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Dr Iqbal Survé: We need to re-jig how man, machine and nature work together

A worker passes through a sanitising booth at the entrance of a metal welding factory. The unusual circumstances we find ourselves in have already brought about a level of transformation hitherto unprecedented, but we are not done yet. Picture: Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters

A worker passes through a sanitising booth at the entrance of a metal welding factory. The unusual circumstances we find ourselves in have already brought about a level of transformation hitherto unprecedented, but we are not done yet. Picture: Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters

Published May 1, 2020


Cape Town – May 1, International Workers Day, a day that in 2020 will be remembered worldwide for the millions not working, as much as for the recognition and celebration of essential workers performing in the face of Covid-19, and the shift in how we will work going forward.

The arrival of Covid-19 and the subsequent quarantining of productivity has been categorsed as a Black Swan event – highly unpredictable, and accompanied (according to Investopedia) by high levels of insistence that the signs were obvious (in hindsight of course). The point being that while some may have predicted its arrival, no-one actually prepared for it, not even "future-proofed" businesses, because how does one secure a business from a future no-one in actuality, saw coming?

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I have previously written about the law of nature, its symbiosis and what we can learn from it. I have also touched on how technology, a great driver of change, is not necessarily the great be all and end all to our economic woes. But imagine if we could meld nature’s natural laws of hierarchy, the ebb and flow and cycle of life, with that of technology. What a world we could create!

Where would that leave workers though?

Developing economies are heavily labour dependent. We know that. But even the developed world has been caught napping by this event. No-one is inured.

Take the travel industry as an example. In a mere four months, coronavirus has turned back the clock on the decades-long aviation surge, which was considered one of the best economic and cultural phenomena post World War II, employing millions. 

However, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) now says that global airlines are set to lose $113 billion in sales if the coronavirus continues on its current trajectory, putting their survival at risk.

The same story repeats itself pretty much throughout every sector. Car manufacturers, many of whom have pivoted to produce medical supplies, will continue to shrink due to limited purchasing power for new vehicles. The fuel price will also continue to be thwarted.

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Many large businesses have retrofitted their factories to produce much needed medical supplies and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Post Covid-19 they need a plan to see them fit into the new paradigm because it will not be business as usual and, as I have written before, it will be because consumers have learnt to live with less and will demand things that are better made and that will last.

While there are still many unknowns, there are also some excellent stories of adaption that deserve mention, if only to spark inspiration in those not yet risen to the challenge of pivoting their business, or perhaps it will spur a bright spark to create something new that will appeal to investors like myself, because investing in the innovative is what we also need to do now.

Take the event industry, hard hit by the fall-out. While difficult to arrange events for people who can’t be physically together, a raft of clever virtual platforms like House Party and Run the World are changing things up. Run the World, for example, is a platform that provides a discounted ticket to delegates to attend a series of live-streamed sessions, and if signed up to the platform, will source appropriate conferences for would-be delegates to attend, wherever they are in the world.

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The travel industry itself has seen a resurgence of patriotic pleasure-seekers, exploring their own countries and discovering beauty and adventure on their own doorstep. Given that exercise restriction has forced a realisation of the beauty of being outside in the fresh air and stretching those legs, I would not be surprised if we saw an uptake in walking, backpacking, and cycling holidays on our own doorsteps.

One industry that needs a complete overhaul though is healthcare itself. If we had all stopped to think about building our immune systems as a priority, eating and living better, we would be better equipped to cope when epidemics and pandemics of this nature occur. Preventative medicine and health coaching will thus come to the fore.

Also included in the health category are the foods and beverages we consume and how they are made, along with allopathic medications being challenged by a sharp uptake of more natural remedies.

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Perhaps one of the biggest changes is the rise of volunteerism and bartering. Swapping of goods and services, such as our ancestors experienced hundreds of years ago. With little actual money to go around at present, I see a system based on value as a growing trend.

For labour, already threatened by the arrival of the 4th Industrial Revolution of machine vs man, there is hope too. As much as there will be an increase in the use of technology to get countries working again and keep them going (such as remote working connections, etc), with a shortage of moving parts, due to the inability to manufacture them or cross borders, physical work will still be depended on for some time to come.

However, the caveat here, and I keep repeating myself, education is critical for this sector of the world’s population. They need to have open access to skills development and learning tools from a very early age in order to change not only their own outcome but the generations to come. 

Because one thing is for sure, just like nature when faced with hard times, there will be a baby boom 9 months from now, with even more people who need feeding, clothing and housing.

If we are to become self-sufficient, we need to re-jig how man, machine and nature interact today, not tomorrow, because if we don’t... the more things change, the more they will stay the same.

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

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