Everything was planned. And then nothing made sense anymore. The most disruptive event in our lives happened — COVID-19.
As a bunch of individuals who’ve been predicting how people think and how their purchases can be influenced, we thought we could spend this time thinking about what the post-corona world would be like. We are not economists or statisticians, so we cannot build a statistical model but we do have some expertise in human behaviour. So our projection of this future world is built around human behavior, current and past.
Coronavirus may not be the last crisis that humanity will face and it certainly isn’t the first. And since the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, let’s take a look at how we’ve dealt with crises in the past.
Just a small caveat. Predicting the future is tricky, more so when we’re likely at the precipice of what will be a tipping point in our lives. Therefore, we’re hedging our bets by projecting two scenarios. An optimistic take on the future and a pessimistic take. Here is the first of these scenarios.
Through the eyes of an optimist
Humanity has always had to deal with crises. But these crises have moved the human story forward. In the long run, they have made us better. A difficult period during the Middle Ages in Europe that was marked by famine, war and the plague was followed by the Renaissance. The French Revolution embedded liberty, equality, and fraternity into our consciousness.
In the 20th century alone we have had four crises on a global scale. They came in pairs and dovetailed into each other. The First World War transformed many monarchies into electoral democracies and also helped create the first communist state in the world. This, in turn, helped erode feudalistic thinking and promoted pluralistic and people-oriented ideals, first with Europe, and then across the world.
The Spanish Flu which swept the world in 1918 led to the development of national health services in many nations. The Great Depression gave birth to the welfare state and the Second World War bought the end of empires, freeing majority of the human population from foreign enslavement.
Coronavirus is the first crisis of the 21st century. And like the ideal 21st-century citizen, it is global and egalitarian. And because of cheap broadband, it is playing out right in front of our eyes.
Despite the terrible cost or maybe because of the terrible cost of this pandemic, we will move to a better place in our minds and in this world. Future generations will look back upon this moment as the one that made us more humane, the moment when we lived up to our name — Homo sapiens, or ‘wise man’.
We have classified the defining aspects of the evolving future under seven heads. They range from the ‘personal’ to the ‘collective’ in their nature and from ‘fastest’ to ‘slowest’ in their speed of adoption. Imagine a simple ladder made of two poles and seven steps. The first of these poles looks at the nature of impact; it starts with ‘personal’ at the bottom and moves on to ‘collective’ at the top. The second pole represents the speed of adoption, with ‘fastest’ at the bottom and ‘slowest’ at the top.
Nature of impact: Personal
Speed of adoption: Fastest
The lockdown and the challenges and fears that go with it have ensured that we have cut down on experimentation and extravagance. We are sticking to food that we love, easy to prepare, lasts longer, and gives us a sense of comfort. Diet regimens have been compromised but what the hell, we need to hold on to something that makes us feel better.
But after the lockdown, we will get over our compulsive consumption of ‘comfort food’; we will get strategic about food. As we understand the detrimental effect unhealthy diets (which lead to lifestyle diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes) have on our ability to resist diseases like COVID-19, we will adopt healthier diets.
There is already a movement towards eating local and eating natural. We may now see a deepening of this trend. There will also be significant research into food groups and diets that boost our immunity. Immunity boosting food habits will no longer be a niche or a fad, it will define our approach to food.
Virtual is real
Nature of adoption: Personal
Speed of adoption: Fast
Action is already moving from offline to online. ‘Work from home’ and ‘homeschooled’ no longer look impractical. Gaming sites, streaming services, delivery apps — all of them are seeing traffic like they never did.
This surge is currently happening due to people who are already online residents. But the interesting part of this story will concern the non-residents, those who have stayed largely away from action online, those who have not yet made online transactions, those who access the online worlds through their mobile network.
Coronavirus will see a boom in fixed broadband. Rates will drop, penetration will rise. Kerala was the first state in India to declare the internet a basic human right. Governments across the country will start seeing high speed, fixed broadband as a basic human right. Get ready for a ‘har ghar mein broadband’ scheme. Although when it gets launched, it will most certainly be branded a whole lot better.
Nature of adoption: Personal and collective
Speed of adoption: Not so fast
This crisis has shown us the value of frontline workers. From nurses to migrants, farmworkers, delivery boys, and sanitary workers, the contribution of those at the bottom of the hierarchy has become more visible. In time, this may translate into better benefits and working conditions for them. We may even see the pay gap between top executives and frontline workers reducing.
Another trend that has been strengthened during this lockdown is the movement towards working from home and flexi-work. In fact, we are now seeing even government officials working from home, and the health ministry too recently issued guidelines for telemedicine.
Imagine the benefits of this movement. Office spaces will shrink. Why do you need to spend so much on real estate when ‘work from home’ becomes an acceptable practice? The daily commute will cease to be a daily headache. Pollution levels will come down. More people with family responsibilities, which make it difficult for them to work currently, will be able to join the workforce.
Nature of adoption: Collective
Speed of adoption: Slower
The extreme Right and the extreme Left will collapse. To ensure their survival and relevance, politicians of every calling will move towards the centre.
We could see less emotionally charged divisiveness and more rational discussions. Politicians may find the time and energy to be a constructive force of change, focusing on things that matter like our healthcare system and manufacturing capabilities and making lives better and people feel secure. The alphabet soup of policies and amendments will be a thing of the past.
Nature of adoption: Collective
Speed of adoption: Slow
While the economy is set to take a beating in the short term, this may be a wake-up call. We may finally get down to strengthening the infrastructure, developing a strong manufacturing sector and encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship.
We may also see more public investment. And a shift from individual-based consumption to more collective consumption. More investment in key sectors like health and education. And a concerted effort from governments to deliver quality education and healthcare free of cost.
Leadership and governance
Nature of adoption: Collective
Speed of adoption: Slow
A lot of world leaders have had their own Mary Antoinette moments. “It will disappear” and “Herd immunity” will haunt their legacies forever.
As always, the ‘rally around the leader’ phenomenon will work in the short run. Over time though, every leader will be judged by how effectively they handled this pandemic.
The picture of thousands of workers walking hundreds of kilometers will be hard to forget. And it should never be forgotten. This fact will not be lost on the leaders. They will realise that a state without empathy and compassion is completely useless. Hopefully, this realisation will give birth to a state that cares for all of its citizens equally. A state that takes every individual’s pursuit of happiness and security seriously.
Nature of adoption: Collective
Speed of adoption: Slowest
Waking up to birdsong has been a pleasant experience. The skies are clearer, the air cleaner. Pictures of a cleaner Ganga and peacocks strutting down the streets of Mumbai have made us realise how destructive we have been.
This period of isolation has made us focus on what is essential and concretised the importance and benefits of abstract concepts like reducing our carbon footprint. This shift in public consciousness will give governments the confidence to push through much needed ‘environmental reforms’.
It seems apt to conclude this optimistic take on the impact of coronavirus with one of the oft-repeated quotes on teachers and students: “When the student is ready, the master will appear.”
The optimist in us leads us to believe that the lessons that humanity will learn through coronavirus will change the way we think and the way we act.
Through the eyes of a pessimist
What can be darker than the human and economic costs that the world has had to bear since the beginning of the outbreak? Why indeed should we be looking at how things could get worse when the news is already full of gloom and doom? What good would it do? And the answer is that it’s much tougher to fight something if we don’t see it coming. The reason for imagining a worst-case scenario is to prepare for it, and if possible, prevent it.
Fear and division
Fear is a key survival tool but irrational fear is a terrible thing. Master Yoda in Star Wars was at his insightful best when he told Anakin Skywalker, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
The consequences of blind fear and bigotry have already been felt across the world, from Africans who faced discrimination in China to Asian Americans who faced it in NYC. In India, we’ve seen doctors and healthcare workers being attacked, people from the Northeast being discriminated against, airline staff being harassed, and communal slurs being thrown around online.
Fear of the other can also manifest as ultra-nationalism. There have been as many cases of nations competing for resources as there have been about nations coming together to fight the pandemic. The longer this pandemic runs, the greater the possibility that the world will slip back into a darker, more tribal avatar.
The shrinking of liberty and privacy
Across the world, emergency measures have been put in place to fight this pandemic. And rightly so. We now have laws prohibiting the congregation of people in many countries. Many governments are also using smartphone data to figure out if people are violating lockdown norms, even using tracking apps and facial recognition — the fact is that technology is being used across the world for surveillance.
There have also been measures taken to counter misinformation. Hungary, for instance, has introduced a law that penalises those who spread misinformation that hampers the government’s response to the pandemic with jail.
These measures may be necessary today to halt COVID-19. But we need to remember that typically while governments are quick to impose emergency measures, they are slow to withdraw them. There is also the fear that these measures may be misused to shut down legitimate criticism of the government, take away our right to protest and invade our privacy.
Will our leaders — in the government as well as the tech world — have the wisdom to roll back these measures and kill these tools when the pandemic passes? If they don’t, then life in the 21st century will be as dark as George Orwell envisioned in 1984.
Historically, a crisis has often brought out our worst business instincts. Famines that ravaged India in the past were always accompanied by merchants hoarding food grains. And today, we’re seeing a black market in ventilators.
But there are less obvious COVID entrepreneurs around too. And they have raised their ugly heads. Years and years of work done by committed organisations and individuals resulted in the ban of plastic bags in many parts of the world. Plastic manufacturers though see an opportunity today. The Plastics Industry Association, an American industry body, is now lobbying hard to reverse this ban. Their logic — that reusable bags are riskier than plastic bags — is more greed than logic.
But is it working? Yes, it is. Many states in the US have already reversed their bans. And what’s good for plastic could hold good for many other industries facing public pressure to adhere to environmental or safety standards. So the question is will policymakers allow narrow corporate interests to exploit this crisis or will the greater public good guide them?
The status quo endures
International organisations and governments have been simulating their response to a global pandemic for a while now to ensure that they’re prepared for such an event.
In fact, the World Economic Forum, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation hosted an event called Event 201 in October 2019 to figure out how the world would manage a pandemic caused by a coronavirus. However, despite this, we’re scrambling to respond effectively to this threat.
This crisis has shown us that the status quo does not work. The healthcare infrastructure is broken even in the richest parts of the world. Income inequalities have been brought into focus. Migrants walking home on Indian highways and the French police fining the homeless because they broke lockdown rules are just two cruel examples of a widening wealth gap.
This system needs to be fixed. But if we don’t act to fix the system then nothing changes. And we go back to business as usual. This means that no surveillance systems will be set up to spot the next outbreak early, no systems will be put in place to contain a disease before it becomes a pandemic, no steps will be taken to fix a broken healthcare system, and no measures will be taken to improve the working conditions of migrant labor or reduce unemployment levels.
Nothing could be worse than not recognising this pandemic for the wake-up call that it is. Nothing could be worse than being unprepared for the next pandemic that might be coming our way.
But we are not pessimists. Which pessimist would launch their business in times like this? The Spanish flu which devastated the world in 1918 dramatically changed how the world looked at public health; it was responsible for the setting up of public healthcare systems in many nations.
We believe that history has shown that we rarely waste a good crisis. We believe that none of these scenarios will come to pass. However, to guard against them we need to act. We need to awaken the better angels of our nature and act with compassion and decisiveness.
(The author is a partner at The Strategy School, and is a seasoned strategist, having worked with some big brands in India)