Australia Is Returning to Normal. But Should Everything?



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During a recent trip to a local cafe, I realized with some dismay that the digital ordering system it had starting using during the pandemic was no more.

It’s something many cafes and restaurants took up to minimize coronavirus risks. You sit down and scan a QR code at your table to look at the menu, then order and pay on your phone. Someone brings your order out to you. It’s as contactless as you can get while dining out.

This particular cafe is one I head to when I’m struggling to finish an article (motivation comes from promising myself I can buy a muffin if I hit a certain word count). This usually means I’m sleep deprived and/or very stressed, so having baked goods magically appear on my table without needing to speak to anyone is ideal.

A waitress confirmed to me that the cafe had returned to face-to-face service as soon as it was safe to do so. Especially after the long months of isolation Melburnians went through with our harsh three-month lockdown, even something as simple as the interaction you have while ordering “makes people feel a bit better,” she said.

She’s right, of course. Cafes are by nature social places. But I can’t help but miss, just a little bit, the permission that the digital ordering system gave me to be a complete introvert.

The whole thing is so inconsequential I almost don’t want to mention it. The pandemic has irrevocably knocked our lives off course. Industries like hospitality and tourism could take years to recover, the mental toll of the past year is still hard to quantify, and thousands of Australians remain stranded overseas.

But as the vaccine rollout speeds up and parts of Australia shake off the last dregs of coronavirus restrictions (for the first time since the start of the pandemic, New South Wales has lifted all restrictions on dancing!), the question of how much we want to return to normal has been on my mind.

From 6 p.m. tonight, the Victoria government will lift a regulation that had required employers to let employees work remotely during the pandemic, meaning workers can essentially be forced back to the office. Experts are anticipating clashes between employees acclimatized to the conveniences of working from home and workplaces hopeful about a return to business as usual.

And in just under a week, the federal government’s unemployment coronavirus supplement will run out. When it was introduced in April, it pushed the welfare payment above the poverty line for the first time in two decades. Recipients reveled in being able to go to the dentist, do maintenance work they’d been delaying, and afford equipment that helped them find work.

The supplement isn’t going away completely. The government has permanently raised the unemployment benefit by $25 a week, and while it’s below the level suggested by many economists and social services organizations, it’s still the first major rise in decades.

And some employers are taking steps to enshrine flexibility in the workplace by no longer requiring set locations in job ads or allowing staff to work some days from home permanently.

These actions seem to be acknowledgments that there’s merit in some of the different ways of living that the pandemic has forced upon us.

Digital ordering won’t completely displace wait staff anytime soon. But I wonder if there are other changes that should survive into the post-coronavirus future.

What are you looking forward to as restrictions ease? Is there anything that happened during the pandemic you’d like to see continue? Let us know at [email protected].

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