A new world order brought by Covid-19
Asoke K Laha, President & CEO of Interra Information Technologies
"I’ve always believed that in times of economic downturn, the right thing to do is keep investing in building the future,” Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said. “When the world changes quickly, people have new needs, and that means there are more new things to build.”
How soon that will happen? To expect that happen all on a sudden may be a pious wish. It may be a gradual process in some countries, particularly in the developed world, which have borne the brunt of the pandemic. Though these countries have, by and large, bucked the trend of the lockdown blues by keeping some of the production facilities operating even during the peak of the pandemic scare, one should not overlook the fact that these economies have a large external market. Barring two-continental size markets-China and India-the rest of the countries have to depend more on external markets to sell their products, technologies and services. When the rest of the world, including the two largest markets-China and India- have been adversely affected by the killer virus and there were massive disruptions in the supply and demand side, almost all industries have scaled down their production, if not totally stopped, how could there be global trade?
Also, there were production diversifications in markets like the US, EU and China, the largest suppliers of goods of all hues and sizes across the world. While the automobile and defense majors in the US stopped their respective production lines to augment supply of healthcare products like ventilators, producers of consumer goods are focused on making masks, sanitizers, and other healthcare peripheral goods to fight the pandemic either on their own or being directed by their respective governments.
Corporate boardrooms across the world are mapping strategies to bolster production in a short time. They feel that is possible only by bringing in tectonic shifts in technologies. What would be those technologies? Do we think that Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT) and Blockchain and several other technologies in hibernation, which the human ingenuity would evolve sooner or later as a bye product of the present predicament, would solve the problem? These technologies are already in vogue and the present production processes are to a large extent, are dependent on these cutting edge technologies. Post Covid-19 may accelerate the deployment of these technologies and a lot more. Could they solve the problems that are awaiting us? Let us focus on the problems that are going to confront us. Foremost is a curative path for the pandemic either in the form of a vaccine or a drug to ensure that a pandemic of this type never gets repeated in the history of mankind.
Secondly, the challenges posed by unemployment in the post-Covid days are being felt in most of the industrialized countries. Almost all countries in the world have reported a massive rise in unemployment. The US, though surprisingly, has shown an increase in employment in the past month. The rest of the world is still in the grip of massive unemployment riding on the back of disruptions in supply and demand chains. When this will get over is as uncertain as the retrace of the virus.
Coupled with this, there are financial and production losses across the world. Production facilities across the world have either come to a grinding halt or grossly scaled down. The booster doses announced by countries including India, experts say, may fail to reach the needy due to pilferages or wrong allocations. Inflationary pressures will be built up in developing and least developed countries, where most of the vulnerable sections of the people live. It may take at least two to three years for the world economy to come back on rail.
A related issue is inadequate health infrastructure in almost all countries including in the developed world. On the top of it, countries like India faced the massive problem of migrant population, who were silhouetted in hoards in ill-equipped tenements. They could not move to their native villages because of the sudden lockdown.
Most of the poor countries are facing food shortages caused by the lockdown. In many countries, farmers could not cultivate because of the lockdown. Educational institutes are still closed because of the lockdown, disruptions in transport systems etc. Students who have access to online education can avail of the benefit of distance education. However, internet is not reliable and unstable at some times. But in poorer regions of Asia, Africa and pockets of Latin America do not have access to television sets, internet and personal computers to connect with online education. That way the problems are many and varied.
We have to “think different “ to ferret out newer ideas to come out of the predicament of the present. My view is that technology alone will not help us to come out of the situation we are in. We have to broaden our vision to go beyond the narrow boundaries of countries, regions and continents. What we faced and still facing is a global problem, wherein every person on Earth is a stakeholder and part of a chain. He or she can contract an infection and pass on to the rest of the world.
To me the pricey take away from the pandemic is that the world should always think of 7.9 billion from now onwards. Let me explain what that conundrum is. That is the number of the world population. Every technology we discover, every concept we germinate, every discourse we make should address the 7.9 billion people across the world and not about people in a nation state or a region or similar geographical contiguity. Across the world, people are talking about finding a vaccine or a preventive drug for the Covid-19. That drug or vaccine is not for a small group of people or a country. The drug or vaccine has to be produced for 7.9 billion people spread across continents. That would mean the drug should be affordable and accessible to all and not alone for the rich and privileged. That knowledge can be extrapolated to other segments of human behavior. The technology that is hibernating now for healthcare should have universal application, be it for preventive healthcare products, developing awareness materials about various diseases and curative methodologies , evolving protocols and a host of other things. In the post-Covid-19 days, a lot of stress is going to be there for tele-medicine to track and treat diseases in far flung areas, where healthcare systems are fragile like in Africa or South Asia. The virus and bacteria originating there can mutate and spread to the rest of the world in a matter of days.
The other takeaway is pooling technology for the welfare of mankind. Also, whatever developed by a company or a country, will no longer be their intellectual property, but for mankind.
Many predict that post pandemic the order is going to be automation and least involvement of the people in the production processes. That may be true to some extent. What about the people who will be replaced by technology? Keeping millions unemployed would be like inviting trouble. They should have opportunities to lead a decent life, live in hygienic conditions, enough food to feed them and their families, should have accessible and affordable healthcare systems, good habitats to live. That means production technologies should have organic connect with human welfare.
Huawei Technologies are experimenting how to use 5G technologies for tele-medicine, protection of medical personnel and quarantine ward automation, among others. 5G also can be used for remote gene sequencing to help improve the detection rates of Covid-19. Similarly, unmanned or self-driving vehicles that spray disinfectants on their own can reduce the risk of infection of those working in quarantined areas. Infrared temperature measurement tools and mobile trolleys for quarantine ward consultations are other examples of how the healthcare sector is currently benefiting from using ICT.