By Kiran Mazumdar Shaw – Executive Chairperson Biocon
The seismic events unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic will have a powerful impact on the world we live in, changing it in ways we had never imagined were possible. The economic damage is likely to be unprecedented. The world economy, worth USD 90 trillion at the start of the current fiscal year FY21, would have lost USD 5 trillion and moved into recession by the time the next fiscal starts.
We are now realising that economic revival will not happen by pressing the Pause button and then hitting Resume once the threat from this novel coronavirus has receded.
COVID-19 is the Reboot button that will trigger a system-wide overhaul. A year from now, the world we will live in will be very different. It will impact how we live, how we work, and how we use technology.
To quote a recent McKinsey report: “In this unprecedented new reality, we will witness a dramatic restructuring of the economic and social order in which business and society have traditionally operated.”
Current Risk Analysis Models Will Need a Revamp
Risk consulting firms that charge astronomical fees to craft strategic risk mitigation plans should have prepared the world for a ‘Black Swan’ event like this viral pandemic. Not a single one of them actually did, even though the 2003 SARS outbreak and 2014-15 Ebola outbreak in Africa had carried portents of what might come. While these consulting firms were preparing businesses against cyber threats from malware, the SARS-CoV-2 virus sneaked in and decimated the global economy.
Rise of Biological Sciences
This COVID-19 outbreak is a lesson that technology has many faces and being besotted with only one application of computational science is dangerous. Over the past decade or so, our definitions of technological progress have been confined to Information and Communication Technology (ICT), which has evolved at breakneck speed by attracting billions of dollars of funding.
This progress has, however, happened to the detriment of life technologies. For humanity to survive, we will need a multi-disciplinary approach to advancing science and technology, combining biotechnology, biomedical technologies, biological sciences, environmental sciences etc.
The New National Heroes
Having spent most of their lives in virtual anonymity, epidemiologists and virologists are emerging as our national heroes. Virologist Priya Abraham, Director of the National Institute of Virology, has been working 24X7 evaluating a plethora of indigenously developed PCR and antibody-based testing kits to address the growing national need for COVID-19 testing.
Not only that, doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers who are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 war are getting due respect. For putting their lives on the line in caring for COVID-19 patients, they deserve not only our respect but also necessary protective gear like masks, gloves and PPEs for ensuring their health and safety.
Back to Basics
In the mad scramble for a panacea, scientists the world over are going back to basic biology to hunt for clues about how the human immune system can be prepped to combat the novel coronavirus.
Drug makers are attempting to repurpose old medicines, ranging from river blindness drug ivermectin to a malarial drug like hydroxychloroquine, to treat COVID-19. They are also studying a potential connection between COVID-19 and the Bacillus Calmette–Guérin, or BCG vaccine, a vaccine that has been widely administered in developing countries for the last 80 years to immunise infants against tuberculosis.
Research into infectious diseases, which was put on the backburner in developed countries, will see a surge in the coming year. India has a very important role to play in this, given our years of accumulated experience and scientific knowledge in preventing and treating infectious diseases. Epidemiological research will now be resurrected and find its rightful place in biological sciences aided by the advances made in genomics and data science.
Revamping of Public Healthcare Systems Globally
The novel coronavirus has exposed the huge shortcomings in public healthcare systems, especially in developed countries where they have largely remained static since World War II. Governments will have to bring in policies to address essential healthcare infrastructure, strategic reserves of key supplies, and contingency planning for medical equipment, diagnostics, drugs and vaccines.
Developed vs Developing World Dynamics
The pandemic seems to have hit the developed, industrialized nations the hardest thus far. U.S.A., Spain, Italy, France, Germany are now home to the most COVID-19 patients. It is indeed puzzling to see wealthy countries with strong healthcare systems struggling to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, whereas developing ones seem to have kept the situation from spiralling out of control. Do frequent exposure to small-scale viral outbreaks make populations in the developing world more resilient to pandemics like COVID-19? Have ongoing immunisation programs for tuberculosis and other diseases in developing or middle-income countries boosted immunity against coronaviruses among these populations? We will need to gather a huge amount of epidemiological and genetic data from these developing nations to answer some of these critical questions.
COVID-19 will also cast a long shadow on our social and cultural lives. If one were to imagine our world in the near future, perhaps social gatherings are likely to resemble a masked ball, where guests accessorise their masks with their outfits. Handshakes will be a thing of the past, and namastes, aadabs and elbow bumps will become the favoured form of greeting.
The concept of mass congregational prayers may undergo a major transformation. The faithful will pray at home while churches will livestream Sunday mass and temples will do online screening of their evening aartis and Mosques will conduct namaz through loud speakers and hold online Friday prayers. ‘Eating in’ will score over ‘eating out’. Sports events are likely be held in empty stadiums with fans preferring to watch online.
Technology has been thrust upon us and we are all finding out that the critics of online learning, virtual meetings, and online retail are now converts! Zoom which IPOed last year priced its shares at $36 valuing it at a little over $9 billion. A year later, the share price has zoomed to $130 and its market cap at over $36 billion! Zoom is now the preferred video conferencing platform of schools, colleges, start-ups and all large businesses. The work from home COVID19 business model has seen Zoom overtake entrenched old timers like Skype and others. Post the crisis, work from home models are likely to continue and business travel is likely to be curtailed as virtual meetings have proved to be just as effective. Mobile and internet banking have also seen a surge since the viral outbreak. The new world order will now be a virtual reality!
Travel in the post-COVID-19 world is likely to look very different. Airport wait times will get longer with passengers having to undergo a rapid coronavirus blood test, like the one Emirates Airlines has started, before boarding. Not only will it be socially unacceptable to travel with a cold or any symptoms, one may have to produce a certificate of immunity along with other identification documents at airports.
What repercussions these changes will have on the shape of human society only time can tell.
Emirates Airlines’ recently released ad “Do you remember?” reminds us of the simple things we should value such as a walk in the park, getting together with friends or even going to the gym. It also holds out hope for a near future when these COVID-induced hardships will be a bad memory. Whenever that happens, what we find on the other side is unlikely to look like the ‘normal’ we have grown accustomed to in the recent years.
Ultimately, the greatest lesson that COVID-19 can teach humanity is that we are all in this together, that what affects a single person anywhere affects everyone everywhere, that as homo sapiens we need to think and act unitedly rather than worrying about race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, economic status, and such artificial groupings.