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Society

How coronavirus will force us to review our thinking

working from home
A mother working from home. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH 

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared coronavirus (Covid-19), a pandemic, pointing to the more than 225,252 cases of the coronavirus illness in over 110 countries around the world and the sustained risk of further global spread.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes Covid-19, is thought to have first jumped from an animal host to humans in Wuhan, China. In the beginning, most cases were seen within China and among people who had travelled there, as well as those travellers’ close contacts. While these cases were concerning, they did not suggest a pandemic, because there was not a significant spread outside of China. But as the number of infections rose, so too did the number of cases that spread from person-to-person within communities around the world. Cases have now been confirmed on every continent except Antarctica, and secondary disease hotspots have emerged in such places as South Korea, Italy and Iran.

All these factors informed WHO’s pandemic declaration, which signals to the world that continued spread is likely, and that countries should prepare for widespread community transmission. Even before the WHO declaration of a pandemic, the illness had already caused many governments to ban travel to and from countries which had reported infections and prompted cities to flesh out quarantines and suspend public events and gatherings.

In China, most cities were put on complete lockdown and this has achieved the desired outcome of slowing down the rate of new infections. Business is returning to normal as the restrictions are eased in China but the loss to the economy due the shutdown is yet to be assessed.

Not only is the deadly coronavirus causing immeasurable suffering and loss of life but it is already impacting the world economy, hurting stocks, halting travel and meetings, impacting the daily ritual of going to the office, and quarantining millions.

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Businesses worldwide are feeling the effect of these changes in behaviour, and economists are predicting the virus will result in an economic loss in the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars.

While the grave and tragic human toll of lost lives cannot be measured, there is a silver lining. Just about every major scourge be it the Great Plague in Europe, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) or, HIV/Aids has sparked a new wave of innovation and coronavirus is no exception.

As extreme and cruel as these diseases have been to society, each one has altered how we live and function, leading to innovation that facilitates the changes that we desire in our lives.

Pandemics catalyse innovation and accelerate change by providing an environment for launching and testing new ideas. Today’s coronavirus is already changing cultural and business norms shaking to the core of what we have taken for granted for decades and centuries. The simple act of a handshake is increasingly becoming a relic, even as we surgically wash our hands a dozen times a day.

Remote workers were already on the rise, but “working from home” is now WFH, the new norm. WFH will lead to a myriad of workplace changes impacting teamwork, productivity, collaboration, and communication.

Since the outbreak of coronavirus, shares of Zoom, the WFH tool of choice have significantly outperformed the markets in value, an early sign of a market that is already anticipating changes in human behaviour. With the popularity of Netflix, food delivery, Amazon Prime, ultra-fast broadband and Peletons, it seems we have spent the last decade preparing for this moment.

Our lifestyle changes, which were already in the making, will be speeded up by this deadly disease. Already companies like Postmates and Instacart are offering “contactless” delivery options. Similar offerings will evolve, and soon, a wave of innovation, designed for our new way of living and work, will spawn, and historians will likely mark today’s coronavirus as the spark for long term societal change.

Nearer home in Kenya, while we have WFH tools, Netflix, ultra-fast broadband, and food delivery, this is also a chance to look at some of our more basic needs. I would like to echo Governor Alfred Mutua’s words that this disease has equalised the poor and the rich because those wealthy individuals who were used to travelling abroad can no longer do so due to travel restrictions and have to seek treatment locally like everyone else.

It is time to upgrade our health systems so that they can provide robust services for all and sundry to obviate any need to travel abroad for treatment.

the last nail

The coronavirus’s depressing effects on the global economy and disruptions of supply chains is no doubt driving the last nail on the coffin of the globalists. They believe (and so did I for a long time) in the theory first articulated by Englishman David Ricardo (1773-1823) that free trade among nations benefits all of them.

He argued for the comparative advantage of free trade and industrial specialisation. Even if one country is more competitive in every area than its trading partners, that nation should only concentrate on the areas in which it has the largest competitive advantage.

But Ricardo’s simple trade model requires economies in static equilibrium with full employment and neither trade deficits or surpluses, and similar living standards. These are not true in the real world.

The model also did not consider countries at different stages of development, exchange rate manipulations or trading partners with huge wage differences such as the US and China. As a result, China can produce any manufactured good cheaper than America, which explains the chronic trade deficit the US has with China.

Back to Kenya, we need to reduce our over-reliance on tourism, tea and coffee. Let us revive our pyrethrum, cotton, macadamia, avocado, and textile sectors. We have a burgeoning ICT industry and going almost completely cashless during the coronavirus scourge has been very easy for Kenya. This is an opportunity to make a paradigm shift in our thinking and come up with innovations to bring about behaviour change.

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