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Dr Iqbal Survé: Covid-19 is forcing the world to adapt or face the consequences

The survival of the fittest in these times will be marked by those individuals and businesses who will adapt to a different world - after Covid-19. Picture: Bongani Mbatha /African News Agency (ANA)

The survival of the fittest in these times will be marked by those individuals and businesses who will adapt to a different world - after Covid-19. Picture: Bongani Mbatha /African News Agency (ANA)

Published Apr 2, 2020


The survival of the fittest in these times will be marked by those individuals and businesses who will adapt to a different world - after Covid-19. This is the last of a three-part series by Dr Iqbal Survé reflecting on the pandemic sweeping the globe.

In his book, The Origin of The Species (1859), English naturalist, geologist and biologist Charles Darwin noted the evolution of man and nature, and how those who quickly fitted in with change, were the ones that thrived.

Will we?

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Like many of you, I’m sure, I have pondered what life will be like once we can all go outside and enjoy the conviviality of friends and family again.

Will we spontaneously hug one another at first sight, or be afraid and remain slightly apart? Will we lose our human touch? Will our businesses and economies be fit enough for purpose?

Has our purpose changed? How will the economic world evolve to take account of the new paradigm?

There is no simple answer, and no one has a crystal ball - we can make only educated guesses. I would hazard a guess though, that the conjectures would be modelled on by now, more or less, defunct systems.

The need for change

All the great leaps forward in evolution had their casualties. It will be like that for us. The coronavirus, more than the Great Depression of 1929, has highlighted the empirical need for change in how we do business.

The world, in debt before Covid-19 forced countries to close down, will need new financial instruments to function, not just cope. The financial industry needs to adapt or face the consequences of a world in default.

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To equip us for a sound financial future, governments the world over and especially here in Africa, need to focus on developing strong local customer bases, along with willing collaboration, and knowledge sharing - not to be afraid of their country’s sovereignty but embrace continental and even global Ubuntu.

The caveat is that for collaboration and co-operation to work, it has to be founded on honesty, integrity and transparency - the cornerstone of the new world order.

Thankfully, there are healthy signs of the new community, although old thinking and attitudes are also, sadly, apparent. This was demonstrated by the scepticism over Russia’s thoughtful supplying of crucial medical supplies, personnel and equipment to Italy in its darkest hour of need.

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The Italians welcomed Russia with open arms - this was about pure survival. Payback, if any demanded (and we do not know), can be dealt with later.

The US could well take a lesson from this approach. Cuba might be poor on many levels but it has been innovating on the medical drug side for decades, some of which are being investigated as possible solutions to our existential crisis. Instead, President Donald Trump continues to impose sanctions. Is this standalone mentality necessary?

Cynics should hang their heads in shame. This is not a time for pointing fingers but offering a hand - a lesson we all need to take into the future.

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Businesses of tomorrow will also need to adapt and will depend on a new form of education, born out of the knowledge of 2020. Here in Africa, we are guilty of keeping large swathes of the population ignorant.

This has kept them in poverty, as surely as segregation pre-1994 did in South Africa. The ignorance has not helped communicate the dangers of the disease, or any other for that matter.

Nor has it prepared tomorrow’s youth for a working environment that will be led by technology and a new set of rules.

Technology to thrive

Technology during this time has provoked change even for those who have never been online before.

The former Baby Boomers (not a rock group but Generation 65+), have become Baby Zoomers, for example, forced online to connect via video conferencing and the like, taught by grandchildren who were born digital.

In the “connected” world, another example is the explosion of online learning, fitness programmes and shopping. Those who were hesitant, now understand the many benefits to not having to leave the house (or forgetting where they parked the car).

It’s too soon to tell what percentage will revert to traditional shopping methods post-lockdown, but if it takes 21 days to form new habits, then I am predicting a high number will continue.

This of course, has ramifications for retail, particularly in South Africa. But, as they have shown in this time of crisis, those providing essential services can readily adapt to needs, and while physical store size might reduce in future, there will be a corresponding increase in pickers, drivers or even a fleet of drone delivery pilots.

For other businesses, I would not be surprised if we see a continuance of remote working - it has its benefits, cost-cutting for instance, is essential. The upside of this is far less congestion on our roads. It might even give our government impetus to upgrade the public transport system for workers who need to get to a place of work. If they have one.

The human factor

In the offline world, there have been remarkable changes and progress too. The Chinese built a brand-new hospital in Wuhan (the epicentre of the outbreak), in just eight days.

Many scoffed at this with a plethora of conspiracy theories, but proving it can be done, the UK has just opened a 4 000 bed ICU field hospital in a former exhibition centre, with two more regional field hospitals to come.

It took a week to make it happen, proving that when it is needed, we can really come together and make the impossible possible. What if we temporarily converted the Good Hope Centre in Cape Town or unused stadiums into field hospitals?

There are countless examples of governments mobilising like never before. Having once proved it can be done, I am not sure any citizenry will allow the government to rest on its laurels ever again. Nor should they.

Governments need to rebuild the trust factor with their constituents. Citizens need governments that have their best interests at heart such as better health, and in Africa, better living conditions, less proximity living - investing in citizens. We might, therefore, see a rise in a blend of capitalism- and socialism-driven ideologies across the world.

Some countries are coming out of enforced hibernation and kick-starting their economies, but there is a problem. The rest of the world is in lockdown. That means restricted business, again. It is therefore going to be a stalemate for some time to come.

That said, it is an ideal time to develop loyal local customer bases and stimulate in-country business opportunities.

On the flip side of tomorrow’s Fourth Industrial Revolution and business change, are those who, with two to three weeks of enforced reflection, will be happy to continue to be disconnected from the always-on world.

This too, is an adaption of its own kind and a necessary one, because what has been missing from this world for a long time is balance.

We have pressed pause on the pulse of the planet and been given a golden opportunity to restructure the way forward - across all aspects of life. Let us not waste it. Let us all adapt or face the consequences.

* Dr Iqbal Survé is executive chairman of  Sekunjalo and a trustee of the  Global Influenza Surveillance Initiative (GISAID).

Read part 1:  Let's stay home and be united in our vision for a Covid-19-free world

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