OPINION: It's time we re-imagine our world after the Covid-19 pandemic
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OPINION - While in a supermarket recently, a prominent politician approached me expressing surprise at how some universities had ensured that the transition from face-to-face teaching and learning was as seamless as possible.
The woman, who is a member of Parliament, wasted no time expressing her wish that the business of Parliament in the post-pandemic era could break with the century-old tradition that requires members to be physically present in the House.
She said holding meetings via Zoom video conferencing during the national lockdown had spared her the trouble of waking up in the wee hours to catch flights from Joburg to Parliament in Cape Town. “I really wish this could continue even when the virus has abated, especially in cases where I have to brief committee meetings,” she said.
That seems like stating the obvious because each year, politicians spend millions of rand of taxpayers' money on these jaunts. Zoom has exponentially increased in popularity during the Covid-19 lockdown as a tool for communication for both social and business purposes, with its technology being used by businesses, universities and governments around the world.
Of course, teething problems over cybersecurity have emerged. However, this seems to be a new world order. The question is: Could the huge shifts in our way of working and living as a result of Covid-19 pave the way for a more innovative and cost-effective way of doing things? Where will we be in a year and a decade from now? There are several possible futures, all of which are dependent on how governments, businesses and society respond to Covid-19 and its economic aftermath.
President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered a stark warning in his address to the nation last week. The promise of phasing down to level 3 for parts of the country cushioned the crux of his message: “We will need to reorganise workplaces, schools, universities, colleges and other public places to limit transmission. We will need to adapt to new ways of worshipping, socialising, exercising and meeting that minimise opportunities for the virus to spread.”
This, of course, was in the context of the slow reopening of the economy. However, in thinking of a post-Covid-19 world, this may continue to be our new normal long after the lockdown lifts. What is a post-Covid-19 world? Is this the world we envision after a vaccine, or as many experts will tell you, is this a world in which the virus persists but we adapt? Regardless of what this new normal will be, it is crucial to design a post-Covid-19 world.
It is in this context that the University of Johannesburg (UJ) is hosting a series of webinars that seeks to answer exactly that: How do we reimagine the world after the pandemic? The webinars are designed to provide a holistic examination of the post-pandemic future - from the impacts on humanity, the economy, health, education, the environment and the future world of work.
Interestingly, these conversations are located in something that we at UJ have been preaching with enthusiasm - the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Simply put, 4IR is an era when intelligent technologies permeate all aspects of our lives which is envisioned to potentially grow economies exponentially and could be the key to finding solutions to some of our most deep-seated problems.
Arguably, the pandemic has become somewhat of a watershed moment for 4IR. It has hastened shifts that 4IR would have brought. It has forced many of those still sceptical of technology to adopt online alternatives.
As we navigate these difficult conversations, there are some givens. What is already apparent is that the economic fallout will continue long after the lockdown lifts. The most pessimistic forecasts see South Africa’s economy contracting by up to 17%. It will no longer be enough to call for structural reforms to counteract this; the economy will need a significant overhaul, and part of this is fundamentally relooking at economic activity. The functioning of businesses and academic institutions, for instance, will need to shift completely online.
While this has been necessitated by the lockdown, there is, of course, the need to interrogate which methods will continue to be the new normal. Will we see some companies completely shift to remote working? The technology to do so is certainty in place and has proven to be effective. Will we see less full-time employees as we move towards a gig economy?
With countries having to look at local suppliers and producers to keep supply chains going, we could see a shift in production modes in countries. This could significantly change the balance of trade for many countries. Much of this is speculation as economic activity has largely come to a halt. Yet should restrictions continue, companies need to look to local suppliers, which could become a permanent shift despite possibly higher margins. Countries are already starting to relook at what needs to be imported. Of course, with the automation of processes in production, there is far greater urgency to adopt this technology. These are costly initial investments but they do pay off in the long run through increased efficiency.
There has been a similar shift in higher education. Prior to the lockdown, many universities had already begun implementing blended modules which combined online learning with traditional classroom learning. This is not without its challenges given that many students struggle with access to devices and data. It is becoming increasingly clear that as universities shift to online teaching and learning, this will continue to be integrated into the curriculum where relevant.
We will also need to reimagine tourism once international borders reopen.
As we continue to find ways to function against the fraught context, our gaze must constantly shift to the future. After all, pandemics have historically been a precursor for social change and this one just happens to coincide with the paradigm shift that is 4IR.
Professor Marwala is vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg. He deputises President Ramaphosa in the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution