Fear and paranoia borne out of the pandemic alter mindscapes more than landscapes
Amit Khanna | 16 May, 2020
How is it that a tiny virus (0.00000016 to 0.0000002 inches) in size can have more power than a nuclear bomb to change the course of history? Well, a war, a bomb and the most natural disaster are basically confined to a region. A virus, on the other hand,depending on its infection quotient, can quite literally sweep across the world leaving behind death and a debilitated economy.Covid-19 is a new iteration of the highly contagious coronavirus which attacksthe respiratory system. Recent statements by health experts tell us that Covid-19 is not going away soon. In fact, we have to be prepared for attacks of newer viruses in the months and years to come. Efforts to find a vaccine and a cure for the virus is going on in hundreds of research laboratories around the world. Till we find a vaccine, preventive caution is the only solution.
Now that the debate about whether life will change after Covid-19 is more or less settled (it will), the question is how much will be the change. According to consulting firm McKinsey& Co,‘The current crisis stands to be the most abrupt shock to the global economy in modern times. As with other financial contractions, people will postpone discretionary purchases and increase their savings as they anticipate harder times ahead, discretionary consumer spending may decline by 40 to 50 percent, translating into a 10 percent reduction in GDP and numerous second- and third-order effects.’ The social changes will be equally formidable as the world, enveloped by unprecedented fear, creates mental barriers towards activities hitherto considered day-to-day living.Social distancing is a permanent reality which will change life. Imagine commuting, offices, schools, shopping,cinemas, parks, restaurants,cricket matches with masks and protective gear. What happens to visits to temples, churches and mosques? Festivals? Weddings? Funerals? Or kids playing around the building? Or dating? Or even casual sex? Even a simple family outing will be a tough call.
In India, we have seen absolutely heart-wrenching images of thousands of migrant labour walking and cycling on 1,000-mile journeys to their villages. While my heart bleeds for them, I also realise that there are millions who have not left their place of work. There are about 40million migrant workers in India,half of them outside their state of birth. In all, there would be over 150million migrants all over urban India.A quarter of these migrants have either left or are on their way home or are stranded elsewhere. Most of them have left because of fear or uncertainty. All poor, whether in villages or towns, on the road or homes, need help and whatever assistance we can give. We need to understand the deeper malaise. Why did these people leave their homes and hearths to come to distant alien cities and towns? Why do they continue to live in slums and squalor? Because somewhere in their new domicile they are better off than they were in their native place. Most of those who left did so more out of an emotional insecurity than penury. No doubt millions of daily wage earners faced an abrupt stoppage of work but within a few days,the Centre and states, NGOs, gurdwaras, temples, mosques , companies, even individuals chipped in with food, water and shelter. In a calamity of this scale, nothing is ever enough. Unfortunately,the media did nothing to soothe these unsettled people but merely highlighted their suffering. They need succour and emotional support and not long commentaries on what could be done. Besides, giving one-time cash in hand may help in the immediate term but is no solution for the actual problem.
Most economies do not have the wherewithal to sustain financial help over extended periods of time. At least 30 per cent of the world population and about the same in India will face either job loss or substantial wage cut. Economically, the world will witness a negative growth this year of around 5 per cent. A billion people are already living in abject poverty or mere sustenance level in many countries. This number in the short term is set to rise by another 500 million. The shortfall in tax revenues and increased expenditure on healthcare and food have left most economies gasping for breath. Large-scale redundancies are certain. Unless we have a proven treatment, and later, a vaccine, it is difficult to say how long is the road to recovery, and then growth. Various alphabets from J, V to U and W are being used to describe economic revival in the near future. Different economists are suggesting different solutions—all focusing on providing succour to the billions who are impacted by Covid-19. Monetisation of reserves, government borrowing and central banks printing more notes are mentioned as some of the options to tackle the economic crisis. At the end of the day, most of this is the jugglery of numbers. If there is a decline in both demand and supply, southward tax collections and large-scale job losses, no government can bail hundreds of millions out of such a calamity. Perhaps, we have to reimagine the fundamentals of our economics afresh. Until life returns to the ‘new normal’, the economy will limp along. We are still unsure how people will spend in the future. How many will be left jobless a year down the line?It is obvious that lifestyles will change. No government can ensure that millions don’t lose their jobs or businesses.In India, the Government has announced several fiscal and monetary measures to help ease economic distress. No matter how much any government does,it never does come up to the expectations of its critics. That apart, when the world is in a reboot, there will be major upheavals and hurt and loss. We can only ease the pain with empathy,compassion and sharing.
Fed by populist fodder on TV news and social media, a vast majority is either in denial of the impending change or are busy shifting blame on governments. There are no instant solutions to life after a global crisis. After all, today the only safeguard against the spread of the virus and its collateral consequences is social distancing and isolation.Even when a vaccine is found, millionswill continue to die every year. Fear and paranoia alter mindscapes more than landscapes. If the pandemic lasts for a prolonged period, short-term relief measures will not do. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard has said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” There is, and will be, large-scale disruption of life and economies. Disparity in incomes is a global reality. Unfortunately, redistribution of wealth will rise only if there is enough wealth among the poorer nations. The present crisis has focused global attention on how acute and immediate this problem is. Hopefully, governments and the international community will respond fast. Media, on its part, has to stop the mudslinging and spreading fear. It’s easy to sit in TV studios or homes and pontificate what needs to be done. The opposition, too, has to stop criticising every move of the Government. This is as true in India as it is in the US or UK, Russia or Brazil.
The way we live and work, enjoy and pray—urban planning and architecture—will adapt to newer hygiene imperatives. Reconfiguration of offices,malls, cinemas, stadia, and most significantly, public transport, is imminent. We cannot remove overcrowding from certain parts of the world in the near future but innovation will ensure a safer, healthier lifestyle given the new health requirement. Reverse migration from urban areas can only happen if there are new earning opportunities in the hinterland.Work from home has revealed immense possibilities. At least 30 per cent of the workforce,particularly dealing in finance, accounting, strategy, consulting, administration, planning, advertising, marketing,logistics and software, will shift to work from home permanently. Flexihours for others will be favoured where simultaneous presence is not required. The rest will use space and other resources to maintain social distancing. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robots will definitely hasten automation in factories and other businesses. Crowded call centres will be the last resort of customer interaction with bots taking over as the first choice. E-commerce will spread fast and some existing neighbourhood stores will become touch points of large online service providers. One thing is certain—more than half of our life will be spent online—governance, education, commerce, healthcare, banking and entertainment have changed forever.
Humans are gregarious by natureand so to expect no community gatherings is far-fetched. What we see as restrictions today will become a part of an accepted regimen. Proactive gear,personal hygiene and disinfecting public spaces regularly will be de rigueur. Places of worship, pilgrimage sites will reorganise their congregations and celebrations. So yes, malls will open, restaurants, cafés, cinemas, bars,hotels will resume with altered plans of business with adequate safety features.The way we visit them will be different. Over time, the way we use public space will evolve into safer alternatives. Businesses will have to be nimble-footed to adapt to consumer response.Live events and sport will have to reinvent themselves. It’s very difficult to have large crowds and maintain social distancing, specially amidst emotionally charged atmosphere. I see a lot more sport happening indoors in arenas and closed stadia with controlled attendance. Similarly, one will see more live concerts either in smaller venues or virtually. About half of all entertainment will be online.Travel and hospitality will be far more complex with a lot of inbuilt precautions. People will travel far less and vacation lesser. Dining out will be a luxury (Take-away will rise though).
Lise Kingo, the CEO of United Nations Global Compact(a voluntary UN pact between 170 countries and over 10,000 businesses to foster sustainable and socially responsible living), puts it well, “The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us an important lesson about ourselves as a human community: We are interconnected with and interdependent on each other in ways we did not fully understand before. However, as we have seen recently, countries are actually getting more protectionist and inward-looking. Irrespective of international agreements and treaties, nations are opting in and out of mutual understanding. In a way, this atavistic return to survival of the fittest is what will determine the new world order. This does not mean global trade and commerce will lessen,only it will come with a lot more provisos. Shared services transcend geographies and the concept is not going away soon. In fact,the present crisis is giving rise to a more humane world.”
Politically strong global leaders will hold sway in the near future. Interdependence will now mean the ability to leverage individual nations’ strength and strategic importance. There will be more emphasis on bilateralism. The way individual countries have tackled the coronavirus crisis is mostly similar irrespective of the system of governance. A government which is in control will become critical in future. Ideologies built over a different dynamic cannot function in in tomorrow’s world. Political rhetoric cannot be the bedrock of democracy. There has to more cooperation at all levels of governance. Mistrust between citizenry and state cannot come in the way of progress and development. The concept of privacy and rights have to be relooked at from tomorrow’s perspective. When a big part of our existence is virtual and big data is the cornerstone of a digital future, the rights and duties must be compatible with new realities.Even as we practise caution and care individually, we are somewhere tied together by a common threat. This new awareness has been borne out of a sense of solidarity and interdependence that I have found heart-warming.This must not wither away in the next few months. Clearly, we care about each other but all of us will first look at our family and friends, home and work. This trait is not changing in a hurry.
Our immediate concern,and this is so with most countries, is the lack of health infrastructure. Henceforth, quarantine facilities and critical care hospitals will become important in our lives. My health and well-being are dependent on your health and well-being, and the same principle applies beyond borders and regions. Indeed, our collective health defines the health of businesses and economies within and across nations. The world, specially developing countries, will have to spend more on health and social welfare. India, for example, has so far managed to have a fairly successful vaccination policy which has nearly eliminated many serious diseases like polio and smallpox. A more vigorous drive to promote universal health rests as much on prevention as on cure.No matter how much we try, healthcare cannot be scaled up overnight. Millions of new trained professionals are required along with billions of dollars to expand the healthcare universe.
Education is another area of primary concern. Schools and colleges will have to rework their numbers. A lot of classes and tutorials and examinations will move online. In countries like India, this will be a huge challenge as children, even when they have access to internet, may not have the space to study in crowded homes. Perhaps staggered school timings and two shifts in schools would be the answer. The problem is shortage of trained teachers and infrastructure. In India, an exam-led system is churning out half-skilled youth. Radical reforms are required now to make education move away from rote to learning. Professional courses after high school is the short-term answer to impart skills to make millions of young people employable. Polytechnics and training institutes need a big push and more teachers need to be hired and trained.Governments will have to up their expenditure on education and health immediately. Labour employed in agriculture will have to be reskilled for employment in the new economy.
Fortunately, the world is producing enough food for everyone. As we move ahead,storage and supply chains will be beefed up. Big data will enable forecasting of consumer demand. I predict that the number of vegetarians will rise as will the consumption of healthier foods. Immunity booster supplements like zinc and magnesium tablets and indigenous foods like turmeric and amla(Indian gooseberry) will also gain wider acceptance. Immediate problem, though, is of feeding billions of people who are either jobless or out of the grid of public distribution. While most of the world (and India) has enough food stored, its availability and affordability remainsan issue. Post-Covid endeavours must include tackling widespread undernourishment. Wholesale markets and mandiswill have to be reorganised to avoid crowding and yet remain accessible to small farmers. Farm-to-fork initiatives need to be encouraged. Let’s not forget that one-third of all food around the world is wasted. It’s time to rethink this imbalance in production and consumption of food,particularly perishables, urgently.
Nicholas Eberstadt,senior advisor to the National Bureau of Asian Research,writes in a recent essay,‘Until the advent of some biometric, post-privacy future, the more or less free movement of peoples across national borders will be a nonstarter.’ He goes on to add—‘At the same time, today’s crisis may explode and wipe out old inefficient business models that had already outlived their usefulness: the “big box” store and retail malls, the unproductive [but sociologically alluring] office, the law firm [with its Soviet-style valuations of its services on the basis of inputs rather than outputs], perhaps the cartelised, price-fixing university as well, and more.’ However, there is an appositive side to it. We have seen from previous such global crises, the unleashing of human ingenuity and innovation. Several new opportunities will appear from nowhere. A change in lifestyle will spawn new businesses. These new goods and services will be the cornerstones of the post-pandemic economy.
The celebrated scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb and author of the seminal book The Black Swanwrote, ‘the world in which we live has an increasing number of feedback loops, causing events to be the cause of more events (say, people buy a book because other people bought it), thus generating snowballs and arbitrary and unpredictable planetwide winner-take-all effects.’ Let us not get caught in the loop of the doomsday perpetrators. To think of how our lives, families, jobs and so on will be impacted is natural. At present, it’s best to swim with the tide no matter how stormy the seas are. Chances are the waves of change will hopefully carry us to a better tomorrow.