“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” –
I have been struggling to find a wholesome expression to sum the year 2020. I’m indeed guilty of spending a few nights mulling over it; there is no easy way to say everything that this year brought upon us in a comprehensive, concise, and calm manner, but in my belief, Dickens does a good job of capturing the soul of times like these, so I humbly borrow from him, the little para that you just read. If we do survive to a future that reflects upon the current pandemic with the same luxury, abundance, and ease with which we contemplate over the World War II, and the earlier debilitating pandemics, namely cholera, plague and influenza that rocked the subcontinent between 1817 and 1920; we would perhaps do a better job of quantifying the impact. It is unbelievably hard to capture history as it is being made and also to react to it in a desalinate way, at the same time. We’re a year into it and the menace is still unfolding, the world does not know how will it end or if it will ever end, at the time of chronicling this. But I have faith in the collective wisdom of the human race – we shall overcome!
In this article, therefore, I try to catalogue a few trends which I found most fascinating, in the year 2020:
- Shifts in global politics.
- The global order and the virus.
- Protests and civil rights movement.
- Societal shifts
- Redefined relationship with Technology
- Unequal world, humongous human cost.
- Cost of the virus.
- A view of the future
The global order and the virus
2020 will live as an ugly spell of death and destruction in the memory of many who unfortunately had to gawk at it from close quarters, but I must also point out that it has also been an incredible year of human collaboration, co-operation and resilience. The virus was an addition to a long list of thing that the world disagrees on yet it also opened the door for historic colluding, of a magnitude observed never before. The year preceding this annus horribilis of 2020, marked the unbridled rise of right-wing politics around the world. From world oldest democracy (USA) to the world’s largest (India) – smell of totalitarian instincts of their elected governments became so unapologetically apparent that the public discourse around the world began to wonder if the very concept of democracy had come under the clouds. Strong, Alfa male, nationalistic leaders ascended to power riding the wave of protectionism, propagandist nationalism, religious supremacy and they began to lock borders, crushing dissent and reassessing the authenticity of the nationality and patriotism of the very people who voted them to power. Between the unresolved and ongoing trade war between America and China and Hungry becoming a constitutional dictatorship looming large over the world – it looked like the era of liberal globalisation may be coming to an unhappy end. And right at that moment, a single-cell organism which crossed over to Humans from its Bat predecessors in one obscure little corner of the world in a society (China) as closed as a tin of beans, engulfed the entire world in less than 3 months, hence proving that despite the surround sound on going local the world continues to be an interconnected place, more now than ever in human history. What followed the spread was a streak of global co-operation as scientist, virologist, epidemiologists, and medical professionals began to share notes and knowledge on the threat: the common enemy united the intellect of the world, as a result, we achieved something that was unheard of in the past: getting close to a viable vaccine within a year of a noble disease. Though at this stage, I must qualify the statement by saying that the jury is still out on the impact of the vaccine, lab results are encouraging though. So while on one end countries are closing down becoming inward-looking on the other natural need to communicate and collaborate in the spirit of the larger common good is also just as equally making itself known. And there is overwhelming evidence to the belief that the balance is once again tipping in the favour of globalisation. Unless the R&D and manufacturing abilities of the globe are not combined there is no way the world is coming out of this.
Protests and civil rights movements.
Dead people do not disagree, the living and the thinking do.
The most beautiful thing about living in the free world is the privilege to express one’s views, ideas and beliefs freely, to not be frightened to differ and disagree, even with those who happen to be in positions of power. This idea is utopian, but as the state encroaches upon our personal liberties under the gag of providing us with security and services, in the modern world, we know that as a society we are losing control and our independence is being chipped away. The transfer of power from the citizens to the state, the degradation, however, is so gradual that a vast majority of the population does not even take notice, they move on with their day to day life. This is how societal changes come about, both for the good and for the worse. But in the midst came a few moments which were huge, radical, clamorous and harsh, and those became the cause of the uprising. 2020, got punctuated by many such events, globally. I would like to believe that these demonstrations have done a great service to the values of liberalism, equality, justice, democracy, pluralism and right to life and dignity across the world. Here is a list of a few most important movements of 2020, in my assessment.
- CAA/CAB NRC Protest – The year 2020 opened in the middle of the resolute chorus of dissent questioning the discriminatory law that the Indian parliament passed, which many believe was framed to exclude Muslims from gaining or even remaining (NRC) Indian citizen thereby the fulling long-cherished dream of the BJP and the RSS to turn Secular India into a Hindu Rashtra. Scores of Indians gathered, led by ladies of Shaheen Bagh, the storm engulfed the entire nation and in no time, mini Shaheen Bhags appeared in all major Indian cities. Various NGOs and civil society groups along with student unions joined the protest. The event shook the soul of the nation, a protest that continued for over 100 days in biting cold. The government used every trick up its shelves to break the protests but people determined to exercise their democratic rights did not back off. As happens in most cases violence erupted, which quickly took the shape of an ugly riot, unleashing untold damage of lives and property, I must call out here that one community suffered disproportionately than the other. The investigation is under progress and the case is sub judice. Protestors were arrested, suffered brutal force of the state and the police. A year later one is tempted to assess if the movement achieved anything? I say it did, CAA/CAB is yet not implemented and the macho government did concede by making multiple public announcements denouncing the idea of NRC, taking a U-turn from their previous position. No less than the supreme leader, the PM made several speeches, re-assuring the nation that no Indian will lose their citizenship. So I note, that yes, people succeded in getting their voices heard. But let us also not forget that the law has not been repealed and therefore the possibility of the monster rearing its nasty head in the future again can’t be completely ruled out.
- HongKong Protest for democracy – Demand for democracy and independence of the judiciary remained at the centre of this uprising. Here is how the BBC described it.
“Hong Kong’s protests started in June against plans to allow extradition to mainland China. Critics feared this could undermine judicial independence and endanger dissidents. Until 1997, Hong Kong was ruled by Britain as a colony but then returned to China. Under the “one country, two systems” arrangement, it has some autonomy, and its people more rights. The bill was withdrawn in September but demonstrations continue and now demand full democracy and an inquiry into police actions. Clashes between police and activists have become increasingly violent, with police firing live bullets and protesters attacking officers and throwing petrol bombs.”
Did, this protest do any good, we know it for the fact that it did. Not only did it give believers in democracy faith in its idea but it also demonstrated to the world that how common people rise to the occasion to make change happen, even when they are in direct confrontation with the regime as unreasonable as the Chinese communist party.
- Black Lives Matter – Brutal killing of George Floyd in cold blood, jolted the soul of America and exposed how deeply is racism ingrained in its society. It sparked global outrage, his life did not go in vain, it became the reason for igniting the spirits of the civil rights movement across the world: from Twitter to streets. Strong chants of #BlackLivesMatter filled the atmosphere. It became the reason for America to introspect, from popular celebrity to everyday common American, people joined the chorus and gave voice to the voiceless. Articles were written to expose the history of injustices against the people of colour in American society. Living rooms in America united in speaking against prejudice. The agitation got mulled by violence and brut force of the state that followed. One could ask did it achieve anything? The answer is yes, it did .. not only did it bring the focus back on the need for racial equality but it also inspired people to speak up against discrimination. With the benefit of hindsight one could say that if it wasn’t for this movement, Trump would not have suffered a humiliating defeat in the presidential election that followed.
- Farmers agitation – Drunk on majority India’s ruling party got 3 controversial farm bills passed into law by ramming them through the floors of both the houses of the parliament, in fact, a voice vote was deceitfully deployed to push it through. All of this happened despite grave and qualified objection to the bill by the parties in the opposition. Farmers were quick to understand that its implication will leave them not only poorer but it is designed to structurally make them subservient to the corporates. Farmers of the state of Punjab and Haryana, which have benefited the most from the government-operated markets are spearheading the demonstration, which is in its 30th day, on the day of writing this article. Unhappy peasants have decided to block all entry points of the national capital, they have been on the highway at various border points. Singhu Border has become the epicentre of this movement. Farmers from across the country are extending their support and are united in the cause to push the government to repeal these acts that were passed without consultation or discussion with the stakeholders. The attitude of the Government thus far, however, has been arrogant, they seem determined on not backing up from their stand and are using everything within their power to discourage the farmers. This agitation is unique in many ways, the farmers have set up a temporary village at the sight of the protest, there is community kitchen running the service of free food, small clinics have been set up giving free medical support, a makeshift barbershop has also been installed to take care of the grooming needs of the protestors and even this is being done free of charge, massage chairs have been installed too. Free distribution of all kinds of articles that they might need to get by is being done. Coming together of a diverse community is a big victory of this movement. Weather-beaten faces of the farmers lodged in trucks, trollies and stopgap tents are a scene of courage, devotion and belief in democracy. We at this stage do not know how will the protest go, whether it will gain its objective or not, but it has certainly succeeded in getting the nation to pause and admire their grit; that in itself is no less than a victory. The growers have started their own newspaper and have also set up an IT cell to control the digital narrative.
I cannot but point out to you below commonalities between these 4 important protests that we briefly spoke about.
- They were all leaderless mass movement, organised and led by common citizens.
- Supported by not just the parties involved in the matter but by the larger community, overwhelming public support is something that makes them stand out.
- All peaceful democratic protests; against the regime that has despotic ambitions.
Democracies get strengthened when people participate in them and for that, we must be thankful to them for taking these causes forward. I personally, support each of them.
Let’s get down to discussing the societal shifts that the world experienced in these troubled times.
Redefined relationship with Technology
“Savagery – Slavery – Imperialism – Rule of law (Democracy) – Technology”
This captures the progression that we have made as a race more or less, we have had a colourful past. When the overtly mobile, proudly interconnected, and benevolently interdependent world was attacked by the virus, it came to a screeching halt. The early part of the year was marked by empty skies, grounded aircraft, people locked inside their homes (some on their own will and others owing to Government imposed lockdown). It all looked too different too unreal and too harsh, to be true. A world devoid of free physical connection in the interest of observing social distancing took refuge in the virtual world. Internet became the backbone of our lives. From schools to businesses everything has become virtual, computing got inextricably integrated with everyday life, we now socialise on platforms (Zoom, Meet and team) and not so much in places (cafes and bars). Barring industries that require either a high degree of secrecy (R&D, Policy and Govt), machinery (Manufacturing) or isolation (Hospital, High energy operations) everything else has become virtual. Some of the trends that emerged as a result are:
- Work From home – Distributed and digitalised work has become an accepted way of working, so much so that many organisations have announced their plans of giving away conventional office structure completely.
- Virtual platform – Meeting platforms like Zoom, Meet, Teams, BlueJeans and others have replaced boardrooms, birthday celebrations and in some cases even living room conversation. FaceTime and Video Call on WhatsApp more or less have become our preferred way of social interaction.
- E-Commerce and digital payment – Contactless buying, a covid appropriate behaviour gave boast to online retailers and digital payment platforms (Google Pay, Phone Pay, Paytm). Online retailers like Amazon and Flipkart are now synonyms to shopping.
- Increased Screen Time – Imposed long periods of lockdowns did plenty good to the OTT platforms. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar, are now the primary escapes for the Indian and the global audiences. With gyms, clubs, theatres, bars and restaurants shut, watching entertainment programs online has become the most popular way of spending time. Both personal and professional business started getting conducted on some kind of a screen. As a result, the average time spent on screen nearly doubled in 2020.
- Families realigned: The situation forced families to spend time together which had both sound and disastrous impacts. Mental health issues grew. Rampant domestic violence-plagued homes, worldwide.
Human Cost of the pandemic
The virus diseased the global economy just as ghastly leaving millions across the planet without a mean of livelihood, it Imposed acute demand shortage which resulted in shrinking of the overall size of the economies. India is among the worst impacted.
Here is an estimate presented by the economic times.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has wiped out 81 million jobs in 2020 while there was 10% dip in labour income, pushing an estimated 22 million to 25 million into working poverty in Asia and the Pacific, says a new report by the International Labour Organization (ILO). “
Things just do not stop there, as per the world economic forum 2 out of 5 jobs lost may never come back. Either automation or shift in the consumer behaviour will wipe 40% of the low skill jobs, the impact of which is being seen on the weaker sections of the society. Contactless way of life means eradication of physical labour to the extent possible. More and more people around the world are slipping back into poverty. Concerns related to malnutrition, stunted growth, infant mortality, rise in health-related complication, students dropping out of schools and colleges are on a rampant surge across the globe, the impact is disproportionately more in the poorer countries. Asia and Africa are among the worst-hit economically.
1,759,417, is the number of people who have succumbed to the virus globally thus far (as of Dec 26th). This number is maddening, we can’t begin to imagine the impact such high numbers would have had on the families and immediate communities. The mortality worldwide has been below 2%, at the time of writing this, and yet we’ve the misfortune of having lost so many people to the deadly virus. Those who have recovered from the infection aren’t completely out of the woods yet as the long term health impact of the infection is still unknown, scientists around the world are trying to assess the impact.
Corona Virus has been the most severe tragedy known to mankind.
After assessing the geopolitical, societal impact of the virus let us try and measure how it might impact the future of the business and society. I must qualify the statement by saying that the disease is taking a new turn every couple of months leaving mankind anaesthetized. The latest in the trail of surprises was the two new strains of the virus that were discovered in England and South Africa – it is believed to be over 50% more infectious than the previous strain. It is however yet to be known that if the mutant will come with a higher death rate too. Scientists are trying to study the strain to figure the details out. A parallel study to understand how well the vaccines will alter the course of the virus, both the old and the new strain, is also underway. But what we can say with certainty is that even if the virus is not deadly it will cause more net deaths as it is more infectious, as much as twice, at any rate. And more infections means more deaths.
Humans have survived for so long because we are a specie that specialises in the art of adaptation, so let’s come together to imagine what might the post-Covid world look like.
A view of the future
No matter which way we choose to look at it, there is no way, we can imagine a world which does not bear the emblem of the Covid all over it. Things are going to change for sure, things would have changed even if this calamity had not come through, but with its impact being so pervasive one is tempted to assume that, more extreme versions of the difficulties that we confront today are the things that we should expect to face in the world that is to come, that is if there is ever a post-Covid world.
As Arundhati Roy puts it, “Covid is a portal of change”
Here are a few things which I believe will catch on.
- Gag work culture – Specialised workforce getting engaged and paid on a project basis is going to become popular. Full-time employment will become less and less prevalent. Survival of the fittest will naturally favour those who are great at what they do as outcomes will get very closely related to association, unlike an employment contract of today, in which inefficiencies are also built-in. It will create a new class of workers. Hyper specialisation will become the norm. As a result of which structure long term peruse of delivery is expected to go down.
- Digital Economy – The shift from physical to virtual that we have already experienced in this year is only going to intensify as a result of which physical infrastructure is going to lose its value. Networks and cloud spaces are going to mean much more than swanky offices, in days to come. Digitalised and distributed operating models will succeed.
- Regionalised supply chain – ‘Just in time’ inventory management methods may have run its course and so has centralised manufacturing. Corporations realise the benefits of having distributed supply chain and manufacturing, as a result of which China in the next decade is going to lose business to cheaper markets like the Vietnam, India, Indonesia and Africa. Rise of organised and industrialised labour in these markets will be observed.
- Social contracts: Our conduct is strictly guided by social conventions that have come about of thousands of years of practice, the expectations that have undergone a transformation in this pandemic is bound to spill over, as a result, we will see a world which will be more and more transactional and short term. Relationships are about to be miniaturised in many aspects, employer-employee relationship, & “vendor-supplier” is the ones which will be most impacted.
- Multilateralism: We live in an unequal world, technological superiority needed to go about daily lives and run businesses are greatly concentrated in the US and to a small extent in Western Europe too, therefore, a case for technological collaboration will form the basis of the relationship and in exchange market will be opened. It is like importing technology from a nation and then opening the markets for them to sell their products.
- Digital nomads: Urban centres have remained the nucleus of economic activities, opportunities that are generated as a result, attract migration towards it. Rising distributed and digitalised work is expected to spread the established workforce, which means that people with experience will fuel reverse migration and the new talent will keep flocking towards the cities. Balance in movement is expected to improve the ecology of our cities. The urban planning of the next decade will look drastically different from the decade past.
- Digital transformation: Adoption of technology by the users will force the supplier to adapt to it, the next few years will see a rise in the digitisation of work and operations. Platforms will become even more powerful. Amazon and Google’s stronghold on the world is only going to get tighter in days to come. Countries will invest in their own digital infrastructure, to cut down reliance on other nation. China model of digital infrastructure will come in emerging economies, India would be the first one to embark on that journey.
- Nationalism: ‘My nation first, Make America Great Again, Make in India’, these sentiments are not going anywhere, the pandemic has only improved their prospects. We will see the politics around the world become more and more local, as political parties promise the restoration of the damage that Covid has inflicted, policy formation will get inspired by it.
if I were to summarize in one line we would say that we are headed for a brave new world!!
Thanks for reading a rather long article.