The Covid-19 pandemic has ushered in changes worldwide that were unimaginable even a few months back. It was unthinkable even in February this year that a majority of white collar workers in many countries would soon work from their homes, or travels by air would plunge by 96 per cent.
Although the calamity might appear to have been around for a long period, it is still in its ascendancy and many more transformations may be in store for us in the foreseeable future.
The jargon 'new normal' is now used by the media, apparently in a bid to remove the uncertainties regarding shifts caused by the pandemic. As there is no lasting cure in sight in the immediate future, people are applying this phrase while imagining they are settling down again by attuning to a new lifestyle called the 'new normal'. It implies 'things will never be the same as before' - therefore welcome to a 'new world order'. Through this, a novel lifestyle is being imagined in relation to the previous state, thereby setting a standard for the present and future till the pandemic subsides or vanishes through gradual weakening.
Creativity can help humans in their journey through the next long stretch. They cannot maintain social distancing forever, as that is unnatural. But neither can they return to older habits, as that would be hazardous. Instead, innovations are being explored.
For example, why not close some streets to vehicles and permit restaurants to operate outdoors, as that would be safer for avoiding the virus? This idea has already been adopted by some urban centres of the West.
In fact, the key to controlling outbreak is largely in individual hands. Therefore, many are wearing masks and desisting from unnecessary travels or shopping trips. Some studies have even suggested that voluntary actions benefit society almost as much as long-term lockdowns. But while some people are hysterical with fear, others have death wishes. In 'Decameron', the medieval Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) described the 14th century plague, when some embraced caution-cum-isolation while others went to the extreme of daring destiny to put an end to their lives.
However, compared to plagues, this pandemic is milder, people are less drastic, and they understand the enemy much better. Many tend to steer clear of the debates surrounding rights versus responsibilities, or caution versus courage. But not many are averse to eating outside on sunny days, or sitting together in ventilated rooms. And many realise that masks protect themselves and others around them. As people adjust with the norms, hopes rise that the craze for a cure would yield a vaccine in the foreseeable future, while day-to-day innovations put them in good stead for restoring some semblance of normality.
MIT has recently published a blog-post by the think-tank EY, which summarises the findings from virtual sessions participated by 100 global leaders. It tried to gauge the pandemic's impact and identify the measures needed for tackling future challenges. The five major ideas covered by the discussions were: a rebalanced global order; more equitable societies and economies; transformed firms and markets; changed individual and household behaviour; and the guiding principles for leaders.
The balance of power may be realigned in a new global order. The status of transnational institutions may undergo further erosion, thereby creating vacuum in global leadership. This could translate into a return to multi-polarity with an expanded role for the EU.
The pandemic may also trigger backlash against globalisation amid sharp falls in international trade, investment and people's movement. Manufacturing may have to come closer to home markets, which may provide fillip to regionalism and re-localisation trends. Although labour flows have fallen due to clampdowns on travels and migration, the pandemic may promote a different kind of labour mobility whereby work would relocate to people.
The pandemic is also likely to strengthen the movement for more equitable societies and economies in the wake of weaknesses laid bare in social safety nets and a greater reckoning with widening inequality and social disparities. Workers may start demanding better healthcare protections, benefits and salaries. People will also feel the need for correcting the systemic discriminations based on race, religion or colour and demand more actions for ensuring social justice.
The pandemic has signalled that remote work has come to stay. It has expedited the arrival of a long-anticipated trend that delinks talent from place. The business firms may recruit globally by pooling the best teams for projects instead of opting for standing headcounts. Starting from on-boarding to succession planning, new talent metrics and rewards will be required with emphasis on soft skills and empathy. The adoption of automation, artificial intelligence and augmented virtual reality is likely to soar with the digital technology replacing physical proximity. Telemedicine is likely to surge alongside use of Robots for simple customised tasks like cleaning and serving. Online shopping, courses and classes will also become much more common.
The corona-induced social distancing can worsen the polarisation and diminish societal trust if people remain confined inside their social bubbles. Trust is likely to shift to the local level if confidence in government decays due to mismanagement of pandemic responses. An enduring shift may take root if households continue to engage in more considerate consumptions by focusing on more sustainable and essential purchases.
The 'Black Death' pandemic marked the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of a great cultural renewal. For all its devastations, could the Covid-19 pandemic trigger a similar thrust for radical shifts and renewal? As it rages across the globe, it provides humans with an opportunity to re-imagine the world they inhabit by retracing history. As people remain unsettled and secluded, they are more likely to empathise with others who have faced systemic exclusions for long, bypassed by societies even before the emergence of Covid-19. This in turn may stimulate a process for urgent remedial actions. For many such marginalised and downtrodden communities, life has never been 'normal' in the past.
Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.