies indicate the benefits of social leisure for the well-being of individuals, self-esteem and cultural identity.
Moments of leisure are essential in all phases of our life. During childhood and adolescence most of our time is devoted to study and sports while at adulthood our time is mostly consumed with work and family. Indeed, it is at senior age that retired people generally have extra free time to enjoy cultural events, leisure and tourism. Globally people are living longer and a new age structure is taking shape: the young senior (65-74 years), the middle senior (75-84 years) and the older senior as from 85 years old. According to the United Nations, in 2018 for the first time in history, persons aged 65 years or over outnumbered children under age five. This partially explains the vast number of people in the group of risk requiring quarantine protection throughout the pandemic period.
Well-being and spirituality in pandemic times
During the pandemic, reflections about well-being and spirituality gained space in our minds. It is undeniable that the constraints brought about by lock-down measures and social distancing, offered us more free-time but very limited leisure options. We gained additional time to be closer to loved ones and to do things we like most at home. Enjoying family life, including eating and even cooking together became a shared pleasure and a new leisure style. Individuals had to optimize the quality of their temporarily sedentary lives.
Global pandemics affect our collective mental health. Given the prevailing health and economic insecurity, the focus of our attention has been on well-being, strengthening friendships, expanding social network, practicing solidarity, improving self-esteem as well as reflecting on spirituality and religion. Suddenly the exuberant society of 2020 is afraid of the unknown virus and its long-term harmful consequences on day-to-day life. Well-being and happiness became the essence of achievable goals.
People are emotionally fragile in this moment of anxiety. Individuals are suffering losses that will persist long after the pandemic will be over. Some feel stressed or depressed while others react by searching for relief in exercising, relaxation, meditation, yoga or mindfulness training. Individuals are finding new ways to overcome solitude and boost mental resilience. Current philosophical thinking (Harari, 2018) is reminding us that homo sapiens have bodies but technology is distancing us from our bodies.
Inspirational talks in likeminded groups have been helpful for reconnecting people dealing with an uncertain future. Social engagement and advocacy for health causes are used for promoting social change. Thus, besides upgrading healthcare systems and putting in place special measures for accelerating economic and cultural recovery, targeted governmental support will be needed to improve mental well-being and raise the overall level of satisfaction and happiness of citizens in the post-crisis.
Culture and e-learning nowadays
In a short period of time, many went from an exciting social and cultural lifestyle to a simple life. People had to assume the role of protagonists of their actions. Due to open-air limitations, free-time activities had to be less physically intensive (no bike, tennis, jogging etc.), and more creative-oriented such as designing, playing music, and writing. Much time has also been spent watching TV series, surfing the Internet, viewing live music concerts, video gaming, attending videoconferences as well as socializing in virtual chats. Equally, there are growing concerns about the ethics of consumer technology and internet addiction “time well spent” (Tristan, 2015).
A recent study carried out in the UK to track digital cultural consumption during the pandemic, indicates that the median time spent daily watching TV are 4 hours, while listening to music, watching films and playing video games each day are 3 hours respectively. Understanding human behaviour, in particular youth habits can help to indicate new cultural trends and consolidate social cohesion in post-pandemic times. Moreover, policy-makers could consider engaging cultural institutions and employing artists and creatives to help facilitate a collective healing process and kick-start recovery.
It is widely recognized that the arts, culture and creative sectors were hit hard by the pandemic. Whist digital cultural and creative products for home consumption were in high demand, others tangible creative goods like arts, crafts, and fashion and design products sharply contracted. Many artists and creatives had no option than to experiment on work in digital spaces, since they had to go global from home.
Despite the fact that 4.5 billion people (60% the global population) use Internet, the availability of affordable broadband access is a pre-condition to use and benefit from the opportunities provided by digital tools. This applies to both producers and consumers of cultural and creative digital content. Currently, videos account for 80-90% of global digital data circulation, but at the same time Latin America, the Middle East and Africa together represent only around 10% of world data traffic. This evidence points to digital asymmetries that are being aggravated. Creativity only is not enough to transform ideas into marketable creative goods or services if digital tools and infrastructure will not be available.
The pandemic also had a strong impact on education and learning. Re-thinking education was already a topic on the agenda of many countries in order to respond to the realities of the jobs market in the 2020s. Besides the need to adapt methodology and pedagogical practices, many believe it is necessary to bring an interdisciplinary and applied approach to curricula with focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), preferably also integrating arts (STEAM). In any case, the education system has been forced to quickly adjust to remote learning. Globally over 1.2 billion children are out of the classroom in 186 countries. In Latin America schools are closed and around 154 million children between the ages of 5 and 18 are at home instead of in class. Furthermore, access to school-related inputs is distributed in an unbalanced manner; wealthier students have access to internet and home-schooling while the poorer have not. Young people are losing months of learning and this will have long-lasting effects. The loss for human capital is enormous.
On the positive side, continuous e-learning became a trend and a necessity. Innovation and digital adaption gave rise to a wide-range of on-line courses. Millions of learners are upgrading their knowledge and skills in different domains through distance learning, whether through language and music apps, video conferences or software learning. Some are free others have to be paid for, but what is absolutely transformative is that access to knowledge became more democratic. Independently of age or field of interest, learners from different parts of the world can have access to prestigious universities or practical training. E-learning, where teaching is undertaken remotely and on digital platforms already existed, but demand has sharply increased during pandemic and this might be a point of no return.
Over these critical 9 months, there are growing signs that the 2020s will face a new set of challenges and life will not be back as usual. The future will be very different when compared to the recent past. Hope and fear are likely to co-exist for a certain time. There are new values, new lifestyles, new social behaviour, new consumption standards, and new ways of working and studying. The pandemic has imposed a deep ethical and moral re-assessment on society. This turning point is leading to a deep socio-economic renovation and hopefully to a more inclusive and sustainable society.
*Edna dos Santos-Duisenberg is an economist renowned for her pioneering work in research and international policies on creative economy and its development dimension. She set-up and leaded the UNCTAD Creative Economy Program launching the UN Creative Economy Reports (2008 and 2010). Advisor associated with the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). Member of the International Council of the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC, London) led by NESTA (UK National Endowment for Science, Technology and Arts). She also serves as Vice President of the International Federation of Internet and Multimedia (FIAM, Montreal). Advises governments and international institutions and collaborates with universities in Europe, Latin America, Asia and the United States.
 E. Dos Santos-Duisenberg (2013) – Tempo livre, lazer e economia criativa, Revista Inteligência Empresarial (37), Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil http://www.epapers.com.br/produtos.asp?codigo_produto=2455
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