A human hand drops its pencil when it finishes drawing the awful picture of a battlefield. The human race is battling against an invisible creature that can endanger human life with every hand touch, sneeze, or reception of cough droplets containing its particles. We are all searching for a sensible solution to get rid of this prevailing horrid doom.
Now the world feels like a haunted place, where bad things can happen at any moment. The world's population is cooped-up indoors, not exiting their hedgehog holes as the foe is so ferocious and noncompliant. They are fighting with the unseen enemy on the battlefield, arming themselves with: masks, personal protective equipment, soap, and sanitiser.
As humanity steps into the reality of life with Covid-19, life already feels drastically different. Today, staying deaf-and-dumb for 24 hours without talking, hearing or reading about the coronavirus would be an act of pretending. Discussions about Covid-19 over the dining table, trolling and viral social media content have multiplied – arguably as quickly as the virus itself.
Coronavirus has now become the talk of the world – replacing the buzz about climate change. Ominous news on social media occasionally becomes "the boy who cried wolf." Wondering? Fear of the virus may be more infectious than the virus itself. It can harm people's health, weaken the tolerance of entire societies and create an atmosphere of distrust and confusion. Negative thoughts and feelings are looming large in people's minds.
Fear is prompting people to make unwise choices like making unnecessary visits to hospitals and clinics – or hoarding food, unethically, creating price hikes and disturbing the regular supply chain. The new coronavirus has brought human life to a near standstill, closing businesses, canceling large gatherings, and keeping people at home.
This generation could have never imagined it. They are acquainted with pandemics like AIDs, Swine Flu, Sars, Ebola and Mers that killed, respectively, 35 million, 2 lacs, 770, 11000, and 850 people, so far. However, they were successfully controlled, did not quarantine the world community for quaranta giorni – or 40 days – since they were not as highly transmissible as the coronavirus. In 1918-19 the Spanish flu killed 50 million people. Many nations initially acted like the coronavirus outbreak was an earthquake.
The presence of the pandemic – or its absence – shapes our lives. And mankind owes its freedom of movement to medicine. For example, birth control pills or antibiotics have shaped our private lives.
The onset of a pandemic rapidly reduces trade and wages; increases production costs, suspicion of outsiders and mass starvation; plus decreases social mobility and freedom. This shakes up social structures and jolts economic relations.
All the people under these circumstances must surely be wondering: When will things return to normal? No one knows exactly how long it will take to stop the disease's spread from person to person. It is hard to calculate and forecast the true impact of Covid-19, as the outbreak is still ongoing.
Normal life can resume immediately if a vaccine becomes available within a minimal amount of time. However, manufacturing a vaccine is a complex journey – really a herculean endeavor. Most of the vaccines we rely on today took 5-15 years to perfect. Researchers take a very long time to make sure it is just right to pump into the arms of hundreds of millions – possibly billions – of people.
In case of utter disappointment that no one is able to develop a vaccine, how could life return to normal with the virus remaining as threatening and continuing to circulate – infecting people like colds or the flu does? It could happen if researchers identify a treatment for Covid-19 – not a cure but something that could quickly and reliably ease symptoms and prevent deaths. If not, then what we can do to get back to the normal tune of life?
We need to set sufficient health facilities that people can go to when they are sick. The facilities need test kits and trained doctors or medical assistants capable of diagnosing their illness, reporting that information upwards to national laboratories equivalent to the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research. They would also need to be able to treat and cure the persons or help them follow isolation protocols. Right now, we are very far from this milestone of good emergency health systems.
Currently, the world is experiencing a sea of change. Is there an impending paradigm shift in how the whole world will socialise, work, and so on, on a day-to-day basis? Logistical and social resilience against pandemics is building in our minds. Communities and societies are going to learn good pro-social habits from this and be more ready to take care of each other.
Maybe more people work from home, hold digital conferences, place online orders, create restaurants with fewer seats, and not venture to music festivals, crowded beaches or bars. Sports leagues might resume without crowds. Travel restrictions might make for less crowded airports. Students' schools would be at home through fine tuning of distance learning techniques and they would not have struggling peers in the class.
Maybe people would let wild species graze freely without encroaching on their pasture, put much stricter restrictions on the wildlife trade and reduce human and animal interactions. We may have a world with vigorous hand-washing, well-smothered sneezing and coughing, and the use of generous amounts of hand sanitiser. We are still in the early days of this pandemic. Moving back toward normalcy at this early stage could be disastrous.
In a best case scenario, the world's authorities will deal with the crisis, and life will continue along its usual trajectory. It could lead to a two-tier globe. Citizens of dysfunctional, high-risk and poorly managed countries will be forbidden to enter countries that have the means and organisation to effectively stamp out coronavirus – resulting in decreased remittances inflow. Therefore, poor and badly-managed countries will be left to the ravages of the disease to develop herd immunity through mass infection.
If the virus persists and if it continues to ruin the lives of people across a wide spectrum of economic sectors, coverage might shift from luxury towards real issues of health, wellbeing and income. Superior goods will be elbowed out indefinitely by bread and butter.
The coronavirus may change trade patterns and decouple the world's largest economies. Global supply chains in technology, pharmaceuticals, and automobile sectors might be interrupted. In severe cases, many factories might shut down entirely. New factories might be built, domestically, to meet shortages of key components – reducing outsourcing. Such practices might reverse globalisation, reduce incentives to cooperate at both corporate and national level plus ultimately isolate economies and cultures.
The world is now embracing the fourth industrial revolution through the use of cyber-physical-biological systems. Industries and warehouses are amplifying their incentives to rid the workplace of humans to survive in the race of business competition. The intellectual captains of industry might continue to grow in value on the marketplace. The income will largely be limited to this new Brahmin cast of intellectuals. The vast majority beneath them, however, would lose their jobs, or, at best, see significant wage cuts.
The World Economic Forum reports that 400-800 million people around the globe could be displaced by automation. This will give rise to a job market increasingly segregated into "low-skill, low-pay" and "high-skill, high-pay" segments, which in turn will lead to an increase in social tensions. Additionally, some jobs will become obsolete. How we will retrain those that lose their jobs, and how we give them a new occupation, is a big challenge ahead. Covid-19 has aggravated the situation. The government and policymakers need to adapt by keeping pace with the changes.
Fear of a disease may not be confined to the disease itself. It can cross-mix with any domain of life. The fear may influence a return to: a close-knit community, family bonds, nationalism instead of globalism, and sexual prudence. Virtual work and virtual entertainment may become the norm. People may resort to religions as they offer spiritual technologies – that help people endure difficulties, change their views, make them optimistic even when they are vulnerable – and move people toward action.
The world is overdue for a severe recession. Covid-19 is the canary in the coal mine. Downward pressures on income over the next few years would likely have been unavoidable, even without the pandemic. What the social order will be, we do not know yet, and may not be able to foresee.
Covid-19 is taking a stress test of how selfish we are willing to be. Now we have a crisis affecting almost everyone, in which the selfishness of some is there for all to see. We need to work together. The individual response to Covid-19 is as important as government action. People need to adopt measures unequivocally recommended by medical experts.
Unfortunately, poorer people tend to spend more of their earnings away than the richest anyhow. As spending and consumption have increasingly gone digital, the gig economy has occupied ever-more labor market space. It is a tragic irony that those on zero-hour work contracts now, are totally helpless because of this crisis.
It is subjective to crow about demonising rich people, yet they can support those less fortunate following "Transcendence Needs," of Maslow's expanded theory of human motivation – that a person is sometimes motivated by values which transcend beyond the personal self. That is self-actualization, for example, in altruism or spirituality. Salute to those doctors, health workers, persons and politicians coming forward to help the victims of the crisis.
Covid-19 is a crisis; it is dominating the world. Yet it is giving us an enormous chance to learn proactive-reactive management and build a better safety net for its next stage. There is light shining at the end of the tunnel. Many companies and academic institutions are racing to make a Covid-19 vaccine. A group of scientists at Arizona State University dream that one day they will be able to destroy complicated viruses using ultrasound in the same way that opera singers shatter wine glasses. However, it is still a long way to go. We are all oscillating between hope and despair.
The author is Assistant Professor, Institute of Appropriate Technology, BUET and Reviewer, Advances in Economics and Business, HRPUB, USA.