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The good things about Covid-19 outbreak

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus - Mumbai
Unprecedented Lockdown
Its been a month and 10 days of the lockdown here in India, an attempt to contain the outbreak of Covid-19; the deadly virus which has engulfed the whole world and caused the death of thousands - possibly the most deaths mankind has seen in a span of few months since the Second World War. [I mean this only in the global context though, locally we have had wars, calamities and similar viral outbreaks which have outnumbered Covid-19.]

As the founder of a travel startup, I was initially terribly shaken at how life has been thrown completely out of gear by this deadly virus. Travel is the worst affected sector; suddenly 2020 which we had planned to be the 'explosive growth' year for us has thrown us into an existential crisis. The situation has taken such a wild turn that I've grown comfortably numb only shifting the timeline of our 'explosive' growth to the next calendar year [or potentially even further] while we try to figure out how we will survive till we hit that point.

However, among all the bad news - there's a lot of positive stuff that's happening and some of that I wanted to record here today.

Consumerism has taken a backseat 

India is a rapidly developing country and we Indians, and poorer Indians more than the middle class or rich ones like me were fast getting used to a wasteful westernized lifestyle. Everything from food to consumables to data to financial credit was becoming cheaper by the month, and easier to access. And we were wasting all this massively. I wrote a previous blog post about how dystopian it was all becoming where we were all overworking ourselves to afford luxuries which we possibly could not have afforded.

Suddenly, all these excesses have come to a grinding halt. Even for an upper-middle-class neighbourhood like mine, grocery shops are rationing supplies so that they can service all customers for a longer period rather than exhaust their stocks in a few days. For poorer Indians, the ephemeral prosperity has suddenly halted, in a treacherous way. Gone is the pull of TikTok videos on new-fangled mobile phones - their income is gone, survival has become difficult. It's not a pretty sight, it's not something to be proud of - many of these people are nowadays either without food or rationing on a day to day basis what they have, or living off on government-provided aid.

But the positive is, they've / we've all learnt to live within our means again, we are no longer over buying, overspending, overspending, and over-wasting. The garbage bin now gets full once in two days than half a day. I am not sure yet, but some of us may also stop buying the ₹500 Netflix and ₹300 extra data pack to watch content we watched only under peer pressure.

Cleanliness is the buzzword 
Yes, India is Hot, Flat and Crowded - but it is also Dirty! Prime Minister Modi has been crying hoarse since the second year of his term about his Swatchh Bharat Abhiyaan - a program to clean up India. He has organized national competitions, given away grants and spent millions on advertising cleanliness to Indians. But Corona has finally taught people to keep themselves clean, wash their hands regularly, clean their apartments [on their own, without an army of house servants], clean public areas and stop spitting. Cleanliness which was earlier considered either a grouse of puritans or a fake tirade by Modi supporters is finally getting respected on its own.

Vegetarianism is back
India has been a largely vegetarian country due to religious reasons, but rising prosperity has social liberation has increasingly made vegetarianism fade away. But with Covid-19 having been linked to eating wild animals, people have generally let up on their non-vegetarian diet and moving towards vegetarianism. Globally too, Covid-19 may lead to reduction of the practice of eating wild animals and trade of animals, especially endangered species, may go down. Any reduction in the production of Livestock, which is a key contributor to global warming, will only help make earth a greener planet. 

We are building public hospitals 
Yes, this is indeed a boon of the virus for countries like India. For decades Governments have neglected their duty to build hospitals and left the healthcare sector to private enterprises. With the exception of few European countries [Britain, Spain, Germany, Italy] and Japan - most Governments of the world do not provide free healthcare to citizens.

But finally, as this video of Congresswoman Katie Porter forcing CDC in the US to make Covid-19 testing available for free, and this ruling by India's Supreme Court says - governments are finally being forced to spend on citizens health. This has a snowball effect because when governments realise that they anyway have to pay, they start spending on creating infrastructure. Military commissioned hospitals, though makeshift, is the beginning. The long term effect of Covid-19 will be governments finally realising that building public health infrastructure is cheaper than funding squarely for epidemic control. If we had more capacity in our hospitals, it would have been cheaper to offer Covid-19 treatment to citizens.

In a developing country like India, where public health facilities are often dilapidated, this would mean more money flowing into healthcare and hence improvement in the general level of public healthcare infrastructure.

Utilities and Healthcare are back to being respected - no longer a business 
Yes - the doctor who lives next door is today risking his life and going to the hospital taking care of critical patients at the risk of infecting himself. He deserves to be honoured - so do sanitation workers, security staff and all those who have been providing 'utilitarian services' to us. I see a change in people's attitude towards civil service operators - whether its doctors, policemen, sanitation workers or housekeeping staff in their apartments. People are thankful for these people to work, they are providing them with food, extra pay and most importantly the much-needed respect.

Of course, I am not sure if this change of hearts will outlive the Covid-19 crisis or end with it, will doctors get back to becoming the money-making machines that private hospitals were trying to make them [I thankfully know many doctors who haven't succumbed even pre-Covid19], will sanitation workers get back to taking bribes to perform their duties - will people stop respecting these warriors? I wish this is a change for good and we continue this respect while professionals continue to do the selfless service which they've been giving last 40 days!

Focus is back on medical research and manufacturing
Related but not really the same as public funding of healthcare 'services' is funding of medical research. We need more funding for medical research and in the last two decades, that is one that has suffered.

In the last 3 decades, Venture funding has focussed microscopically on technology startups or companies which "look like technology startups" [WeWork?]. We fail to recognise that Medical "technology" is possibly the most fundamental of all. While pension funds would probably be happy putting billions into Pharmaceutical Stocks and while Pharma companies are funding research - there's much more that's needed.

Yes, the $500 ventilator is surely a money-spinner but then it's not just about cutting edge disruptive products; after all, the more you focus towards 'disruption' in healthcare, the closer you get to cases like Theranos. What is needed is hard-headed investments - venture investment, and traditional debt funding - into vanilla businesses like large scale manufacturing of medical equipment, consumables and accessories. It is an ignominy that a poor country like India, which prides itself on 'Information technology and electronics exports', imports more medical equipment than what it manufactures.

Covid-19, with its massive supply chain shocks, will finally bring the focus back into manufacturing of medical equipment locally or closer to the shore for all countries across the globe. And this is good - there is a need for manufacturing everywhere because society needs manufacturing jobs everywhere. The US needs manufacturing as much as China and India; so do Italy and Germany.

Jobs will be back
Yes, there will be a recession, jobs will be lost - business will cut costs and jobs. But for many poor, some Jobs will also come back. Everyone has realised the concentration risk of making China the manufacturing hub of the world and political pragmatism will dictate that many jobs which moved to China (and India) will move closer to the shore. One may see a rise of manufacturing growth in neglected regions of Vietnam, East Europe, and the Southern United States - places which offer labour at decent costs yet business environment far better than China.

The business world will see a new levelling; post Covid-19 will also be a post-globalisation business world. People will also travel less, having tasted the blood of remote work, companies will reduce their travel bills, people will also reduce their travel, to avoid unwanted health risks. And the psychological side-effect of less travel will be preference of executives to have their work done closer to where they live - this will especially be true of manufacturing and to an extent of services.

This is also a wake-up call to businesses which have been earning solely on wage arbitrage; providing quality, diversifying your business risks is now as important as cost control. If that means that an Indian company rather open an office in the US and Europe, or a Chinese company invests in setting up manufacturing in America - it will either be done, or they will lose business. If doing that makes you unsustainable, you were in the wrong business all this while.

People / Companies are realising the value of Insurance
I've been an Information Risk consultant early in my career - I remember that Business Continuity plans were things that only large multinationals did, because they had the budget or, for many, because the regulation needed them to. IT companies in India had BCPs because their client's asked for one in each RFP. With Covid-19, when 80-100% of the workforce was required to suddenly operate from home, all these companies realised the value of a BCP and their own preparedness for these BCP scenarios. Many who weren't prepared paid with the loss of contracts, a slowdown of work, loss of efficiency or simply increased discretionary spend on acquiring resources - to continue their business.

With Covid-19, many laggards who did not devote enough resources to enabling a better working life for their employees were taken in for a shock. In 2020, these organizations were operating with Desktop Computers keyed in to a traditional hard wired network cable and used antiquated Information Security methods because they wanted to see their employees chained to their desks. They did not extend work-from-home facilities to their employees even though they could because they had this bizarre notion that employees work only when the boss can keep an eye on them. As I tweeted here, CTOs, IT Infra SVPs & even CFOs of companies in this state, are guilty of keeping their employees in a productivity hell for almost a decade because work from home was possible 15 years ago.

The running joke is very true, that for several companies its neither the CIO nor the CTO or even the CEO who could drive the "Go Digital" Agenda - but Covid-19 has managed just that. And organizations are finally waking up to the need / benefits of real BCP, than a paper filling certifications seeking exercise. 

We've found new respect for Humanity 
Yeah! It's not just the doctors among us who are earning respect - we've found new love for all fellow humans. Now that I know how hard it is to mop the floor, I will possibly think twice before littering around just because the maid will clean it up tomorrow. 

The second aspect is of Family time going up. Social media which had destroyed dinner table conversations is now going reverse - I am so fed up of the screen by the time I start my dinner that I'd rather listen to my daughter's chattering than stare away into the mobile. And if I still dare to look at my mobile, now that I am spending my entire day at home, my daughter knows that I was working all day and so she won't let me stare away into the last email on my phone as I munch my food. My work-life balance may be screwed (it always was!) but irrespective, I am indeed spending more time with family than what I used to.

We are discovering ourselves and our community
And Social Media - well, its finally connecting us back. We have daily video calls with parents who live far, we have family video call gatherings. We are also Zooming with school friends whom we haven't talked to in decades.

And people reopening their hobbies - someone I know started an Origamy class online. Another of my mentors is writing long Facebook / LinkedIn posts sharing nuggets of wisdom from his two-decade long entrepreneurial journey. My wife is busy destressing herself by drawing and painting; as I type this, the wall next to me has a half-painted unicorn sketch which will possibly be coloured tomorrow. And I am finally writing on my blog! :-) 

The Climate is Healing
Since the last 1 week, I wake up to the cooing of a Koyal in my balcony. I don't know if its the absence of the urban whirr which is making me notice her cooing, or has she started cooing realizing that the city around her is quieter and noise pollution is low. But as twilight draws near, I notice more birds and more sounds around me for sure. May be this is just my own mind playing games with me, but there's scientific evidence that the planet is healing itself - at least Birds are back where they belong; in my balcony.

With no aeroplanes whizzing in the skies, 1% of cars on the road and a tenth of industries polluting the world for past 30+ days skies are surely cleaner. And Oil prices have crashed - hopefully Oil is going away, maybe for good, maybe low Oil prices are here to stay - and so are electric cars! Yes, cheap oil may make cleantech feel more expensive, but I believe the tide has turned over - oil is cheaper not only because demand has fallen due to Covid-19, but also because electric cars are here to stay. Markets anticipate that electric mobility may finally be making a dent and lower consumption of oil could be a new normal which is here to stay.

The healing of climate also makes me wonder, if even without Covid-19, should we make this 'stay-at-home', shut down factories, shut down planes, shut down cars - an annual exercise to keep giving climate change mini-breaks? 

Another piece in the Martian jigsaw puzzle has fit
This one is a long shot - it actually would fit better in a blog post which is in draft mode since the last 6 months. The post is about how recent changes and innovations are preparing mankind for colonization and existence on a Martian station.

Covid-19 is actually the last piece of the Martian jigsaw puzzle because outer space is filled with many more deadly diseases than what we can imagine on the ozone-shielded cocooned atmosphere of the earth. Mankind is going to need large scale preparedness to deal with frequent pandemic calls if it wants to survive on a space station bereft of a conducive atmosphere. And Covid-19 is possibly the first of such pandemic shocks which mankind is going to get in the next few decades which will ultimately prepare us for setting up civilisation in worlds far far away!



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