‘COVID-19 is a shot against a global catastrophe’: what will happen after pandemic
Among consequences of the coronavirus, futurologists name more intense centralised management, robotics, a sedentary lifestyle and psychological problems
The self-isolation regime has hit most part of the population of the Earth as a means of fight against the coronavirus pandemic. It was introduced in Russian regions in late March and will last at least until 30 April. Realnoe Vremya’s experts talk about how this unwanted global experiment will affect our life.
Is there life after self-isolation?
People around the world are urged to stay home to save their own and others’ life and health: both authorities and specialists as well as media people are doing this. About 4 billion inhabitants of Earth are in different isolation. For many of them, these restrictions are compulsory and carry big changes to life almost for everybody, some of them are obvious, while others aren’t still realised to the full.
Realnoe Vremya decided to go into the matter: is there life after self-isolation? Or, more precisely, to ask futurologists and doctors when the pandemic will end, how long can people remain in quarantine, how the forced transition to telecommuting will change the labour market, what will happen to the health care system, how self-isolation can threaten homebodies’ health, what children might lose if this stretches into summer. And, ultimately, what lessons humankind learn from this situation. A spoiler: the crisis will turn our lives upside down, but not for the worse — futurologists assume that the current events can be considered as training (similar to a military one) that will be an injection of the planet against a global catastrophe.
I see even positive results in the coronavirus’s influence. Undoubtedly, such spheres as robotics and digitalisation are receiving a big impulse
Danila Medvedev, futurologist
By its scale, the new coronavirus pandemic is bigger than the crisis in 2007-2008. It is probably comparable only with the terrorist attack in the USA on 11 September 2001 from a perspective of how many different spheres are changing around the world.
I see even positive results in the coronavirus’s influence. Undoubtedly, such spheres as robotics and digitalisation are receiving a big impulse. We see the first impressive results in robotics as early as the 90s.
Today we seem to see much more impressive accomplishments, but they haven’t been used in practice until 2020. Somebody developed a robot for a hospital — this robot operates in a Japanese hospital. And now, when there is the necessity to provide quarantine and make sure that at the same time society functions well too, it turns out that these robots can be adjusted for whatever — even for food delivery. This technology seems to be invented a long time ago but it started to be introduced until it is late and everybody understood that it is necessary.
Or take at least digitalisation of education in Russia. The talks about it began several years ago, and previously, providing schools with the Internet was a fashionable topic, everybody in the 90s thought about how to introduce computers in schools. But at the same time, these issues were considered half-heartedly. And when restrictive measures began and it turned out that everybody had to switch to online education in a week, everybody, from kindergartens, schools to colleges and universities, managed to do it. In other words, we have technological capacity, but the introduction began thanks to the quarantine.
“Some thingy happens, and in a few weeks turns out that everybody is ready to handle it”
It somehow resembles the influence of the Second World War that pushed the development of many sectors. The same happens when a catastrophe takes place, it turns out that everybody is ready to give up everything and start to solve the problem. In this respect, humankind’s progress isn’t gradual: some thingy happens, and in a few weeks turns out that everybody is ready to handle it. And when everything runs smooth, everybody relaxes, and we don’t see technological progress.
If we reflect on that all bureaucratic processes — public administration, activity of ministries, enterprises’ managers’ work — was in the old fashion until recently: everybody met physically, exchanged papers. And now everybody understood that they have to urgently change. And, most importantly, they managed to do this quickly.
On the one hand, the loss of the pandemic is big. But another important plus is the preparation for further big catastrophes. Such epidemics take place accidentally as a consequence of mutation of viruses, pathogenic bacteria. If we look at humankind history, it was cholera, smallpox, plague, Spanish influenza. We understand that humankind is still unprotected from this threat to a certain degree. We need to take these results of medical and genetic research and learn how to apply it to really protect from viruses.
In this sense, the current situation can be considered as training, but similar to a military one, moreover, the coronavirus is relatively safe. It isn’t the plague that destroyed half of the European population and returned every five years. Compared to it, the coronavirus isn’t that scary even if we assume that most population of the planet falls ill: not 50% will die anyway.
“There is a chance humankind won’t die next time”
Neither should we brush off the risk of biological terrorism. I and my colleagues talked about it as early as the 2000s. It is possible to create an artificial virus with the help of genetic tools today. The same coronavirus genome has been published, and if wanted one can buy equipment for genome synthesis and create the same virus with it, if wanted, one can change something. For instance, it is possible to make it more resistant to ultraviolet rays or make it lighter and have better transmission in the air or even prolong the incubation period in the organism up to several months.
There is Plague computer game where the player manages the pathogenic organism and has to seize the Earth and destroy all the population. We understand that it is a completely real story. In this respect, the coronavirus is a very good chance to check us all out, if everything is protected, if we have enough masks and medical possibilities in general. Now we start to understand that the skill of erecting a hospital — in a week or two — can be handy, maybe we should develop some equipment to hand and store it in strategic reserves. The virus is like a shot against a global catastrophe. Yes, it is unpleasant for some time, but there is a chance that next time humankind won’t die.
There are in general several possible catastrophes that happen once in 100 years on average. A serious epidemic takes place once in a hundred years on average, Tunguss-like meteorites fall with the same periodicity. There is a risk of mass emission on the Sun that turns all electricity and electronics off. If this happens, all our technical part will stall: cars won’t switch on, planes won’t fly, computers and phones will turn off. The probability of such events is really not small — a per cent a year. It is very important for us to seriously think about it and understand that if we haven’t seen it yet it doesn’t mean everything around is safe.
“Stronger centralised management around the world is quite possible”
Ideally, if we are very lucky, everything will end in autumn. A more realistic scenario is that a return to normal life everywhere will be only in winter or spring of 2021.
Stronger centralised management around the world is quite possible. Partly this can probably apply to functions of the World Health Organization, some other international organisations, partly it will be done through countries’ governments. Citizens understand that they will have to tolerate a violation of their rights to fight the epidemic. If everybody was worried about it a year ago, now everybody understands that this can be a necessary evil. Yes, of course, the state is tracking every our step, but, at least, it is controlling the epidemic.
Very different situations are possible here, through the creation of a totalitarian society in China. At a certain moment, this can become a standard model that computers track a person day and night, it is impossible to even to breathe in without an electronic pass. This is also possible in Russia to a certain degree. And even the most liberal democratic countries such as Finland or Switzerland can decide that total control with cameras, mobile phones, robots, drones is introduced during the epidemic.
In general if the control was really total now, we could stop the epidemic in two weeks. It is simply necessary to control that nobody infects anybody. But as the control isn’t total yet, we have what we have.
If a person runs out of money and food, he stops being afraid of fines and will anyway go out: to work, steal or go a neighbouring city, which is cheaper. The longer the self-isolation regime is, the more violations there will be
Konstantin Frumkin, Russian journalist, philosopher, culturologist, coordinator of Association of Futurologists
I don’t think the self-isolation regime will stretch into the summer. Even regardless of the intensity of the pandemic. There can be different numbers of victims. But self-isolation will unlikely last for more than two months. At least, the experience of other countries shows it. There can be a second wave, but it is an unlikely turn of events. At this moment epidemiologists say even in the doom-laden forecast that it will unlikely last more than till the middle of June.
“There is more and more temptation to violate self-isolation”
The longer the self-isolation is, the more is the temptation to violate it. First of all, such a regime becomes economically unbearable. The safety margin of business structures is running out, the population’s savings are out. As some enterprises aren’t operating, there is a shortage of commodities, prices are starting to go up, savings are melting faster, so it is becoming harder to handle self-isolation. If a person runs out of money and food, he stops being afraid of fines and will anyway go out: to work, steal or go a neighbouring city, which is cheaper. The longer the self-isolation regime is, the more violations there will be. And it is unclear how the state will handle it: Moscow has a certain number of police officers per capita, the number in regions is completely different.
It is a question how reasonable the measures taken by the state will be. In my opinion, it would be reasonable to suddenly redistribute budget priorities to pause costs that can wait now and redistribute the free money to help the population and affected businesses. Another question is how to find out what categories are the neediest. It goes without saying that some money has to be allocated on both medical and sanitary and epidemiological measures.
“It can hit harder than the epidemic itself”
At the same time, the state should take measures to simplify the way goods get to shelves. Money is money, but in fact it is just paper. There must be goods. This particularly means that it should suddenly simplify imports of commodities during the epidemic, perhaps temporarily lift counter-sanctions on food imports. But I am afraid such measures won’t be taken.
According to the messages that reach us, the state can do two big stupid things. Firstly, try to keep prices with administrative decisions. It can be a catastrophe and hit us harder than the epidemic itself. When the state starts to regulate prices administratively, commodities with regulated prices simply disappear. They start to be hidden, stocked up on, sold under the counter, in the black market, in every way except for fixed prices. What prices will they regulate? The prices for essential goods. When we have a shortage and empty shelves too, it will be out. But it is such a basic economic truth that I hope that the government understands everything. But the messages are very bad because our governments listen to such proposals.
Second, it seems that protectionism measures will intensify among supporting measures for businesses. In other words, on the contrary, it will impede imports of goods that will be considered rivals of a Russian manufacturer. Protectionism is strategically wrong in any situation, it is politics that decreases the effectiveness of the economy. In our situation, bigger barriers to imports mean a rise in еру deficit, higher prices and serious social consequences for the population in favour of some enterprises and sectors, which is completely wrong. On the contrary, it is necessary to simplify the flow of goods in this situation as much as possible.
“We will get out of the pandemic with a much richer system of remote services”
The more we stay home, the more we get used to telecommuting, and more different forms of telecommuting we are testing. People were forcedly presented with a fait accompli that many forms of telecommuting are more convenient, cheaper and more effective. It stimulates the appearance of new services. It is noteworthy that the ICQ system that was once very popular has been relaunched and is creating a new option — group video calls. So there will be more platforms and tools for telecommuting. We will get out of the pandemic with a much richer system of remote services and, most importantly, millions of people who stayed clear of this and consciously didn’t want to deal with it and preferred physical meetings and paper books like me have to telecommute now.”
In a couple of months of forced training, people will have mastered skills and develop a taste for telecommuting. Digitalisation and virtualisation of some jobs is a process that hasn’t been taking place for one year and that will have to be taking place for many years. But there is no doubt the pandemic will considerably accelerate this process.