By Damian Funnell
Well, that happened. Or is still happening. As I type this we’re halfway through the stage 4 lockdown and it’s looking promising that restrictions are going to lift, at least somewhat, after the initial five week period.
It all happened so fast. Literally one day we were marvelling about how we’d closed our borders and the next we learned we were going to be confined to our homes for five weeks on a kind of benevolent house arrest. And thank goodness for that – at time of writing we’re only just starting to see the huge numbers of infections and deaths in countries that were slower to implement such restrictions, or that lacked the fortitude to go to go the full monty like we did here.
We can but hope that we as a country recover as rapidly as we essentially ground to a halt. Regardless of how long this recovery takes it is clear that COVID-19 has changed the world forever. In this article we look at some of these changes and what they will mean to us going forward.
Dinosaurs pushed closer to oblivion
Dying industries have been pushed closer to the abyss, if not into it completely. I’m not saying this is necessarily a good thing (not in all cases, anyway), but industries like travel agencies, print media and various types of brick and mortar retail, which have been on the slow march toward oblivion for decades, got a huge push from COVID-19.
In many cases this ‘clearing of the weeds’ will lead to promising new innovations and business models emerging from the scorched earth. Although it’s gut wrenching to watch careers ended forever by such a tectonic shift, it is exciting to see what the green shoots will look like.
In the tech industry a lot of these dinosaurs are corporate IT departments who continue to build data centres full of metal. Those who steadfastly refuse to move to the cloud, despite the demonstrable benefits (in most cases) of doing so. The tide went out on these particular dinosaurs as a result of COVID-19 and they were left floundering on the beach. Those of us who live on the cloud barely noticed, but many corporates were royally screwed.
Some companies didn’t even have a method for staff to work from home at all and they were rightly punished for it.
Bricks and mortar will never be the same
We were already moving toward online shopping, but COVID-19 has pushed this migration forward, possibly by years. We’ve been forced to shop online and now that we’re there there’s little incentive to go back to the malls. Thousands of retailers around New Zealand hurriedly put up online stores so they could continue to trade during the various levels of lockdown, changing not just consumer behaviour but that of the retailers also.
Online shopping will remain a much larger percentage of our overall retail spend as a result.
This is exceedingly bad news for the likes of Westfield and Kiwi Property, who have just spent billions on new or improved shopping centres. It’s going to be that much harder to attract people into them now that we’re that much more comfortable shopping online.
The travel industry will be reshaped forever
Borders will reopen and tourism will recover, but business travel (the most lucrative for the industry) will never be the same now that we’ve realised how effectively we can operate without necessarily being there in person. Particularly now that many of us are likely to be reticent about international travel for a while.
I spoke to one customer who previously spent half of every year overseas on business travel, mainly to attend meetings. He told me that, despite more than 40 years in business, he didn’t realise it was possible to negotiate deals and resolve complex problems without being there in person. He’s clearly never going to travel as much as he used to and he couldn’t be happier about it.
There will be a permanent reduction in business travel (as a percentage of overall travel), which will force the entire industry to reshape itself. This is very good for the likes of Airbnb and Uber, which are online-native and cater predominantly to consumers, but very bad for Air NZ (and other airlines that rely heavily on business travel), hotel chains and, you guessed it, travel agents.
We’ve changed the ways we work
This is particularly true in law, where many of our law firm clients previously swore black and blue that their people couldn’t work effectively from home. How would they be supervised? What if they slack off? Me? I couldn’t possibly work from home... I’m far too important to the running of the firm!
Most have now discovered that people who have the option to work from home are, on average, happier and more productive than those who don’t. Study after study has shown that this is particularly true for women and millennials, both very important demographics to the legal fraternity.
Although there are some firms with progressive work from home policies, the industry in general has been slow to move in this direction. COVID-19 will change this for many and this is a good thing. The benefits of allowing your people to work from home are well understood and consistently proven. For some it took an event like COVID-19 before they got the memo.
Maybe, just maybe, we’ll trust science again
One of the most amazing things about the internet and social media is that it has given all of us a voice. For the first time in human history all of us have the ability to get our views across. To make ourselves heard.
This is incredible, but it’s also created an environment where, in the eyes of many, everyone’s opinion carries the same value, even when that opinion is ill-informed. This has been a boon for anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, 5G conspiracy theorists and all manner of, um, people who value their own opinion over that of experts, even in the face of reliable, repeatable scientific observation.
Hopefully anti-vaxxers will finally be silenced now that they’ve seen what the world looks like with a novel virus that has no vaccine.
Hopefully it will help us, as a society, re-learn the value of science over opinion and anecdote. Hopefully it will remind us that ‘research’ means more than using Google to find articles that are compatible with your beliefs. It will remind us that scientific research is valuable and that sound research should be respected
Scientists and leaders in the field (such as Bill Gates who delivered a scaringly accurate TED Talk about the dangers of a global pandemic in 1995), have been warning us and our leaders about the dangers of a global pandemic for decades. We’ve ignored this advice because, up until now, pandemics haven’t affected us much or, when we were affected, the outcome wasn’t really that bad.
Anecdote told us that there was nothing to worry about. Karen on Facebook told us that it’s vaccines and big pharma, rather than disease, that we should worry about. This scared a lot of people into not getting their kids vaccinated.
Look how that worked out in Sāmoa, where 83 people, mostly children, died during the 2019 measles epidemic. That's 83 people who died of a completely preventable and eradicable disease where there was a safe and effective vaccine.
In the case of COVID-19, the research showed it was a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ a global pandemic would wreak havoc on the world, but we ignored it and most of humanity has paid a price. The cost, in both human life and in global productivity, has been incalculable.
This time around we were actually very lucky. I don’t want to minimise the terrible damage that COVID-19 has and continues to inflict on many of us, but it certainly could have been much, much worse. Although COVID-19 is quite infectious and can be difficult to detect in some cases, its mortality rate is relatively low. It’s terrifying to think of what would have happened if the mortality rate had been even twice as high.
COVID-19 was hopefully the tremor that will shake us awake. The warning of the devastation that a much larger and more catastrophic earthquake will wreak upon us if we don’t improve our preparedness for such a pandemic now.
Maybe now we’ll start to trust science over opinion and anecdote. Maybe now we’ll start demanding that our leaders do more to prepare for, and to protect us from, the dangers of pandemics, pollution, global warming and a laundry list of other things that actually do (or will) threaten our happiness and wellbeing.
Or is that expecting too much? ‘5G tho!’ says Karen on Facebook.
Damian Funnell firstname.lastname@example.org is founder of an IT services company and panaceahq.com, a cloud software company. He has a lot of experience in advising lawyers and law firms on the use of technology.