Or why the covid-19 pandemic may be a good thing after all
At the time of writing and as per the data from Johns Hopkins University, there are more than 16 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 infections worldwide (the real number of infected cases is probably several times higher), with 651,902 dead. Each one of those 651,902 persons had their family, their loved ones, their dreams, their life history… so we shouldn’t take this tragedy lightly, because it is and will still be for a while, a huge tragedy: in human lives trunked, in health problems, personal dramas, jobs lost, bankruptcies, etc. It is a healthcare crisis that will create possibly the biggest economic crisis the world has seen since World War II. And yet again it may well be a good thing after all. It may be the Great Reset we need.
Never let a good crisis go to waste
“Never let a good crisis go to waste”, is a quote ascribed to Winston Churchill or some other people. I’m not sure who said it first, but it is a great phrase.
Linked to this, in Western countries we often like to say that the word “crisis” in Chinese is formed by the words for “danger” and “opportunity”. This seems to be incorrect, but never let facts get in the way of a nice story: it sounds great in motivational speeches, training courses and it is also useful for my main argument here, so I thought it was good to bring it to your, my dear reader’s, attention.
I want to believe that these two, the words that Churchill probably never said and the word crisis that doesn’t really mean opportunity, have a kernel of truth on them and that this crisis will not be all darkness, death, and tragedy. As the saying goes, there is always a silver lining to every cloud. Like personal crises and mistakes in our individual lives make us grow, learn and improve as individuals, a crisis of this magnitude will be a great opportunity for our society to improve, grow and become a better version of itself.
The world is not working
As books like Factfulness show us, we have made a lot of progress in the last decades towards reducing poverty, hunger, fighting diseases or reducing war, but this crisis has put in evidence what we already knew all along: the world, as it is today, is not working and we need to do something about it.
This crisis has brought to the surface the cracks in the social fabric, the damage we are doing to the environment and to the climate, and the lack of fairness and equality of opportunity of our current system. Even the World Economic Forum of Davos, that forum of establishment leaders, prime ministers, and CEOs, realized that the system is not working and it is time for the Great Reset.
Nothing like a global pandemic and a great crisis to realize things aren’t working. Well, better late than never.
Time for a climate reset, or is it too late?
During the pandemic induced lockdown, many wild animals have come down to cities and roamed freely, with no human souls in sight. This and other stories have reminded us that we are not alone in this world, something many of us city-dwellers needed reminding.
During this period, air traveling has come to a halt, many factories have closed and traffic in big cities has come down to a trickle. This has given some respite to the planet, but not enough. Even after the economy coming to a near halt, everybody´s lives being disrupted and manufacturing production levels being considerably reduced, we have only made a dent to global emissions and we haven´t reduced the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. This is not good news.
I will repeat it, so it sinks in: even with the economy half stopped we haven’t reduced carbon emissions enough. We will need to make herculean efforts to reduce global warming, even more so with a functioning economy. We will have to make significant changes to our habits and way of living.
The good thing about this crisis is that it should be a wake-up call for all. Look at the pandemonium a relatively mild pandemic has created. What do you think will happen when nowadays livable parts of the world become deserts, many islands and coastal cities disappear under the rising seas and food supplies become inconsistent due to unstable weather? I shudder only to think about it.
This pandemic has reminded us that we aren’t separate from Nature, we are a part of it, if not a very grateful one at that. Hopefully, it is not too late to start working to amend this relationship, but for that, we will all have to work in the same direction, individuals, governments, companies, scientists, NGOs, and other organizations.
Inequality and unfairness
COVID-19 has affected disproportionately low-skilled workers, members of minorities, and the poorer strata of society, both on their health (number of infections and dead) and their economy (jobs and income loss).
Inequality has been rising for a few decades already, but this pandemic has accelerated the process and it has increased it even more in just a few months. Other previous crises, like both World Wars, for example, served as some sort of equalizers and reduced inequality somewhat, via stock market crashes and other events.
This time the stock markets have decoupled with the real economy and have been climbing steadily since the fall in March, whereas GDP in most countries is going down double digits and employment going up, also in the double digits. Anybody can buy stocks nowadays, it’s easier than ever and as a consequence, there are more and more retail buyers, but still, better off people are more likely to have stocks than low earners, so the differences in wealth are going up, not down.
High-skilled white-collar managers and employees have been working from home and their children have been attending online classes because they have the technology and the means for it. Blue-collar employees and people working in the services industry have had to go to work in the frontline, being more exposed to the virus, or were more likely to lose their jobs. Also, their children were more likely to miss out on classes for not having adequate wifi or not enough computers at home. In our meritocratic society, everything counts, and these children will be at a disadvantage and playing catch-up with their richer counterparts for a long time.
The protests that started in the US and then spread to many parts of the world have their origin in a sense of inequality, unfairness, systemic racism and the system being rigged in favour of some, and against others. George Floyd’s killing was the spark that ignited the fire, but there was a lot of fuel to build it into a huge one: three years of Trump, the economic crisis, the frustration due to the lockdown, social media… but above all, I think the perceived inequality and unfairness of the system have been the most important ones.
Again, like with climate change, I hope this crisis makes us realize, not only in the US but everywhere else, that we are far from living in a fair society. This is even more so in countries at war or in totalitarian states.
The end of history announced by Fukuyama almost 30 years ago will not materialize any time soon, if ever, and we will have to work hard to build the perfect society, if such a thing exists.
It may not ever be within our grasp, but we can work towards it little by little, step by step, to build a society where everybody´s freedom is respected and everybody has equal opportunities to succeed, a society that is fair and harmonious.
The Age of Post-Truth
For such a harmonious society to function well, there has to be some common understanding of what constitutes truth, a shared space of meaning that enables meaningful communication between its parts. This crisis has evidenced also that we are very far from it.
We are in the age of post-truth when the President of the US can lie almost every time he appears in public and half of the country believes him. An age in which wearing a mask, as recommended by most respected scientists and doctors, is a political statement. This is a time in which many people don’t want to vaccine their children because they think it will harm them. Today is the day in which many people believe Bill Gates created the virus so he could put a chip in the entire world population. And these are just a few examples linked to the coronavirus that came to my mind, but there are many others. These are the days we are living in.
Western societies seem to be more polarized than ever and this is due mainly to social media, which is increasingly the main source of news for many people, even more so for younger generations. Artificial Intelligence tailors the news we will consume not based on their veracity, impartiality or objectivity, but on the alignment with our tastes. AI is optimized to achieve a goal, and in the case of social media, the goal is to get people to spend more time and clicks on the site. This creates echo chambers in which people only consume the media that is already aligned with their own worldview and only talk to likeminded people. This worldview gets narrower and narrower when in order to have a just society in which we understand each other’s positions, it should be wider and wider.
And all this without taking into consideration fake news, deepfakes, misinformation, and disinformation campaigns that many organizations and states are seemingly playing.
If we want to live in a fairer and more just society, if we want to build a better, a more humane future, we will need a less polarized society, a society in which we accept our differences and we cherish diversity as something enrichening, that makes us better, not worse.
One of the first evident wins that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought us is the increase of flexible working arrangements and the enablement of better work-life integration. Remote working has been talked about and tried for years, but not really tested at great scale. This pandemic has created the perfect setting for the biggest experiment ever on remote or distributed working, and the results have been positive.
This prolonged home-working has shown us that we can be productive when working remotely, we can trust our teams to achieve their goals and do their jobs responsibly, and that we can now dedicate all that commuting time to spend more time with our families, sleep more or work even more, which is sadly what is happening in many cases. Companies realized that their employees can be as or even more productive than before and they won’t need all that office space in prime locations. The office is dead, long live the home-office!
I don’t think most of us will be working full-time from home or a Starbucks when this is over and we go back to the “new normal” (I wonder, how can you go back to something new?), but we will definitely be spending more time not working from the office. We´ll only go there to socialize with our colleagues, for meetings and for sessions requiring creativity.
My guess is that we will have a hybrid model, combining time working from a corporate office, time working from other satellite offices, and time working from home or anywhere else. The amount of time dedicated to each of these will depend on the type of job, the company culture, and personal preferences. This last one is key.
We are moving towards more flexibility and personal choice when organizing where and when we work, and companies that do not offer this flexibility to their employees will not be able to attract and retain top talent, or even regular employees for that matter.
We also learned during this pandemic that we don’t need to travel so much. Most people in international roles haven’t been able to travel much to other countries lately, and the world hasn’t ended as a consequence, and the business has survived (if it didn’t, it probably wasn’t because some managers weren’t allowed to travel). It is important to build relationships and that’s done better face to face, so business traveling will eventually resume, but I don’t think with the same frequency and gusto as before.
Working more from home and traveling less means we have now more time to dedicate it to things, other than work, that are also important for us. It isn’t about balancing life and work as if they were two separate things, but about integrating them together. For that, it is important that we dedicate enough time to other areas of our lives outside work and that we set up clear boundaries and unblur the lines between the two. Integrating without blurring sounds contradictory, but it isn’t really if you think about it.
If adversity makes us stronger, how strong will we become?
They say adversity makes you stronger, which I believe is usually true (admittedly, it depends on the mindset and the level of adversity). This maxim is usually applied to individuals, but it can also apply to groups of people or societies. A society, tribe or civilization learns, evolves, and is shaped by events, the same as a person. Taking this assumption to the extreme, hard times like this pandemic make our society evolve and improve.
Grit and resilience are usually built through exposure to adversity. Will this greatest of adversities make us more resilient as a society than before? Will it make us better?
The Great Reset
There are some learnings we can make as a society here, but learning without action will not take us far. We need to get these new insights about climate change and how we are part of the world in which we live, about inequality and fairness, about having a socially cohesive society and not a polarized one, about the importance of flexibility and work-life integration, and do something about them.
We need to act as individuals first, each on our own scope and area of influence, make our contribution to living in a better world, however small or big that contribution may be. It is also as individuals that we should hold our governments, public agencies, and, of course, private corporations, accountable so they also push in the same direction.
We build our future with our actions in the present. What we have learned about this crisis and the actions we undertake in the next few months will be critical for our future in the next few years. As Churchill or maybe someone else told us, we shouldn’t let this great crisis go to waste. It would be a shame.