It will be a while before covidian becomes an adjective in Merriam-Websters. Even in the current early stages, COVID-19 has left such an indelible mark on our world, that is hard not to adjectivize it.
Any attempt to assess the impact of Covid-19 at this stage will only scratch the surface of what its impact will be in 6 months, a year, or five years. However, here is one such attempt, through the interconnected dimensions of society, business, and technology.
The ripple effects of a pandemic across these three dimensions will be the tale of this decade.
My observations about us as a society falls into 3 areas: 1) How we collaborate as people; 2) Glaring gaps in social safety nets, and 3) Impact on our environment.
Unless we are on the front lines of fighting COVID, most of us now wear face masks to not contract the disease, or more importantly not pass it on as asymptomatic carriers.
Wearing masks is an act of individuals collaborating to fight the disease. A usual sight in Asia until now reaches North America.
There are countless examples of selflessness in tending to elders and helping those in need in all communities across the world, that puts a smile on our faces despite the bleak circumstances.
At a macro-level, examples of collaboration at scale include counties, states, and countries working together, with few exceptions. Examples: the seven county San Francisco Bay Area going into lock-down simultaneously; federation of state licensing boards in the US allowing cross-state care delivery by doctors; South Asian countries setting up training and surveillance system.
1.2 Safety Nets
Social safety net issues can be summed up into: universal health care, universal basic income, and higher education. Covid has given a fillip to the proponents of these causes and policies. Spanish government is working on a universal basic income plan that outlives the pandemic crisis.
Wild life utilizing roads that are not trafficked by humans, pollution levels dropping due to limited human activity, visibility of mountain peaks from far-off cities etc. have all been reported worldwide.
All positive side effects of an unmitigated crisis. Nothing surprising here. What will we do about it?
Bailouts compensate for lack of safety nets. Most businesses will need some. See this vulnerable labour pool estimate report for the US. 46% of US labor force is vulnerable to being laid-off. (Chart Courtesy: Yahoo News)
We will debate endlessly on whether we should be a welfare state. We will debate less on whether we should be a bailout state, because when the fire rages, we must put it out.
Isn’t a government bailout, socialism rescuing capitalism?
Continuity of business operations will get a rethink — even the business of legislating by US congress which was threatened to physically assemble to pass covid-response stimulus package.
Outside of front-line service industries like hospitality or food, business continued in job roles where people could work from home and knew how to do so. If they couldn’t work while keeping social distance, they shut down. Where supply chains are complex and fragile (no buffer to absorb shocks), businesses are suffering.
Will we rethink business continuity and leverage local production and distributed workforce (“virtual”) to reconfigure business operations, beyond the obvious supply-chain reconfigurations? Will we automate more both in production as well as support and service?
Will labor laws change to improve safety nets for employees and gig workers? In the US, safety-net oriented policies in health care are bound to have an impact on employment laws.
While we wait for better medical diagnostic testing and vaccines, we are working virtually. Some of us are keeping social connections alive via virtual happy hours. Information technology has helped soften the blow in some job roles and sectors.
Will IT be leveraged more broadly by workers outside the knowledge-work sectors?
The shortage of supplies, especially medical supplies, will cause us to rethink the trade-off’s of local vs. global sourcing and production. Will manufacturing technologies like additive manufacturing (“3D printing”) accelerate?
Will certain types of manufacturing go local? In life sciences, will every country setup its own medical equipment and pharmaceutical production facilities, if they can afford it?
In health care delivery, will more people work remotely to serve patients via virtual clinics and virtual consultations? Will the combined digital and medical technology enable health care without borders? Will we rethink policies to speed up trials for new therapies and tests — even when they are not-invented-here?
Will We? Can We? Why Not?
The last 25 years have seen technological innovation transform business and society.
Will innovations in how we function as a society — collaboration, governance, and policy — power our next transformation?
Will new systems of collaboration come into existence to strengthen post-world war organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO)?
If so, that will be another first since the Second World War.
Humans are a creative bunch. We adapt. No better time than now to fast-track it.