A changed globe
After the world manages to pull itself out of what can easily be considered as this century’s defining moment of crisis, the human species will have to make permanent changes so that we are never again caught unprepared
Human history has witnessed few time periods that fundamentally shifted the nature of existence as society struggled to come to terms with the new 'normal' presented to them. While some of these epoch-shaping events are born of innovations and human progress, the most formative ones — more often than not — are brought by unmitigated disasters that buckle the very foundations of our core institutions and beliefs. The last great period of upheaval was the 20th century wherein a combination of the two World Wars and the financial depression had not only shaped a generation and its ways but also society at large. Habits were cemented, beliefs were shattered and the old world gave way to the era of free-market capitalism and international cooperation. The changes made were glaring enough from a historical perspective but for those who lived through this time period, the contrast must be as absurd as stepping into one reality from another.
And this is where we find ourselves today. We are the generation standing at the cusp of mind-boggling change, grasping at straws in a futile attempt to preserve the 'normal' and stand against the winds of change that we all know are truly bearing down upon us. Now as disbelief passes, we cling to the optimism of one day returning to the normal that we have left behind, consoling ourselves over the transient nature of the changes we see around us. And yet, it may not be possible or even desirable to go back to the way things were. The world must change for the sake of the future and not just for the two years or so that we must wait for a viable vaccine to hit the market. There will be a generation of 'Corona- babies' born during this time of crisis who will be affected for the better or worse by our decisions. Much like the baby boomers who survived the horrors of the mid-20th century, the generation that comes after will question our role in this crisis and what we did to prepare for the future.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has shown one thing, the free market, minimal government intervention system of capitalism is failing people world across – apparent as healthcare systems of some of the mightiest countries in the world buckled under the Coronavirus crisis. Though the failures of such a system have been in academic discourse for quite some time — gaining fresh impetus with each financial depression — never before have the cracks been quite as glaring and those responsible quite as inexcusable.
Healthcare & security
In 2019, Mckinsey & Company offered its insights into healthcare systems and how they must evolve for the future and concluded that we need fewer hospital beds. The reasoning was an apparent shift in healthcare trends towards chronic care as opposed to acute care. Chronic care is largely based around care and consultations outside the hospital and is, unsurprisingly, a trend catered towards private, customised healthcare which is as much a product as it is an essential service. Come 2020 and the organisation's regular COVID-19 insights now focus on how the current shortage of beds and hospital equipment worldwide is a failure of healthcare in achieving emergency scaling up. Healthcare, as the insights go on to proclaim, has evolved very little since the end of the World Wars in terms of government policy and spending for much of the world. Changes have been resisted and even the emergent practice of telemedicine was shunned by the medical community before this crisis came to be. It hardly needs to be mentioned that the 'radical' idea of nationalised healthcare has been largely dismissed by the capitalist world.
In America, the private healthcare model truly showed its failings when it was revealed that for an uninsured individual, COVID-19 tests would cost over $1000. Insurance for most in America is tied to their jobs and with a record number of layoffs, this fast became a sinkhole of epic proportions. Since then, Congress has made tests free but now the availability of these free tests is a severe issue. Meanwhile, private testing labs have enabled the wealthy to get tests on-demand and in the comfort of wherever they may be sheltering.
Back home, the Antibody test kits scandal has shown that the private sector cannot be trusted to sacrifice profit margins when it was found that India was being quoted a price inclusive of a 60 per cent profit margin in times of a global health crisis. Moreover, the way in which in India's mammoth private healthcare sector has fallen short in fighting this crisis shows that at the end of the day, governments need to be invested in the nation's healthcare system to make it foundationally resilient. Now, we have also started seeing reports of patients being charged exorbitant amounts by private hospitals for the treatment of mild COVID-19 cases and private diagnostic laboratories even going ahead to sell and market COVID-19 tests to wealthy clients in the midst of a serious shortage of diagnostic kits in the country.
At the same time, the future will likely bring increasing use of technology, telemedicine and virtual care to the forefront to expand health coverage in ways that only private healthcare could hope to previously achieve. The use of AIs in the healthcare of tracing, predicting and innovating will increase. Various companies across the world with the prominent example of Google and its Deepmind are already looking into such possibilities. Admittedly, the idea of an AI and the government having increased access to our lives brings up apprehensions of a surveillance state that can use such healthcare-security paranoia to its advantage in unscrupulous ways. Proponents of these kinds of technologies have come out claiming that as is the case with any technological leap, proper oversight will help maintain reasonable privacy for users. But even with all this technology, the scaling-up capabilities of traditional healthcare systems such as hospitals will have to be fortified so that never again can we be caught so defenceless in a time of crisis.
Jobs and economy
In a move that could set employment goals for large corporates in the coming decade,Tata Consultancy Services revealed a new model for post-COVID operations that envisioned 75 per cent of its 4.5 lakh strong workforce permanently working from home by 2025. The benefits of reduced workspace usage and a decentralised model better able to resist system shocks like a pandemic are obvious. While details still need to be finalised, TCS could very well be the pioneer for what is going to be a reality for most of humanity post-pandemic.
The tech giant's plans could be categorised as a tubelight moment for India's IT-sector, which for the first time likely realised what working from home could do for the company's productivity levels. In fact, according to employees who work in one of the company's Kolkata office, the company had noticed a sharp increase in the time employees are logged into their systems while working from home. One employee said that they inadvertently end up becoming more available for work-related issues due to the lockdown.
Now of course, a major cause for concern will be how productivity levels will be affected after countries ease their lockdowns. Most employees are now turning to work due to no option of being able to go out. Regardless, many employees have started to complain of employers taking advantage of the situation and also demanding more hours from their workers – leaving room for exploitation. While some have cancelled weekly-ffs of their employees, some other have started demanding excessive hours. And of course, pertinent would be to think of whether workers will be effectively able to unionise for their rights when more than 70 per cent of their workforces will not interact physically daily.
Multiple studies have shown that the global economy is likely going to tank and recede to an extent that was not even seen during the Great Depression. This will result in a change in spending habits that will follow us for generations. This, in turn, will affect the shape and health of our economy. Add to that the fact that most employers will cut back their workforce and working models to the bare minimum requirements means that we will see far fewer people being employed.
Taking this scenario forward, permanent employment is also going to become scarcer with seasonal, shift-based employment (the so-called gig economy) becoming more common. In a scenario such as this, the government must shift from employment guarantees to livelihood and sustenance guarantees to catch hold of those who will or are already falling through the cracks. There are many ways this scenario could play out and no real answers for what the best alternative could be. We have already seen examples of state-run capitalism that emphasises greater government control over the economy during times of crisis but largely allows things to run their course as is the case with capitalism in general. We may well also see state-run socialism which takes complete control of the economy, prioritising the preservation of life above all else and doing away with exchange value as the basis of the economy entirely.
It is worth noting that bailouts and cash handouts that are being currently carried out across the world are not exactly working out. America in typical fashion is a good example of what India must not do. The $349 billion rescue package aimed at small industries dried up in weeks and as investigations revealed, a vast majority of those funds went to businesses that can be called anything but small. These are companies that have benefited from paying little to no taxes and flouting labour laws for decades and are now plundering money meant for small local businesses at the expense of American taxpayers.
There are bleaker scenarios still but there is little point in peddling doomsday scenarios at this early stage. Instead, two additional facets of this future economic system may be highlighted. First, employment in essential services will likely have to be expanded keeping in mind the shortages we are currently experiencing with trained personal ready to deal with this crisis. Second, the features and nature of globalisation will need to be renegotiated in this new world as resource and technology sharing will become ever more important in a world seeking a new way of life and livelihoods.
The aspect of our existence most in doubt, will the post-pandemic world be a more isolated place? There are already calls for self-sufficiency, to bring manufacturing units back home from abroad, a call to limit globalisation and re-think our interactions with foreign entities. Reverse-globalisation is trending at this point and while much is uncertain, what is likely is that era of hyper-globalisation where supply chains spread out like spider webs is going to end. Regional groupings in terms of trade and cooperation will take centre stage. Though in all fairness, globalisation of goods and service and its share in the global GDP has been plateauing for over a decade now, starting with the 2008 financial crisis. Add to that the fact that globalisation has never been proportionate in the benefits it offers countries and individuals and it is not hard to see why the trade of goods (in particular) and services will be revised.
It is extremely unlikely that any nation can consider complete self-sufficiency and isolation as a successful or rational method going forward. As it were, there are areas where global cooperation must be strengthened in unprecedented ways – such as medical research and healthcare. An easy example is that of information sharing in terms of healthcare data and expertise. This crisis has shown that fragmented medical data can be extremely detrimental to larger efforts against such a healthcare crisis. But there is more that can be done here.
This cooperation needs to extend past the traditional milestones into a territory that prioritises conflict resolution and a true sense of cooperation must come forth. Countries in the future will need to stop treating other nations as competitors and strive for sharing in ways that look to benefit the human species. Technology and innovation must be shared, resources too in whatever version of global supply chains will emerge. After all, socialism and egalitarianism only work when everyone else is doing it. And what is obvious is that it is time to stop wasting our resources, time and capabilities in futile shows of competition and supremacy on the international stage in the spirit of reaching a point of optimum efficiency. This rational cooperation will be essential in fighting humanity's next big fight, a struggle that by all indicators will be much more devastating, difficult and long-drawn than this one.
A decisive percentage of publications and thinktanks have called this pandemic a dress rehearsal for the climate crisis, a wake-up call for those hell-bent on downplaying the impact of climate change. UN General Secretary Guterres has recently made calls to recognise that the climate crisis will be far worse than this pandemic and that any iteration of COVID recovery plans will need to include plans to combat climate change. To this effect, a two-day online conference called the 'Petersberg Climate Dialogue' was organised on April 27 and 28 with representations from 30 countries in virtual attendance. This conference was organised partially to cover for COP26 being left in limbo with regards to when it will finally be coming into force. The milestones to achieve are all the same but the urgency is decidedly higher.
There is also a realisation that the way forward to managing the climate crisis is similar to managing a pandemic – which is streamlining economic activity. There is little data to draw exact action plans, but this is precisely the time to obtain it. As industries gradually start-up and the air levels reach a level of being pollution-free that has not been seen for quite some time, we are presented with an opportunity that will likely never come again to formulate workable models of limiting carbon emission by limiting industry activity, vehicle usage, etc.
At the same time, Mckinsey has noted that this is the best time for corporate investment into the business of climate-resilient infrastructure and methods to reduce carbon footprint with near-zero interest rates and significant employment opportunities to prop up the economy during the leaner times ahead.
The second decade of the 21st century began with nations battening down their hatches and receding into themselves in terms of acquiring defensive capabilities and trade. While the tech companies shined bright with the success stories of Google and Amazon taking a whole bunch of people for an upward ride, the global economy's reliance on countries like China and in South East Asia for their supply chains seems to have cost several economies heavily. One might wonder whether this has made corporates rethink putting all their eggs in one basket – so to speak.
While there is a lesson here for economies to diversify their manufacturing units and supply chains to more than just China; it has led to an exodus of companies from China-based manufacturing models to looking towards countries like ours. In fact, many state governments here have already been approached by large corporates for setting up manufacturing units and factories in India.
And of course, while the pandemic had scared a lot of countries into closing their economies to investment for fear of hostile takeovers, there must be a way to come out of this crisis with a view that only increased cooperation will make the human species prepared the next time such a global health crisis hits our species – because if not for anything else, the next mutation of a deadly virus is lurking not far behind.
In fact, research has shown that this novel Coronavirus was one that was discovered earlier, and that humanity could have better prepared for if the global community were not so invested in looking inwards and spending on arming themselves. In just the years preceding this crisis, a review of some of the largest countries' budget shows that healthcare expenditure was not prioritised by many-a-big countries like the US, UK and India.
What the pandemic has shown so far is that countries that have historically spent a larger proportion of their GDPs on healthcare are ones that are better able to deal with the crisis. Nations like Germany, South Korea and Cuba have shown what a robust nationalised healthcare system can do in such cases. Moreover, Spain's and Portugal's experiment of forcefully nationalising healthcare in times of crisis seems to be the right call. Ironically, while Britain's conservative administration has long called for lesser government interference in healthcare, it has come to cherish the National Health Services (NHS) and its capabilities during this crisis with even Prime Minister Boris Johnson owing his recovery from COVID-19 completely to NHS staff and their medical advice.
Despite the sombre tones made by such predictions, it is important to note that this may well be the greatest opportunity afforded to humanity to course correct and unite in the face of what cannot be termed as anything but impending doom. While we may feel the effects of a swollen economy contracting to manageable levels for decades, there is an opportunity for humanity to emerge more prepared and stronger for it. If only we shed what is unnecessary and really only works for a small section of society. It is time for governments worldwide to step up and reign in the cesspool that is free-market capitalism.
*Additional reporting by Abhinay Lakshman