This article was originally published by The New Times. The views expressed in this article are of the writer and not attributable to SHLC.

With increasing entry of vaccines into the continent and consistent adherence to health protocols, it looks possible to start imagining a post-Covid world.

Clearly the restrictions on the use of public space and physical distancing have been key policy measures to reduce transmission of Covid-19.

The stay home directives, lockdowns and cessation of movements made us witness unprecedented absence of public life and activities in public space in cities across the world.

Yes, the aim is protecting public health during the pandemic, but in the post-pandemic world, will we be able to consider going back to public space after the pandemic, will we be able to enjoy public life like before? Will be able to hug as many people as we used to hug before Covid?

A recent study has shown that in 2020, more than half of the world’s population stayed home with restricted movements in public. Schools, children playgrounds, parks and streets remained empty and quiet while everyone stayed at home. Obviously, the experiences in different cities are as varied as the number of cities are.

A view towards town, Kigali, Rwanda
A view towards town, Kigali, Rwanda

To what extent have we lost our sting of having to meet friends, hug them and share a laugh or a drink with them in public space? Are we really going to manage to come back to the old vibrant, social and lively public life before Covid-19? While sure that our relationship with other people and public space may never be the same again, one would wonder how long the changes in the vibrancy of public life or use of public space will last.

Over the last 12 months or so, we have had to develop new social behavior and keep a constant reminder in our minds at all times, while in public, resist that urge to hug a friend we haven’t seen in a while, avoid moving closer to other people and keep them a meter away, wear our masks correctly which also makes chatting difficult, and wash hands or sanitize at the entry of every public place of which we will be reminded by the youth volunteers lest we forget. Will these new social behaviors condition us to remain anti-social? Will they fade away? Will they be ephemeral?

Will our emotional connection with other people (especially non-family) change and to what extend? Will our emotional connections to places such as markets change as well? Will we not prefer to keep ordering for supplies from the comfort of our homes other than go to the market.

Are our balconies and small neighbourhood streets going to become our new public spaces? Will we forget the social life benefits we used to enjoy from visiting playgrounds, markets and parks?

More optimistically, will the Covid-19 pandemic teach us new lessons on how to live better in our cities? Or rethinking better ways to design and develop our cities? Will it teach us the importance of making only mandatory trips and living local (using commercial areas, health and education facilities within our neighbourhoods)? Will the pandemic teach architects, urban designers and urban planners how to design better cities and neighbourhoods?

Whereas the post-Covid world is still blurred and the conversations are still green, all these questions, ideas and conjectures might actually change our relationships with public life and public space for the better of humanity.

It is said “you can only predict things after they have happened”. Nevertheless, these reflections on how the post-Covid era will bring with it, what public life and public space will be like once Covid has become a thing of the past, and once the restrictions on use of public space or regulations on social distancing have been completely lifted, once we are able to attend parties and weddings and hug all our friends and accomplices, all.

Are we living through a profound transition? Are these only evolutionary changes or will they remain cumulative or will they just have transpired in the pandemic moment, hence can gradually pass? Will we still remain stuck in the life we have gotten used to, for a year now – the ‘new normal’, or will the pandemic merely refine our public life practices and allow us to be able to make adjustments back and forth and coin a more sustainable way of public life around other people and public space.

It remains unclear if the impact of Covid-19 on public life and public space will be as profound as they are in many other aspects of life. Therefore, dilemma still remains in unpacking how long the current social impacts will be felt and the degree to which they will be transformational. The immediacy of the stormy pandemic cannot allow us to see through the clouds as yet.