How coronavirus will change the way Australians live long after restrictions are lifted

As the world faces a long wait for a coronavirus vaccine, these sociologists and behavioural experts say Australians should prepare for a "new normal" rather than a return to life as we knew it.

A sign reminding residents and tourists of new social distancing rules at Manly Beach in Sydney.

A sign reminding residents and tourists of new social distancing rules at Manly Beach in Sydney. Source: Getty Images AsiaPac

It has now been seven weeks since the Australian government started restricting gatherings among its residents due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While Australians have been praised for taking the restrictions in their stride and successfully slowing the transmission of COVID-19, one question has remained at the forefront of people's minds: when will life go back to normal? 

A lone passenger exits at the deserted Circular Quay Station in the CBD in Sydney.
A lone passenger exits at the deserted Circular Quay Station in the CBD in Sydney. Source: AAP

The national cabinet is set to decide whether to lift restrictions on Friday to allow more people to return to the office and resume their social lives, but experts say some aspects of life in Australia will never be the same.

Is this the end of the workplace as we know it?

Hygiene and safety are now at the forefront of our minds, and experts say these new priorities will outlast COVID-19 itself.

University of Auckland organisational psychologist Rachel Morrison said crowded offices and shared desks are out, while flexible working from home arrangements will continue to rise.

“If we look at Hong Kong and Singapore after the SARS outbreak, it’s now just normal to wear a mask and it’s considered impolite to go outside without one, especially if you have a bit of a cold, so we might see some organisations making it policy to wear a mask in the workplace,” Associate Professor Rachel Morrison told SBS News.

“Organisations that do have a real requirement for on-site activity might adopt things like staggered shifts and expecting some workers to come in in what we would consider after hours so the same number of people can be on site within a 24 hour period.” 

Associate Professor Morrison said the ways colleagues interact will also change significantly, with once-normal behaviours now likely to be viewed as impolite. 

“The ways people conduct themselves at work will have to change, so I don’t think we will be shaking hands or kissing each other on the cheek or having close knit social functions at work where we are eating off the same plate,” she said.

“Another thing that will happen is the culture of soldiering on and turning up to work if you’re unwell is going to disappear - people do not want sick people to come to work if there’s the possibility they might have a deadly disease.” 

Will we be more united or further divided?

Experts say this could go either way.

University of Sydney fellow Marlee Bower, who researches loneliness and social inclusion, said the risk of problematic social habits becoming set in stone will become greater the longer the pandemic lasts.

An almost deserted George Street at 9am in Sydney.
An almost deserted George Street at 9am in Sydney. Source: AAP

“These could be things like seeing other people as potential carriers of infection rather than potential new friends, so there’s a real need to ensure we don’t carry on that unhealthy way of seeing other people,” she said.

“The longer people feel lonely, the more likely they are to have a maladaptive change in behaviour - where they will act in ways to protect themselves and start seeing threat or rejection from other people in interactions that might actually be benign.” 

On the other hand, Ms Bower said there is also evidence the pandemic has caused people to be more open with those closest to them.

“Loneliness has increased during the pandemic, but so has solidarity and the sense of a shared identity, and when you experience a shared threat or enemy you develop your own shared identity that can be really beneficial for your mental health,” she said.

“Generally, loneliness is something quite embarrassing to admit, and it’s taboo in the sense that if you’re lonely there’s something wrong with you, but we’re now seeing people talk about loneliness left, right and centre.” 

Are digital ways of socialising here to stay?

With restrictions on gatherings in most states and territories meaning Australians for the most part can now only enjoy the company of their own households, video calls have quickly become the new normal way of seeing friends.

While moving large sectors of our lives online has helped us keep employment and relationships up, associate professor of sociology at the University of Wollongong Roger Patulny said there could be some challenges when the time comes to stop social distancing. 

A police officer talks to drivers on the now-closed border of Queensland and New South Wales.
A police officer talks to drivers on the now-closed border of Queensland and New South Wales. Source: AAP

“We’ll have more options digitally, so what will really matter when things open up again is how we integrate the digital and the physical,” he said.

“The danger is if we fall into digital-only habits, where people become so used to bunkering down in their homes that they can’t be bothered to go out and they just do digital-only.

“The research suggests that’s the sort of thing that will increase loneliness.” 

How will people adjust to this 'new normal'?

While so much remains unknown about this pandemic, University of Wollongong senior lecturer in sociology Jordan McKenzie said one thing was certain.

“There is not going to be a return back to the way things were,” he told SBS News.

“In terms of our emotions and interactions and intimacy, I certainly wouldn’t be holding my breath that something that feels like normal will be happening any time soon, or maybe ever.” 

While hard-hit nations across Asia and Europe as well as the US are seeing hundreds of thousands of people grieve the loss of their loved ones due to COVID-19, Australia has been spared from the same widespread loss of life.

But senior lecturer in sociology Rebecca Olson of the University of Queensland said Australians would likely still experience a different form of grief.

“In Australia, the type of loss we’re experiencing is more around taken-for-granted ways of living,” she said.

“When the future is really uncertain, when roles and regular activities are disrupted and we’re not clear what the future looks like, this can prompt a sense of grief for those past laid plans and a sense of loss for those identities and actions we can no longer take part in.” 

While this sense of grief could be widespread for a nation that has long defined itself by its love of travel, Ms Olson said there was still an upside. 

“It could help us shift our focus to be more present-oriented rather than being so future-oriented,” she said. “It’s not definite, but it is a possibility.” 

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at  

6 min read
Published 6 May 2020 at 10:24am
By Claudia Farhart