To the extent that there is an ‘invisible hand’ – and there are humans on Earth after this thing blows over – the world should return to something after Covid-19. But what might that something look like? ISMAIL LEGARDIEN* writes
Covid-19 has kept most of us who write for a living, occupied. We’re rapidly running out of things to write, beyond new infections, deaths, governments’ responses, lockdowns, quarantines and so forth.
If you follow Twitter, you may be astounded by racial scapegoating either for spreading the virus or for stockpiling food and other supplies. Or you may remain inured to it all.
My own, very personal view, is that we have to abandon religious practices, traditional healers and snake oil peddlers. We have to listen to the scientists, not religious leaders. Prayer will not get rid of Covid-19. Nor will homeopathy.
Already in South East Asia, specifically Malaysia, a group of 15,000 Muslims (Jemaah Tabligh), met for prayer and a 30,000-strong group of Hindus met for a festival, causing mass infection scares. We’re still not sure whether the annual Zion Christian Church (ZCC) will hold its annual gatherings and Easter services, which attracts about 4-million churchgoers annually. This, unfortunately, is what we are left with, reporting on symptoms, events, cases and states of affairs, shortcomings, and the way that Donald Trump is oppressed by reality and by his own ignorance.
During one of the (very few) times that I am able to think deeply, I wonder what the world will be like when we emerge from this pandemic in, say, two or three years from now. Let us look at the facts, first (at noon on Tuesday 17 March). The World Health Organisation reports the following: “There are 167,511 confirmed (13,903 new) global infections, 6,606 deaths (862 new). China has confirmed 81,077 infections (29 new), with 3,218 deaths (14 new). Outside of China, there are 86,434 confirmed cases (13,874 new), and 3,388 deaths (848 new), in 150 countries/territories/areas (four new).” Those numbers do my head in. These deaths, the way I see it, are not an economic crisis. It’s a human crisis.
It’s not the economy, stupid, it’s the people.
Now let us look at some of the interpretations. In the US, CNBC has reported that “the ongoing spread of the new coronavirus has become one of the biggest threats to the global economy and financial markets”.
Not to be left behind in the economics rationalist race, Foreign Policy magazine, that most reliable of US exceptionalist bluster and braggadocio, was blunter. Covid-19 is “An Economic Pandemic”. This is not to say that the $50-billion that has been wiped off global exports in February 2020 is a small matter.
For one (for the sake of argument), the hospitality industry will probably be the first casualty because of the immediacy and necessity (for now), of human contact. But already you can make reservations for flights and accommodation online – all you would need is a work station to check into your hotel and a key card issued by a machine. Do we really think that there will be a return to employing people when machines can do their jobs? It’s hard to imagine.
Nonetheless, obsession with an “economic” pandemic, when people are dying by the thousand, matters only to homo economicus (economic man) – ignore humanity, or if you’re not human at all, or you believe that “the economy” or “markets” are “objective realities” that do not include people.
The point here is that a greater effort is required to prevent infection of people. To the extent that there is an “invisible hand” – and there are humans on Earth after this thing blows over – the world should return to something. But what might that something look like?
To get some sense of what that something would look like (bearing in mind that this is all based on speculation, imagination, historical evidence, patterns, trends and a helluva load of guesswork), we can look at how Covid-19 has already changed patterns of production, distribution and consumption.
Life after Covid-19
Loath as I am to make predictions, I can confidently say that there will be life after Covid-19 has been contained and defeated. I cutely avoided saying there would be life “on Earth” leaving, always, room for the idea that there might be life in any number of places in our observable universe (which is about 93-billion light-years in diameter, and it is only
But seriously, we can expect patterns of production, distribution and consumption to be completely different from what they were before the end of 2019. The virus has already disrupted production and distribution chains, and displaced thousands of people – or simply killed them.
Because of existing technology, and any of the innovations currently underway to cope with communities in quarantine, more people are working remotely (from home), which, we can be sure, will hasten the (further) development of internet technology. This could eliminate physical workspaces, which could be transformed into something else.
The same can be said of public transport. With fewer people having to go into the office, transportation networks may change. We could also see an increase, and more normalisation of drone technology to deliver food and medicines.
As it goes, delivery services, like Amazon, have seen significant increases in-home deliveries. In the US, United Parcel Service, that does most of Amazon’s deliveries, is on a drive to recruit 100,000 new staff.
But once Covid-19 is beaten, will these drivers still have jobs? It’s hard to say. It is hard to imagine people discontinuing online shopping and only slightly more difficult to imagine deliveries made by drones being scaled down.
All of this, I dare say, may encourage increased robotics design and application, which will eliminate jobs. It’s not terribly outlandish to claim that very many people who are currently working remotely can be expected to continue doing so after the virus is beaten.
Robotics and Information and Communications Technology in general, will not be uninvented, after whatever has been achieved to deal with the current (virtual) elimination of human contact. And so, even your pizza delivery driver may be without a job, once drones are used for delivery.
Human capacity for disease – especially communicable disease – will be mitigated by hastening robotics on assembly lines (production), drones and non-human contact could eliminate distribution (as we have known it). To use a terribly clichéd example (sorry about this), email has eliminated very many postal delivery jobs, and post offices have re-imagined their historical roles.
Also, I get paid for some of what I write electronically, and payment shows up on my phone. I then pay my bills, also by phone. I don’t need any human contact for any of these transactions. Now compare this with the time, three decades ago, when we would receive salaries by cheque (before direct deposits), which we had to deposit (at a bank teller), and then make out several cheques to pay bills and place them in the mail. Much of this required human interaction.
While all of these changes were before Covid-19, imagine the ways we are finding to avoid human contact using technology. There are restaurants in Asia that have stopped allowing sit-in customers and that do only home deliveries.
Even before Covid-19, there were people who did their shopping online and ordered their food (to be delivered by a stranger, whom they barely spoke to). Could that be the future? Probably.
Do we really think that we will uninvent online teaching, or online prayer service (as when the Pope delivered Sunday Service by livestream)? Doubtful, at best. Bars, cinemas, gyms and sporting events around most of the world have been shut or stopped, which caused a spike in people seeking entertainment at home. Now that it is already a part of our lives, beyond the virus, and it could become vital to all interactions between people, places and productivity.
It’s all up in the air at the moment. The science and technology that goes into new means of production, distribution and consumption is exciting. There will be a world after Covid-19. Right now, all we can say, with confidence, is that technological advances will probably change the way we live, work and play in ways that are unimaginable.
What about love? Well, there is always Joi. (Daily Maverick)
*Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.