December 17, 2020

A few years before his death, Stephen Hawking prophesied that humanity has only about 1,000 years on earth before we locate to another hospitable planet; he envisaged the threats of nuclear warfare, climate change, and unsupervised Artificial Intelligence. He could not have imagined that his prediction would come nearly true in just about four years and that too from a virus!

Unlike outbreaks such as the SAARS, E-bola and H1N1, COVID-19 is not a problem within the confines of virology, immunology or epidemiology; it is disrupting economies, global politics, businesses and livelihoods from across Australia to America. So much so that some are deeming it fit to term the post COVID period an epoch in modern human history.

Governments and citizens the world over are forced pause and reflect think on the direction and meaning of progress as we have come to believe. Are these signs of a new world order emerging?

The whole concept of the office as the sole and primary location of work has come under question with more and more organizations across the world recognizing home as an alternate place to work for their employees. While the long-term ramifications of this trend need to be fully understood, for the moment, we are seeing healthy signs with decongested roads, cleaner air and more family time. There has been a reported 8.8% decrease in CO2 emissions in the first half of 2020 – something that could not be achieved in years of negotiations in global accords. In the long run, the widespread adoption of the “work from home” model is bound to improve the percentage of women in the workforce who will have the flexibility of taking care of their infants at home.

While most corporates are aware of the benefits of a gender diverse workforce, it seems that democracies too will benefit from more gender diversity based on the fact that the countries which have performed relatively well in their COVID-19 response – Germany, Taiwan, Vietnam, New Zealand are all led by women leaders!

We are witnessing a new political order descending on the world. Even before the pandemic, the US and China were not in the best of terms. The Coronavirus saga has further aggravated the mistrust and conflict between the two largest economies of the world. The issues at stake other than territorial claims will be technology, trade, cybersecurity (5G, Tik-Tok controversies are just early examples). Economies across the world are taking a severe battering, the global growth for 2020 is projected by IMF at -4.9% as of June 2020 which actually means the target dates to meet the UN Sustainable Development goals would have receded farther for many low- and middle- income countries. Global trade and migration are bound to suffer in the short term as nations prefer local employment and domestic production to cope with overall economic slowdown.

We now finally expect our governments to prioritize public health and wellbeing over everything else. Countries will realize that the pursuit of good health cannot be done in isolation as it is inextricably linked to our lives and livelihoods, the climate, water, sanitation, food habits, what we teach our children and so on. Global supply chains especially those of essential items like drugs and medical equipment will be reviewed to avoid critical dependencies on imports. In this ensuing global turmoil, there are and will be widespread job losses and despair as countries, organizations and workforce reorient themselves to the “new normal”. Technologists, scientists, economists among others will now purpose research and innovation towards fundamental existentialistic issues – for example, building econometric models around income equality and not GDP alone, applying drone technology for transporting medicines and vaccines rather than pizzas, using data science to predict a hurricane rather than the sales of the latest iPhone or enhancing Augmented Reality techniques for surgery and medical education over developing high graphics video games. For the risk to our existence and continued survival on earth is not just from another deadly strain of virus or bacteria, but could as well come from a tsunami, a devastating earthquake, hazardous air pollution or a freshwater crisis.

Ultimately, even if we do find another life friendly planet in a few centuries from now, (to which some of us might willingly migrate to), we must at least let the Earth remain fit to live for those who may want to stay back and for others who may want to visit for a family reunion!

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Vijaya Saradhi Badipatla works in the International Public Services unit of TCS where he leads the Public Health Practice. He seeks to understand global events and trends across science, health, politics, economics, climate and business. He passionately believes in the urgent need for bringing about a much more sustainable and equitable world. The views expressed in this blog are his own.