The future isn’t what it used to be

There’s always a tendency to overplay the place in history of a particular moment when you are living through it. Their deep scars on the face of time seem permanent then. Of course, they aren’t. Nature wears them down slowly in a battle of attrition that has only one winner.  There’s no Ozymandias and at the end only “two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert.”  Some day in future things will return to normal. This moment too will end as a chapter in the history of our civilization.

Not “new normal” again

Yet, I have a feeling it won’t be normal ever again. We will change and we should change once this blows over. Let me count the ways.

  • Focus on healthcare: If ever there was proof needed about healthcare being broken across countries, we have it now. Every broken healthcare system is broken in its own way. India spends 1.3 per cent of its GDP on healthcare. We have 0.7 doctors per 1000 people. I will spare you the comparisons to show how bad these numbers are. Our primary healthcare system fails at the first mile. We have a mishmash of social financing and insurance schemes that fall short on universal coverage. We must get our priority right for once when we are out of this.
  • Accelerate change in social norms: This crisis will possibly do what a million messages and the whole Swachh Bharat Abhiyan couldn’t. It will make us deeply aware of the importance of social hygiene. We have an opportunity to re-baseline our attitude to public cleanliness, environment and wellness. These are instances of social failure that needed the change to come from within in every single act of crores among us. This will need investment, but social failures need a willing mindset to turn the corner. We will have a window open.
  • Why go to work?: This is obvious. If all of us could work from home without things falling apart, surely, some of us can continue working from home later. We don’t need to have office spaces for more than, maybe, 70 per cent of workforce. We will have less traffic, lower pollution, a lower carbon footprint and a better quality of life. Importantly, more women can continue to stay in workforce. This workplace shibboleth should get a quiet burial.
  • Education goes online: Like healthcare, we have an opportunity to reset education. Almost every university and school has been forced to do online classes and exams during this time. There is no reason to believe a fairly significant part of any school or higher education curriculum can’t be delivered online after this. The three core problems of education in India – a) lack of access to quality institutions in remote India, b) supply of good quality teachers and c) the pedagogy of one-way transmission of content that doesn’t engage – can be largely addressed through online education. These platforms can scale at low costs and reach all over the country. The faculty to student ratio can be almost infinite once good quality, immersive content is created. Lastly, learning can be more adaptive and personalised with individual attention paid to each student. The regulations need to change, and this experience should be used to free up schools and colleges to deepen their reach
  • Crowds won’t converge: The notion of multitude gathering for a common purpose will take a long time to return (or might never). Large, crowded events (live sports, concerts) or locations (train stations, airports, conferences) will either develop a completely new event management protocol or will shrink. It is difficult to imagine in countries most impacted by the pandemic how social distancing doesn’t become a new everyday norm. These sectors will have to rewire their business models as people view crowded locations with suspicion.
  • Globalisation will retreat: The intricately linked GVCs and the free flow of people across boundaries will be a thing of the past. Boundaries (physical or otherwise) will become common. A significant part of the populace across the word that was already questioning the benefits of globalisation will want to shutter itself down. Politics is downstream of culture as Breitbart once observed. It will follow suit and legislate to this end.   

What will you be doing on April 30, 2020?

How does April 30, 2020 look like from here? Will you be working from home with a partial shutdown all around? What will you be working on? If the world will continue to be the same (or worse) from where it is today, what work will you be doing? Economic activity would have halted to bare essentials. The notion of chilling 24X7 appears attractive when its supply is greatly rationed. When its supply is infinite, what’s its utility? Was all work truly drudgery? Or, did it give us a purpose everyday to get out of the bed and move along?

Maybe things won’t get this philosophical after all. This too shall pass.

Like the BBC film critic, Mark Kermode often says, “it will all be alright in the end and if it isn’t alright, it isn’t the end”.  

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