By Hamoud Almahmoud
In the fall of 1918, days after the second wave of the Spanish Flu – the most severe pandemic in recent human history – began to wane, a new Charlie Chaplin film called “Shoulder Arms” appeared in the theaters. The main theater in New York City invited audiences to attend the film, while the world outside of the city was still isolating themselves in their home quarantines. People did indeed come in droves to attend the film, welcomed by the theater manager Harold Edel, who – in his words – felt that the greatest part of this film was that people would “take their lives in their hands to see it,” as was mentioned in the book “Pale Rider” by researcher Laura Spinney. A week later, Harold Edel died from the Spanish Flu himself, a precursor to the third deadly wave of the flu that stretched until 1919. Despite this, after the flu had passed, people returned to attending theaters and cinema halls, restaurants, and sports matches, all as before, despite the belief of many that the flu would change the status quo for these businesses.
What happened after the Spanish Flu is exactly what happened after the Arab oil embargo, which stopped shipments of oil production to Western countries after the October 1973 War. This, too, was a “crisis” that forced many Americans to work from home despite the difficulty – the internet was not available at that time after all – but was a preferred solution after oil supplies dried out. The moment oil began to flow in the market again, it was business as usual, despite many voices sounding out on the advantages of working from home after the embargo.
The spread of SARS, Bird and Swine Flu and Ebola did not change the world as needed to prepare for a state of Emergency (read the Harvard Business Review article published in 2017 titled “The World is Completely Unprepared for a Global Pandemic”). This is true because memories are short, and the majority of us don’t like change or leaving our comfort zones.
But will the world change this time after the Coronavirus, or will it return to the old status quo?
The difference this time is the “Technology” factor, which was not previously available at this level to help the world achieve a fundamental change. Technology has previously helped change business models partially in sporadic cases, with mega-corporations that disrupted the nations they dwelled in, launching them years into the future. One such company is Alibaba, a company launched during the peak period of SARS in China, saving shoppers from gathering in crowded commercial centers through online shopping. Alibaba then transformed through its various subsidiaries, including Alipay, to the shopping standard post-SARS, and contributed towards moving Chinese years ahead in online shopping, payment, and government services. Another such company is Netflix, whose turning point came after September 11, when many Americans sheltered in their homes, avoiding gatherings and frequenting public spaces. Netflix rushed in to offer video home delivery to Americans, a service it later offered online, blowing its major competitor Blockbuster – the controlling influence in the video rental market back then – out of the water. By creating a new world of “Video Streaming”, Netflix continues to move the world into new horizons, shifting the standard business models of television and cinema, requiring them to reinvent themselves for the better.
During the height of the economic crisis of 2008, technology was again present when AirBnB arrived, transforming any empty room at any home into a hotel room earning income for its owner. What this start-up achieved was another leap into the world’s future, saving consumer’s money while creating new revenue streams, and forcing the traditional hotel sector to develop its services and offerings in the face of real competition.
Today, when we ask about the world after Coronavirus, the world has achieved many gains thanks to the technology factor, such as work from home, distance learning, telehealth, and online government services. These gains may not last, as I will discuss later because a real struggle is occurring between two types of people during this time: one would drag the world back, the other pulls it forward. In parallel to the battle for survival against the spread of Coronavirus is the silent battle between traditionalists and progressives, both vying to establish their vision for the world after Coronavirus. The key question at the heart of this second battle is surprisingly not the one being repeated by many; rather than asking: “what will the world be like in terms of work, education, economy, health care, and government services after Coronavirus”, we should be asking: “what do we want the world to be like?”
The new concept I want to display in this article is that we are all beginning to form our positions, positions we will hold onto after this experiment in home isolation, and after the passage of the first wave of the Coronavirus. We will now begin to express our convictions, defending them publicly after the procedures to reduce the isolation begin, and we attempt to return to our normal lives at least gradually.
Over the last two months, after the sudden shift that the world experienced ten years into the future, the world has split into three factions, and have formed allegiances based on their ideas for life after the Coronavirus. Each is campaigning for a future that suits their capabilities and qualifications:
A faction of those who could not adapt: They assumed the impact of the Coronavirus would be temporary, and in fact found the shift from the status quo a crisis as great as the COVID-19 health crisis. This faction decided to stop all education, work, and healthcare activities that were not related to the events, bringing these factors to a minimum. For them, shifting to technology to allow them to work from home, learn from a distance, rely on telehealth for consultations, hold conferences online, and apply for government services on the internet was a momentary lapse in regular work, education, and the rest of life’s necessities, as they waited out the crisis. This is, in fact, a large category of people, including nations and prestigious economic and educational institutions, but they have simply and silently made their position clear, deciding that they were not ready or qualified to live in a digital world they assumed would arrive gradually over the next ten years.
A faction that has partially adapted: They have been pulled into the electronic shift in the status quo, working from home, using distance learning, telehealth, and the rest of it, but they still manage and interact with these elements in a business management mentality common before the arrival of the Coronavirus. They manage employees online by requesting their geographical coordinates and tracking their phones, asking them to wear traditional work clothes and sit in front of an open camera the whole time. Educational institutions, including some historic Arab universities, have been “forced” into distance teaching, but still manage it in a pre-Coronavirus mentality, as they haven’t undertaken the effort to develop modern testing methods that match various curricula. They remain comfortable with the traditional mindset that they love and brings them peace of mind: that teaching from a distance might work for some forms of education, but would not be possible for practical sciences such as mathematics, engineering, medicine, and others. They might acknowledge some of the new, non-traditional testing methods, such as research or practical projects, or even canceling of testing and allowing for cumulative grading of student home works and duties held over the school year, but don’t care to look into ways of incorporating them into their digital distance learning curricula. Some from this faction may also be constrained in their thinking when monitoring students taking tests online, looking for student movement during the test, monitoring their facial expressions, and eye movement, hoping to catch them stealing a look at their phone or being passed some information from elsewhere.
This category also affects health care institutions, with hospitals and clinics that have temporarily applied telehealth consultations but managed them primitively through emails or phone calls, and accepting payment over the phone. They did not think of how to turn this process into a smart platform or application that can continue after Coronavirus, and in a way that might categorically change their services.
Suffice it to say is that this category is no different from the first in practical terms – rather than changing with the times, they see this technological shift as a temporary matter that does not need to be standardized. An article in the Harvard Business Review cited an article by the McKinsey & Company Global Management Group in which it found that the biggest obstacle to digital transformation is educational rather than technical, and the two above categories show that the majority of people are not ready. Why? Because change is not something most people like, and change leaders have always been a minority in the world across ages, and are usually considered rebels or even thought to be insane until they turn into heroic symbols later on.
A faction that has quickly adapted: this group has fully embraced this unique opportunity for digital transformation, and has discovered how silly the world was as it wasted the chance to use these available technologies that save us money, time, and effort. This rapid technological shift is akin to awakening from a deep slumber, and they have decided to hang on to it and prove this new system’s benefits. They are preparing the ground rules for working from home, distance learning, and telehealth, as well as accessing government services online so that they become reliable models of operations. This category has considered this moment the perfect opportunity to officially start the age of artificial intelligence, blockchain, and digital currencies. They’ve moved years ahead, and look back at us as one might those traveling the caravans of old across the Silk Road, pulled by horses and mules as if we have rejected the available inventions of the airplane and the automobile in our slumber. They laugh as they remember how they had to travel to attend conferences, meetings, lectures, or simply to speak to their doctor, all while they could have been using Zoom to perform the same function at a fraction of the cost in time, effort, and money. Why leave your house, get stuck in traffic, and waste time in line when you can get a government service by the press of a button, for instance?
Analyzing these three categories, we see that in fact, we are facing only two different groups: one that would drag us back to what we were before the Coronavirus, and consider this year and possibly the next lost years in the history of humanity; and another that sees this period as the opportunity to experiment and improve our experience with digital transformation by setting rules for it before launch. Our experience over the last two months is the best evidence of this, as we have all improved our various functions at a distance: work, education, health, government services – everything. We have begun to learn, set rules, and read about better methods.
The results of this silent batter could be that the world returns back to square one and loses all the benefits we have gained as well as a year of our working, educational, and developmental lives. The best we might achieve is that we arrive at a middle stage we might call: “Mixed Advanced Stage”, where a large portion of work and education becomes available at a distance and is approved by traditional bureaucracies. This stage might see some health services and consultations move online, as well as a majority of government services following in the example of Estonia, which has offered 95% of its government transactions online for years.
This is the time to state your position; contribute towards convincing government institutions to hold on to the gains, as some governments have only allowed work, education, health care, and government service permits to be issued on a temporary basis, as opposed to the few who have made these changes permanent. Some governments, such as the Emirate of Dubai, has begun picturing a new, fully-integrated world after COVID-19, and issued a number of reports about this vision, a vision where all the benefits earned in commerce, education, work, and communications become the standard, and the world comes together to rethink its previous decisions and strategies on every level.
*Hamoud Almahmoud is the Editor in Chief of HBR Arabia