COVID-19: A watershed moment?

In your own language

Eduardo del Buey
Foto: Reuters
La Jornada Maya

Miércoles 1 de abril,2020

Over the past few days, I have often heard people say that when the COVID-19 pandemic is over, things will get back to normal.

I beg to differ on a number of counts.

First of all, we now have the technology and relatively inexpensive equipment to allow tens of millions of people to work from home. Indeed, over the past few weeks, thousands of public and private sector organizations have shifted work from office to home. They have proven that this model can work.

But the questions that we now have to answer are, can the model work over a long period of time, and what are some of the long-term ramifications of this model on different strata of society?

Organizations may discover that employees are happy to not have to commute to and from offices twice a day, be stuck in traffic, and pollute beyond what is now sustainable. Indeed, the current crisis has already had a marked effect on the state of the environment since people are travelling less and, hence, polluting less.

Organizations may also discover the savings that they can enjoy by renting or owning less office space, with reduced energy and maintenance costs. They may also see the benefits of contracting many of their positions out, reducing the benefits that they have to offer full-time employees.

Head offices can have a few rooms for senior executives who must be on premise, and a series of large or small meeting rooms in which employees and contractors can operate when they have to interact with others.

This will have a major impact on the real estate industry. Smaller core organizations mean fewer square meters rented or sold. Owners will have to figure out what to do with excess space. Architects and builders will have to revisit traditional home designs in order to accommodate home office space for almost each member of the family.

Why for so many members of any given family?

Because distance education is becoming the norm during this crisis, and many university students subsequently may well prefer lower cost in-line educations to going into massive debt to obtain their degrees in physical institutions far from home. This may soon make the stigma of an online degree diminish as the financial benefits are seen to outweigh the costs.

This will also have a major impact on the travel industry.

As companies and governments see the savings that are accruing from reduced travel to meetings abroad and the use of videoconferencing to bring people together, airlines and hotels will suffer a decline in business, with the concomitant growth of unemployment in these sectors.

How about the psychological and sociological challenges?

These changes will have a major social impact, as families learn to spend more time sharing the same space, interacting to a greater degree, and interacting less with their peers who are also studying and working from home.

Many will miss the water cooler conversations and joint lunches and breaks that are, for many, the focus of their social lives.

Students will have to forgo the interpersonal exchanges with other students and professors that enrich their classes. Universities and technology companies will be challenged to create similar environments virtually.

The current rush to cocoon will change our concepts of entertainment, as virtual concerts and movies replace to a degree physical theaters and concert halls. Streaming will replace the physical movement of people to entertainment centers, and once again, people will lose their jobs and businesses lose revenue streams.

Distance medicine is another area in which major changes have begun and, in a pandemic, make sense in ensuring that groups of patients don’t congregate in doctors’ offices or hospitals where the virus can spread exponentially.

With medical costs being what they are, telemedicine may offer an affordable way for people to access medical attention for minor problems that don’t require their moving from one location to another and exposing themselves to possible illnesses.

Government services are also increasingly online.

The impact here is both negative and positive. On the positive side, access to information can be quicker and require no travel between home and government office. Much time can and is being saved, and in many cases, service is good for those who know how to access it.

On the negative side, many people still need to be “heard” in person and addressing this need will take time and effort. This may well be a generational challenge, but as we all live longer, many users of government services are still not digitally enabled, nor do they respond well to an anonymous voice message or digital message.

COVID-19 will make a deep impact on international relations.

Some are already saying that China should be held to account for its role on suffocating knowledge about the pandemic for so many weeks.

I would caution them to stop and think.

Like it or not, China is still the center of the manufacturing world, and it could take many years to move China’s industrial infrastructure to other countries.

Through its Belt and Road Initiative and Huawei’s significant control over 5G technology, China controls a good part of the world’s communications and transportation infrastructure, and holds much of the world’s debt.

In addition, the global economy will require access to China’s vast capital reserves to kick-start the economy once the main ravages of COVID19 pass.

Is now the moment for us to challenge China to the detriment of our own interests? Or is China destined to be the main power in the 21st century regardless of our preferences?

Finally, how do we create and sustain the national and international governance institutions required to manage a world based on communications and technology.

Do we continue with structures that date back to the 17th century, or must our leaders and academics begin a process of making the institutions of modern governance fit for purpose in this century?

Should current transitory conditions become permanent, we will all have to explore how we can incorporate the disenfranchised who cannot access modern technology because of income challenges, educational shortcomings, or, simply, their own subsistence earning lifestyle.

In developing countries, tens of millions survive in the informal economy. How can governments ensure that they receive the economic and educational benefits of this technological world?

During a pandemic such as COVID-19, these people will die if they cannot leave their homes to eke out a living. Gardeners, construction workers, cleaners, street vendors, retail clerks, barbers and hairdressers, to mention a few, depend on mobility to earn enough money to cover basic costs. How will they survive a long-term quarantine?

Most if not all lower income people cannot afford the infrastructure to have their children obtain their education online.

Do we revert to a neo-liberal model that encourages governments to disinvest from essential services such as education and health care, especially in an era of massive social and economic transformation? Can we allow the wealthiest to avoid their social responsibility of paying their fair share of taxes to help lift all to an acceptable standard of living? Can we allow tens of millions to continue living outside the traditional economy with little or no support from government and society?

Can governments afford to underwrite the huge costs of retraining significant sectors of the workforce to avoid their becoming what historian Yuval Harari calls the “useless” class? How can government, the private sector, academia, and labor groups work together to ensure the viability of an economy that sustains all?

In 2015, Microsoft founder Bill Gates delivered an excellent TED talk describing how a virus would become the greatest threat to humanity. Did governments listen? Given their low level or preparation and ad hoc responses to the current pandemic, the answer is no.

Will governments now invest what is necessary to address current massive shortcomings in crisis preparation? Will they pursue policies that ensure that we are in good shape to meet future challenges?

Will political leaders learn to surrender some national sovereignty in order to create international multilateral institutions capable of harnessing the efforts of all of humanity to meet environmental, health, and social challenges head on? Will they allow these institutions to sanction national governments for non-compliance, hence ensuring a level playing field for all?

These are all questions to ponder.

Human beings are social animals, and we are now in a fascinating moment in which we can analyze the impact of isolation on individual employees and students. The more we use this as an opportunity to learn, the better prepared we will be for the day after COVID19 ends.

Since the entire world finds itself under similar circumstances, this is a unique moment in which to analyze how these changes can and are making an impact on different cultures and societies.

This is a watershed moment, one during which we must all take stock of our ability to survive, manage personal and societal change, and thrive in the new economy.

Are we ready?

edelbuey@gmail.com