A better world after Covid?

Most of us, unless we are professional philosophers, live our lives pursuing our careers and family well-being, giving little thought to the ideological frameworks that we are unknowingly shackled to.

Take, for example, the issue of how much of a role the Indian State should play in areas of economic policy like the setting of bank interest rates, market price for wheat or rice, and whether such decisions should be left to market forces. This ideological debate has been raging in the world ever since the British economist, John Maynard Keynes, started it in the 1930s. India, for example, embraced the notion of the activist State in the 1950s with the creation of the Planning Commission and then discarded all such notions in the early 1990s in favour of a market-centred approach. But during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, local informal groups in almost every part of India are rising to the forefront in organising free meals and shelter for the unfortunates whose daily incomes have disappeared during the lockdown. Will this create among us a new view that the State and market do not really matter, and what matters is us citizens co-operating with and helping one another?

Or take the case of the ideology about globalisation. Starting out as the “White Man’s Burden” in the mid-19th century, which provided the intellectual justification for colonialism, it has been from time to time updated, most recently under the Bretton Woods Agreement setting up Western-controlled institutions like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization espousing “free trade” as the solution to the poverty of Third World countries. “Globalisation”  and reducing trade barriers became the keywords to signal a more “modern” approach to life. This set of ideologies has reigned supreme since then. But we are noticing the pattern of Covid-19’s spread is following the path of trade patterns: Those cities that have a high international interaction are the ones which have become “hotspots”, and likely to suffer the maximum economic damage. Will this temper the all-encompassing belief in the ideology of globalisation?

Illustration: Ajay Mohanty

 
Another example is our belief in big, centralised offices housing the most talented of our employees as being central to achieving high productivity. Having a head office in a swanky high-rise tower located in an expensive part of, say, Mumbai or Delhi or New York or London is seen as central to the credibility and prestige of an organisation, even if that means a couple of hours of commuting each way for employees every day. And within an office, employees are allotted office space in proportion to their power within. But the new work reality over the past month is teaching all of us that working at home seems to be as productive, if not more, than labouring in one central office. Staying at home all day and working through audio or video conferences seems many times more productive for intellect-based occupations. Will this mean that we are going to look sceptically at the notion of centralised offices and opt for a high proportion of our staff working from home on a permanent basis?

Multiple lists of industries most affected by Covid-19 reveal a certain pattern. Airlines seem to be the most affected, hotels come a close second. The auto industry in all its incarnations — auto manufacturers, distributors, auto-part makers, petrol pumps and auto-repair shops  — come a close third. To be fair, these industries have been struggling since last year, implying that much of what we do in travel is not really necessary and has been “marketed” to us.  We suddenly realise that more than half of oil consumed is accounted for by the car industry in most countries. And it is also being reported that 50 per cent of the physical space in big cities is occupied by car parking. Is it possible that the decline in usage and ownership of cars will lead to that parking space being converted into public parks, which citizens can stroll in?

 
The decline of the car industry, however, may mean that the ideology that “manufacturing” is the virtuous job creator — a magic word that has stoked the hopes of politicians and policymakers to create jobs for millions of young people streaming into our cities from villages — may become just an optical illusion.

Close behind in the list of threatened industries is the sports industry, prominent among them in India being cricket and football. Till now, sport was believed to be largely recession-proof , the thinking so far has been that through good times and bad fans will go on attending matches, splurge on food and drinks, merchandise and giant-scale broadcast rights and sponsorships would gush like rivers overflowing. All that has ground to an abrupt halt — and with that the ideology that it is somehow  “healthy” and “manly” to watch sports. But, on the other hand, will we in the future be focused more on exercising ourselves, say, a half hour of yoga every day, rather than sprawling on our sofas and vicariously enjoying the athleticism of sports stars?

Is the new world awaiting us post-Covid-19,  going to be a world in which more than half the “office” population will be working at home and working online? Will this mean that the rush to cities to find jobs will decline and employers be content to have their employees stay back in their small-town homes and work online? Will we be satisfying our urge to share emotions with others largely online and not in bars? Will the air we breathe in our cities go back to being pristine and the skies blue? And will this mean a healthier population and more productive businesses?
The writer (ajitb@rediffmail.com) is an internet entrepreneur


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