What we should have learnt from lockdown

Before we start, let me preface this with the certainty of knowing we’ve had a torrid time. People have died, livelihoods lost, businesses have failed, mental wellness has suffered and a lot of money has been lost both now and in the future in our pension plans.

That said, we’ve had a lot of good things happen, and it’s important to realise this – and wonder why we weren’t able to enjoy this during normal times:

  • Quieter roads and neighbourhoods The island’s roads have been almost deserted. The silence was marked. We could actually hear birds. Air quality was improved.
  • Free music from Indie discos to 24 hour house music marathons Although the underlying reasons are deeply concerning, particularly regarding the survival of venues and sustenance of music professionals, the availability of free music has been astonishing. That availability has been converted to financial aid in the form of donations. A recent 24-hour DJ marathon by United We Stream raised over £100,00 and attracted over 4 million visitors.
  • Realisation that art forms a real benefit to our well-being From free music from music stars and DJs to major releases that would otherwise be trapped in cinemas going straight into people’s homes, the industry has reacted to consumers’ needs and people have realised that art (music, film or drama) can provide immense benefit to one’s mental wellbeing and forms a vital role in society.
  • A realisation we don’t need to be in an office to work Every morning, thousands of people head off in their car to central business districts to be in the same room. The costs to the planet are immense in terms of travel, power, air conditioning requirements and compromise to formerly green areas. Although co-location has massive benefits, we saw that it isn’t needed.
  • Support networks being established, reconnecting with our neighbours Back in the day, we used to know our neighbours. We were concerned if we didn’t see them for a few days. During lockdown, we were helping with shopping, keeping in contact and reconnecting with the older generations.
  • A material decline in CO2 emissions We’ve seen a marked reduction in CO2 across the globe, which is what we need to realise for climate disaster to be averted.
  • Reduction in use of cash A lot of businesses started to accept cards and the contactless limit was increased to £45. This will hopefully increase the speed of acceptance of cards and reduce the friction merchants needed to go through to have their own card payment options.

What can we learn?

It would be nice to think we can develop these lessons instead of picking up where we left off.

  • Quieter roads and neighbourhoods The change for the island’s road was transformative. Suddenly they became safe. It became easier to recognise true trunk routes for traffic and those that became trunk routes through laziness of drivers from going round the block. Neighbourhoods divided by roads can become one again, by reducing traffic flow. Our children could play out again (were they allowed to).
  • Recognise the arts It’s easy to forget the value of the arts, but we’ve all collapsed in front of Netflix (or whatever) after a day at work. Music plays an integral part in helping our mental wellness. We’ve all got favourite tunes that “lift us up”. Both we as consumers and the publishers need to realise that the landscape has changed. Streaming has to benefit both the consumer and the artist. Studios need to publish their content into the home. There is still a place for cinemas, but their role will inevitably change away from the box-multiplexes we’ve suffered of late.
  • Reliable and robust internet During lockdown I had to ask my family not to use the internet for streaming. This despite supposedly having silly expensive broadband which is shocking in quality and reliability. The internet can replace cars, offices and anachronistic business practices if it’s invested into. Roll out of fibre is an excellent first step but this has to be universal and affordable.
  • Be human We were suddenly all facing the same problem: how to stay safe. We were facing the same problems before (how to pay the mortgage, what food to buy, how to educate our kids, etc.) but somehow we didn’t recognise our mutual struggle. Let’s build on our new relationships and respect for each other, including those working to help you such as shelf stackers, etc. Tesco employees were just as essential as NHS nurses in the shakedown.
  • Use this time to build on our sacrifices and get CO2 down We sacrificed a lot during lockdown, not least of which was our ability/right to individually contribute poisonous gases into the air within a metal and plastic box because we didn’t want to walk. Our relationship with food stores changed, suddenly they started coming to us. It was the bus equivalent for food: One van to many people instead of many cars to one shop. But, the drop we saw above is already being reverted by countries on their way out of their own lockdown, for example, China. The curve is on the way back up.

There’s a lot of Socialist ethos in my ideas, and I am no Socialist. However, I recognise that the free market has created a lot of insular selfishness within people and a more egalitarian structure to society, with climate as a driver, could offer real benefits. If it took a global pandemic to get here, so be it. It should be easy:

  • Replace cars with more public transport, more buses, more frequent
  • Increased home delivery options from food upwards, but we need to address the Amazon problem
  • Reduced global travel and holidays, staycations are perfectly fine
  • Focus on local where possible, buy local, stay local, recirculate money

I know I’ve been exceptionally lucky, I have friends and family who have supported me and my family and been considerate in our support for them, where we can. Everyone’s struggle is different and personal. The New Year is just an arbitrary point in a solar calendar, but it is a line in the sand that we can look forward from. So long as the authorities don’t screw it up and people don’t get daft,

Amazon are evil, and you’re letting them be

Which tech. company has the biggest impact on our lives? Twitter? Meh, it’s now passé. Facebook? Full of … well, people. Google? It gets you to where you’re going, be it via their Search or Maps. All of the above trade in your data. The biggest risk is your reputation or a surprise Trump election (which hasn’t actually been as bad as we’d thought). Amazon, on the other hand, has real implications on our economy, and we’re allowing it to get more powerful.

Dishonest Customer Service

Their Customer Service is dishonest. Twice I’ve been promised recompense, twice nothing, they’re more keen on getting positive feedback for individual representatives. It makes you wonder where their priorities lie. By measuring the satisfaction with their overly-friendly reps, they’re not actually measuring the effectiveness of their reps. The way to solve this is to ask 5 days or so after contact for feedback, not immediately afterwards, with the representative almost pleading for a positive review as they close the call.

Gig economy to reduce costs

Everything about Amazon is cost. By shaving where they can and investing in what at first appearance looks like ridiculous technology (such as using drones to deliver, starting their own delivery infrastructure) As part of this, they use the gig economy courier Hermes. Hermes themselves save costs by not employing the same level of professional as other couriers. They don’t need that lower layer of distribution. They rely on the gig economy, unprofessional couriers in your area who use their own vehicles and time to meet that last leg of delivery. These people don’t have the same level of checks or rights as an employee. They are measured on successful deliveries, but this is not necessarily guaranteed. Our delivery agent deliberately marks packages as delivered when they haven’t. These people are essentially uncontactable when you miss a package or need to query something, because there is no “hub” or depot you can contact. No accountability.

Aggressive competition

I’m a believer in free market economies and competition can drive prices down and quality/range of service/products up. This is doubtless the case with Amazon. To the point that it has become detrimental to not only those bricks-and-mortar stores that we’re used to hear about struggling (RIP Toys’r’Us and Maplin, hope you can make it Debenhams, John Lewis, Mothercare and the rest), but also other online retailers. Through their “Marketplace” strategy, smaller retailers can supply their goods through the larger Amazon site (saving a tonne in hosting, development, maintenance, security), which is brilliant. Except the terms of that agreement is that retailers often cannot compete with their own position on the Amazon store, resulting in traffic to their own sites declining. It’s now too easy to “Click Once” on Amazon.

My purchases over these last couple of months have been from the retailers themselves, rather than via Amazon. For a few moments extra time to research, it is possible to find the same products with an improved level of attention to customer service. It’s almost embarrassing as a consumer, having follow-ups and almost-pleading messaging on sites to keep you and have you return. So far, I cannot say I’ve had a negative experience.

Overbearing employer

The plight of Amazon workers is well documented. Their rights are minimal, their satisfaction around the same. Huge warehouses with awesome technology looks good, but there is inevitably the need for humans to pick, package and post items. The rights of a worker even reportedly impinges on basic bathroom breaks. Now, they want to track their employees hand movements. Workers also avoid going to the bathroom. This race to the bottom for employees and their rights inevitably means there will be redundancies.

Prime: Pay to Pay

Amazon have managed to create a scheme whereby you pay a subscription to get benefits such as quicker/cheaper postage, films and music streamed, access to e-books, etc. A lot of benefits, for sure. Look deeper and you find it’s not that good a deal. So what if you have to wait an extra day for your package? So what if it costs slightly more, just batch your order. Try finding a film on Amazon Prime, you’ll probably have to pay for it (again). That’s right, you’ve paid £7 a month to pay another £6 for Office Space. Just pay the £7 for the BluRay and keep it. (You know, because they can withdraw that title at any time they like even after you’ve bought/rented it). Work it out. £7 a month is the same as a BluRay/DVD a month you get to keep. They have become so arrogant that they’re willing to lose sales by limiting accessibility to actual disc content to Prime subscribers. Then we get to the confusion between Amazon Prime Music and Amazon Music Unlimited.


Only 5 years ago, if you’d have been offered a gadget that listens to every word you say and now even has a camera next to your bed, you’d express concern. Apparently, not now. We are definitely in a data economy, whereby companies are competing for our data. Now we are paying money to put gadgets into our homes to give these companies even more data. What is the real benefit here? A few gimmicks such as “Daily briefing” or home automations are less than convincing. It’s not even particularly good, with requirement to use “trigger phrases” and structured questions so we’re still a long way away from natural language recognition. Every demo I’ve had of Alexa has ended up with failed requests and frustration.

Jeff Bezos is now approaching richest man status and is literally going to go to space on your money. From what was a really useful source for text books at university has turned into the default choice for sourcing and buying products. It is globalisation on a micro-scale. Bricks-and-mortar stores, other online retailers and employees have already started to accept their loss. They’ve used supposed competition to build out the infrastructure but who ultimately suffers? You, the consumer. The fact you haven’t realised it yet is a bonus.

Placebos: why are we not using them as a first-step treatment?

Drugs in containersThe BBC’s Horizon programme is always a fascinating insight into science and the recent programme about the power of placebos was no exception. A placebo is a treatment or drug that attempts to address symptoms of conditions or improve performance, but with no active ingredients or processes. The key is to convince the taker of the placebo that the placebo is a genuine drug or procedure.

The programme had a number of powerful demonstrations of the power of placebos. Cyclists were able to improve their performance, the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease were significantly reduced and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome were also reduced.

This reminded me of a weakness in the medical establishment, that of research-based medicine. You’d think doctors were scientists who prescribe based on scientific results. You’d be wrong. The medical establishment is alleged to shun scientific analysis and misrepresents medical research data. Ben Goldacre argues even an optimistic proportion of medical treatment would add up to only 50%-80% of treatments being evidence-based according to speciality. Hopefully your treatment will be one of them.

This is why I was pleasantly surprised by the example of a doctor that changed a surgical procedure he had practiced for 15 years for a placebo procedure. The randomised selection of patients experienced a ‘fake’ procedure, including a script-based performance by surgeons. There was no statistically significant difference in the pain relief experienced by patients. Another doctor prescribed a placebo as an alternative to a drug course for Parkinson’s disease with similarly positive results. Test patients were able to experience life as someone without the condition. Placebos rely on the body’s own pain relief mechanism, favouring natural over intervention.

If placebos are so effective, why aren’t doctors prescribing them? Doctors are over prescribing drugs. Anti-biotics are at a critical point due to over prescribing by doctors. Conditions such as depression and autism are treated with cocktails designed to interact with our brains at a chemical – and unnatural – level.

In my opinion, patients should perhaps be prescribed a placebo in the first instance for certain conditions. I don’t want to question the legitimacy of psychological illnesses such as depression, but I am a strong believer in self-help as a first step to treating anxiety, depression and other such illnesses. Meditation has been proven as an effective treatment for anxiety and depression; an effective treatment that is free. Counselling and hypnosis are also valid and effective treatments. (How a doctor can prescribe anti-depressants without counselling is beyond me.) In the absence of GPs prescribing “self-help” such as meditation, perhaps placebos could be used. A placebo could be prescribed as a first stage drug for patients. Studies have shown positive results for depression, so I believe this could be a positive first step for patients unwilling to “self-help”. Perhaps they could experience the same benefits but not subject themselves (and those around them) to the effects of aggressive anti-depressives.

Of course, wider access to placebos will intrinsically reduce their effectiveness as people start to “grow wise” to the practice, reducing the effect of the placebo. Again, the Horizon episode suprised me even here. Patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome were prescribed placebos and were told so. They were told although the drug was a placebo, perhaps her own body would help her condition. Yet again, placebos were identified as being effective in reducing symptoms whilst the drug was taken.

Perhaps one reason why the medical establishment are not looking to natural methods or placebos as an opportunity to help patients rely on their own healing capabilities is due to the influence of pharmaceuticals. Your GP is the interface between you and a catalogue of expensive drugs, paid for by a state body which can achieve economies of scale for bulk purchase, satisfying the pharmas’ desire for profit. Your busy GP has to get through their patients for the day whilst personally addressing each and every patient’s concerns. It is easy to appreciate how drugs can be turned to as a “quick fix” for patients, helped by marketing departments of the pharmaceuticals who – whilst they cannot offer much more than a mousemat to help them sell their drugs – exert real influence on doctors’ routes of treatment.