The Financial Express

Coronavirus & opportunity windows

Imtiaz A. Hussain   | Published: March 05, 2020 21:13:05 | Updated: March 07, 2020 21:58:41

Chinese President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, learns about the progress on the COVID-19 vaccine and anti-body during his visit to the Academy of Military Medical Sciences in Beijing, March 02, 2020.     — Photo: Xinhua Chinese President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, learns about the progress on the COVID-19 vaccine and anti-body during his visit to the Academy of Military Medical Sciences in Beijing, March 02, 2020.     — Photo: Xinhua

It is already clear, COVID-19, even with declining fatalities, will not be disappearing soon. Stock-markets will continue collapsing, businesses closing, and border-shutters will continue to grow. Such net effects as deepening hatred across the planet, over race, religion, and just about any other source of discrimination one might bring to the plate, could not have come at a more slippery time. Not much can be done about the milk already spilled, of which detailed analyses not only abound, but also expand each day, leaving lessons to be learned against a new kind of a future threat.

Also in vogue has been plotting post-Coronavirus strategies. This paper has itself harped upon diversifying along various economic dimensions (see Scopus article, February 27, 2020), such as exports, products, and trading partners. This theme needs to be pushed, yet angled slightly differently: instead of formulating new add-on developmental or economic strategies, how we can displace costly, old patterns, practices, and preferences entirely with suitable new ones may be more appropriate. Opportunities for structural changes are few (since they are so costly), but once taken, the long-term benefits, which typically tend to be hard to estimate with concurrent eyes, happen to stick to status quo policy-approaches than otherwise.

S. Dilip Roy's discussion of the negative impact on the plastic industry in Daily Star (February 18, 2020, B4), catalyses this discussion. To be sure, getting rid of plastic from human consumption/utilisation has become a growing reality, hitherto for almost exclusively environmental reasons. This crisis opens the window to close plastic impact, shift to remediable, bio-degradable alternatives, and thereby spark a mini-Bangladeshi environmental crusade, with enormous future gains.

Roy concentrates on Bangladeshi exports of scrap plastic to China, which become inputs of final products. Lalmonirhat in the north has emerged as one such plastic collection centres, with Chattogram and Dhaka traders serving as intermediaries. Both suppliers and traders have already been hurt by coronavirus disruptions.

Experimenting for alternatives incentivises aggressive businesses or government agencies to probe new frontiers, encouraging innovation. Costs will, no doubt, outweigh benefits initially, with plummeting status-quo plastic sales and research costs. Over the long-run, though, any substitute cannot but enter the market, thrusting Bangladesh into the limelight by promoting innovative efforts (so ecliptic inside Bangladesh), generating comparative price advantages in marketing, and encouraging others (even competitors abroad), to shift to renewable alternatives. These might be just what the business doctor would order under our grey economic sky now.

Broadening that approach, Bangladesh has fallen deep into the grasps of Chinese loans, and with them Chinese advisers, planners, workers, bankers, and the like, flooding Bangladesh. Many had travelled to China for new-year celebrations, but found restrictions in returning. Their presence is not the problem, but since their project construction/implementation will have to remain on hold, by exploring alternatives, Bangladesh's innovative juices would get a jump-start. Alternate plans for China-assisted segments of the Chattogram-Cox's Bazar rail-link, Karnafuli tunnel, Padma rail-links, and Payra thermal power station should be made, even if only on paper, since we do not know how long construction delays might last.

A related idea is to promote the shift towards coal-fuelled energy substitutes. We have turned to coal because of the urgent need to supply spiralling new energy demands. The coronavirus crisis allows us even the pretext to contemplate shifting from coal to solar under a coronavirus-triggered argument to offset mounting standstill costs.

Here, too, we see the encouraging signs of what coronavirus breakdown has done to pollution across China: the typical dip in coal consumption during New Chinese Year has actually taken an even sharper turn in the positive direction, by one estimate, as many as 150 million metric tons fewer pollutants were recorded in barely 3 (three) or 4 (four) weeks of the Wuhan outbreak, that is, the equivalent of one full-year of pollution generated in, say, the US state of New York (Brad Plumer, Nadja Popovich, and Shola Lawal, "The coronavirus and carbon emissions," New York Times, February 26, 2020). Huge opportunities open up to find renewable energy sources, since ultimately the costs entailed might be considerably less than all the businesses closing down because of the disease, such as in construction and manufacturing, and thereby banking, tourism, and shipping.

On the flip side, China's massive resort to artificial intelligence (AI), for example to obtain location-based algorithm data from smart-phones, which is prohibited in western countries to safeguard privacy laws. This has helped speed up remedial efforts. Even data on medicinal purchases have been traced to find incidences, then draw a location map, again for treatment.

Of course, innovating a COVID-19 cure opens up a far more rapidly expanding pharmaceutical industry, as we already see with hitherto small-scale producers, like Inovio Pharmaceuticals, Moderna, and Novavax, whose stock-market values sky-rocketed even as net stock-market transactions plummeted drastically. Yet, getting those intellectual and innovative juices flowing are on track, and the obligation of arming future societies from other epidemics/pandemics gets a major boost. Chances of such outbreaks have only spiralled under rapid globalisation, so COVID-19 will not be the last. Not only that, its fatality-toll may also look 'peanuts' compared to others later (just like the COVID-19 toll of more than 92,000 cases globally, with fatalities now surpassing 3,000,  has been far worse than the severe acute respiratory syndrome, that is, the SARS outbreak earlier this century).

Ultimately, these impose the economic structural changes that we must be better prepared for. At the minimum, these structural changes begin with rapid health responses (necessitating huge pharmaceutical engagements), and independently developed laboratories and other such facilities (which do not drop from the sky: the university and research training they require cannot be quick start-ups or ad hoc, thus demanding more public and private sector resources than we have ever allocated before).

Eventually crises like this will need economic Plan-Bs, upon which Scopus has resolutely harped in this newspaper (February 27, 2020). Diversity was identified as the game-changer on all fronts.

For optimists, COVID-19 exposes some light at the end of many dark tunnels: we can take a decisive 'green' turn, based on renewable consumption and inputs, giving environmental consideration ample attention just when the climate-change threats begin worsening; innovation infrastructures that developed countries must be riddled with will get a momentous launching here, that too, on the threshold of our graduation efforts in that direction; university training, more specifically, research and development (R/D), can only break new thresholds, since we must now burst out of our own Ground Zero on this front; and who knows, like jute and ready-made garments, our Sonar Bangla can make new global waves if, and only if, we hold our breath and take the plunge.

Many countries will be hit and hurt, if not already on the ropes, then not too far away. Costs will mount everywhere, but this allows the nature of the ball game to change, something we would never have considered before precisely because of the mounting costs. Since those costs have surfaced independently, we must pounce on the opportunity to make the break that our future generations will be pleased we made. Behind the structural changes we will see and feel around us must prevail a mindset equally consistent, compatible, comprehensible, coherent, and catalytic.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Dean (Acting), School of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (SLASS) and

Head, Global Studies & Governance

Program Independent

University, Bangladesh




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