We live in truly unprecedented times. As of this writing, there have been nearly 900,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and well over 40,000 deaths. Doctors, nurses, first responders, and other medical professionals are faced with the herculean task of caring for patients at hospitals whose resources have been stretched to the limit. Our thanks go to them all. While some countries seem to have successfully contained the pandemic, in others it seems the worst is yet to come.
The health impacts of the virus are affecting individuals, families, and societies throughout the world. Compounding this struggle is the fact that COVID-19 is now also driving an economic crisis. The financial fallout will be far-reaching, and societies will have to brace themselves for substantial shockwaves.
While the outlook for the near term is undeniably grim, we do have an opportunity to learn from this disaster and build a better future for humanity. Already, many businesses have begun re-orienting their policies and operations to meet urgent needs within their communities. Efforts in this direction should be made sooner rather than later, in order to keep businesses relevant, productive, and valuable to people in the current environment.
New solutions for old problems
Governments around the world have sprung into action, crafting legislation and emergency measures in response to the pandemic. Significant tax breaks for individuals and businesses, low interest loans, emergency benefits, as well as expansive economic stimulus packages will provide some much-needed relief.
Despite these important government interventions, much remains to be done. In essence, we need to rebuild the core functions of modern society, making them more durable than they were even before the crisis began. Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls this concept “antifragile”, in his book by the same name:
Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.
Through this framing, failure offers a chance to rebuild in a way that improves on the original. A changing environment lets us learn and develop even more durable processes that we had before the disruption began. Supermarkets that open early for elderly shoppers may decide to continue this policy long after COVID-19 has come and gone. Restaurants that have recently learned to streamline their takeout and delivery services may choose to keep these functions in place far into the future. Necessity, here, is the mother of invention – and every adjustment that is initially unwanted may lead to new discoveries, novel business concepts, and improved efficiency further down the road.
Another reason for cautious optimism is that due to the nature of the current crisis, the unifying theme for many of these improvements will likely be that they each come from a communal and cooperative perspective. Indeed, as the present threat does not discriminate and cannot be bargained with, we are all very much in this together. By learning to think and act at international scales, we may put ourselves in a better position to address some of the other large problems we have yet to solve.
A better future on the horizon
More than any other event of our young century, this pandemic has vividly demonstrated our interconnectedness and interdependence. Such an understanding may also serve as a wake-up call on climate change; if we are to get global warming under control, massive worldwide collaboration will be required.
If the events of this period mean anything to the private sector, it should be that corporate social responsibility represents far more than just a PR buzzword. Companies must take it upon themselves to incorporate social and environmental sustainability into their goals and operations. Talk of a circular economy was already gaining mainstream acceptance before the pandemic. It should become even more of a priority when it passes.
In a related development, work itself is also changing dramatically. Many companies are seeing the feasibility and efficacy of telecommuting, and this growing trend will likely continue after the pandemic. If so, the reduction in transport could bring significant environmental benefits.
Most importantly, businesses are now more than ever seeing the irreplaceable value of human capital. An organisation cannot function without its people, and the COVID-19 crisis is currently reminding us all of the primacy of employee health – both physical and mental.
Each of these lessons should inspire us all to focus ever more intently on the important challenges of the modern world. When we overcome the worst of COVID-19, we should be hungrier than ever – and far better equipped – to build a healthier, more equal, and more sustainable future together.