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World

In post-covid-19 world, no “back to normal”

The unprecedented pandemic has paralyzed much of the world. But, the virus could accelerate adoption of new technologies, such as drones, robots and artificial intelligence in the workplace and at home. Could it also threaten world order? (Lea este articulo en español)
12 Abr 2020 – 02:46 PM EDT
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What will a post-covid-19 world look like? Crédito: David Maris / Univision

In a White House press briefing on Monday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious diseases expert, said there may be no “back to normal" after the coronavirus pandemic ends.

"If back to normal means acting like there never was a coronavirus problem, I don't think that's going to happen,'' Fauci said.

His words echo what millions of people are thinking, not just in the United States, but all around the world.

What will life be like after the virus is gone? Will it bring permanent change to the way we lead our lives, both to our workdays and in our free time; the way we communicate, shop, travel and seek entertainment?

And on a grander scale, how will it affect the world order? Will governments pay a price for reacting too slowly - the 1.5 million people infected and 100,000 deaths worldwide?

One thing is clear: in the short term, at least until a vaccine or an effective drug is available, any business or event that involves gatherings of large numbers of people in enclosed spaces will be hardest hit, from schools and universities to churches, soccer stadiums, shopping malls, restaurants, amusements parks, airlines and cruise ships.

Will Mardi Gras in New Orleans, or the carnival in Rio de Janeiro, ever be the same in a planet of heightened germaphobia?

Some businesses may never recover, and all will have to adapt. Some already have, from restaurants offering take-out menus, to schools, universities - and even gyms - holding virtual classes.

Fear of travel

Business travel has been cut way back, leading many companies to question how much travel was actually necessary in the first place.

During the covid-19 quarantine, the number of U.S. passengers boarding airplanes has fallen 96%, to a level not seen in more than 60 years, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

Some may have to rethink their business models. The airlines and cruise ship industry, in particular, have some big questions to ask themselves regarding spacing. After years of customer complaints about too little leg room, will the airlines be required by law to observe a degreeof social distancing. If planes carry fewer passengers, will airlines have to raise prices or will they be able to cut costs elsewhere?

In the wake of the coronavirus, U.S. malls that currently look like ghost towns could do well to take a look at places like Singapore which offer a far more diverse shopping experience, sprinkled with libraries, doctors’ offices and other attractions.
Similarly, is this the end of the era of mega-cruise ships, such as Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas, which boats 22 restaurants, 42 bars and lounges, and 6,600 passengers?

Since the beginning of March, Uber shares have lost 28 percent of their value. Rival Lyft is down 30 percent. The picture is even less clear for the online lodging company, Airbnb and shared workspace company, WeWork.

“New normal”

“We are entering a new normal and we don’t expect things are going to snap back to the way they were before,” said André Dua, a senior partner at the management consulting firm, McKinsey & Co.

Dua told Univision News that it’s still too early to tell how severe the economic damage will be, but McKinsey estimates a significant contraction of the U.S. economy in the range of 8 – 13 percent. McKinsey also calculated that 55 million jobs – one third of the U.S. economy – were put at risk by the pandemic.

That doesn’t mean the world as we know it is over. It’s more a case of finding new – possibly temporary – ways to operate. For example, many companies and schools – families and group chats, too – have switched to virtual meeting software like Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, or Cisco Webex.

Virtual conferencing seems likely to be adopted more widely as a fun, as well as less costly and time-saving replacement for many face-to-face meetings.

Face masks may soon become an acceptable fashion statement in the United States, much as it has been for a long time in many countries in Asia.

Telemedicine is also likely to become more accessible for patients with minor complaints, also relieving the burden – and maybe the wait times - on doctor’s offices.

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“We are intrinsically social beings and we will value personal connections in the future, but at the same time it’s hard to imagine we are going to completely return to how it was a before,” said Dua.

Between January and late March, internet traffic increased by around a quarter in many major cities, according to Cloudflare, a U.S. company that provides network infrastructure to businesses around the world.

Delivery

Some experts predict one of the biggest shifts is likely to be the way products are delivered, from online supermarket shopping and delivery options, like Instacart, to the longer distance supply chain solutions.


For years, large, multinational companies talked about ‘the death of distance’ as they sourced their manufacturing to China, taking advantage of cheap labor and mass production.

That is going to change. It’s going to be less about do they have the lowest cost and more about how resilient they are” said Ignacio Felix, a manufacturing and supply-chain expert with McKinsey. Companies will pay more attention to “how much is the risk worth [and] consumers will be looking at where my product is coming from and who touched it?” he added.

Solutions?

For many companies the coronavirus was a dreaded ‘black swan event,’ the business metaphor used to describe a major disruption. But, others already had new adaptable technology in place, or are developing solutions. Indeed, one of the likely long-term fallouts of covid-19 is the accelerated adoption of existing technologies, such as drones, robots and artificial intelligence in the workplace and at home.

The disruption created by the current situation is going to be a huge crossroads for technology. Always in crisis, or after wars, we come up with new solutions,” said Yuda Saydun, president of CyVent, a cybersecurity-focused solutions provider.

But for that to happen, “there needs to be a lot of collaboration among all these technologies that have emerged in the last decade. their data lakes, their algorithms and data power ... but it remains to be seen if their owners will approach each other and overcome their competitive spirit," he added.

The announcement of the collaboration between Apple and Google to enable a Bluetooth based, Waze-like contact tracing platform for covid-19 is an encouraging example, he noted.

Ideas already out there include Amazon Prime Air, that plans to deliver packages using small drones, and Tesla’s Autopilot, the new generation of driver-less cars and trucks.

A Japanese university recently used robots to simulate a graduation ceremony, with the robots bearing images of the students.

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One Singapore company, H3 Dynamics, is repurposing rooftop drone stations for delivery of covid-19 test kits. Camera and cellphone technology already exist that allow business owners to remotely monitor offices, factories or warehouses – as well as the movement of employees.

One of the best examples is in education. “Who would have thought that nearly the entire U.S. higher education sector would move to a full online experiment with every single faculty member and every single student participating in a nationwide online experiment,” said Dua.

“Those things happening are what make us think … that we really will need to re-examine what normal looks like,” he added.

Health v. privacy

“So how can we live in this new world?” asks Gideon Lichfield, editor of MIT’s Technology Review, published by the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Besides much-needed improvement to health-care systems, better able to respond to pandemics, “I predict that we’ll restore the ability to socialize safely by developing more sophisticated ways to identify who is a disease risk and who isn’t, and discriminating—legally—against those who are,” he argues.

He notes how that is already beginning to happen. For example, Israel plans to adapt its cell-phone location data which its intelligence services use to track terrorists, to do contact tracing on people exposed to carriers of the virus.

South Korea stopped the spread of the virus in its tracks using advanced contact tracing and a government-mandated GPS-tracking, "self-isolation safety protection" app, to help citizens stay aware from infected people and places. It used laws passed after a 2015 virus outbreak to temporarily lift patient privacy rules.

Singapore, a country famous for its limits on personal freedoms, last month introduced a smartphone app, called TraceTogether, for citizens to help the authorities identify people who may have been exposed to someone who tests positive for the virus using Bluetooth signals and data logs to detect mobile phones of anyone they came into close contact with.

A Chinese firm, Tsinglink, is already offering 4G wireless high-definition security products in the United States that can be used for office surveillance to screen the health of people by reading their temperature using thermal imaging.

One can imagine a world in which, to get on a flight, perhaps you’ll have to be signed up to a service that tracks your movements via your phone,” writes Lichfield . “There’d be similar requirements at the entrance to large venues, government buildings, or public transport hubs. There would be temperature scanners everywhere, and your workplace might demand you wear a monitor that tracks your temperature or other vital signs.”

Instead of nightclubs asking for proof of age, in future they might ask for proof of immunity, such as vaccination records, he added.

Podcaster, Carol Yin, posted a video on Twitter described how her recent travel in China was tracked at airports, railways and subway stations for the purpose of covid-19 containment, including showing evidence of where she had been for the last 14 days, by accessing her cellphone location data. Her taxi also required her to link her phone to the specific vehicle she rode in.

Such privacy issues are likely to be the subject of intense political debate in the United States, much like discussion of the post-9-11 anti-terror measures under the Patriot Act.

A new world order?

The current crisis raises other broader political issues, such as global trade, as well as international cooperation to defeat the virus, and the role of science in guiding policy.

Opponents of globalization and free trade will likely use the covid-19 outbreak as an argument for tighter immigration controls, and perhaps trade tariffs. Others will argue that the pandemic has proved the case for the need for closer global integration.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, now aged 96, wrote in the Wall St Journal, that the coronavirus crisis threatened the liberal world order, and reminded him of the need for the world to come together after World War ll. “The pandemic has prompted an anachronism, a revival of the walled city in an age when prosperity depends on global trade and movement of people,” he wrote.

Another distinguished U.S. diplomat, William J. Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warned it was also a dangerous time for the United States as rivals will surely try to exploit the virus as a “strategic opportunity” to further erode its global influence.

“New technologies will solidify authoritarian control and challenge democratic governance. International institutions will teeter, split apart by major-power rivalry and starved for resources, undermining prospects for a coordinated response to other looming global challenges—none more existential than climate change,” he wrote in The Atlantic magazine.

The role of science

To be sure, environmentalists now feverishly hope that the failure of politicians to listen to the warnings of scientists over the need to prepare for pandemic virus, could strengthen their case for the urgency of climate change.

“We are in a remarkable geophysical experiment,” said Robert Corell, former head of earth sciences at the National Science Foundation, the top U.S. government non-medical scientific research agency. “We just turned the knob this way and look what happened? Bingo, we can see the results,” he added, noting how the impact of the pandemic on global pollution was a teachable moment.

All over the world anecdotal evidence abounds of reduced emissions and spectacular photos of clearly visible mountain tops once obscured by haze, of the Himalayas in Asia to the Andes in South America.

“It’s useful and something the public can appreciate. You don’t need a PhD, a third grader can understand it,’ added Corell.

On the other hand, there have been notable reverses, such as cities lifting bans on single-use plastics, and shoppers worrying about the virus clinging to reusable bags, cups and straws.

But, for now, the scientists have the upper hand. One poll of central figures in the coronavirus fight found that Dr Fauci received by far the highest approval ratings with 86% saying they trusted him. Meanwhile, just 41% said they trusted the government to provide reliable information about the pandemic.

“Reset capitalism”

Beyond, political leadership, countries will likely face deeper challenges to the social fabric as gig workers and lower income families struggle to cope with an even more uncertain job market, experts say. In the United States, experts say the virus has highlighted the need for much greater investment in public health, while also spurring debate over the benefits of a universal healthcare system.

“Radical reforms — reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades — will need to be put on the table,” The Financial Times wrote in an editorial.

Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure,” it added.

Serial entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks basketball team owner, Mark Cuban, told a radio interview that the coronavirus crisis gives U.S. corporations a chance to "reset capitalism” to where everybody is treated fairly.

“This moment is something that is defining us all, and changing us all, from the top of the food chain to the economic bottom of the food chain. And because of that it’s a unique opportunity for workers to speak their voice,” he said.

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