Lessons Learnt from COVID-19: The New Normal vs. the Old Normal
Date: May 14th 2020
Author: Franc Bogovič
Before the Sars-CoV-2 coronavirus emerged and the COVID-19 pandemic started, life used to be quite normal for all of us living in Slovenia, Europe or across the globe. In our fast-paced lives, we could go about our business as usual, travel without restrictions across open borders, and gather at public events. We lived in a globalised world where Europe transferred much of its manufacturing industries to Asia to benefit from cheaper labour. This includes the production of personal protective equipment for healthcare. Now, in the most critical moment, the coronavirus crisis has left us naked and exposed, with no face masks and no medical ventilators.The internet has connected the world, made business processes easier and more effective, brought about digital platforms that have changed business models. In a matter of years, the capital value of corporations such as Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, or Tesla, far exceeded the value of manufacturing companies, which had been developing for decades or even centuries.
In addition to Japan and South Korea, which had long been at the forefront, a number of enterprises started emerging in China that became leaders in digitalisation, smart solutions, renewable energy sources, and high-speed rail. A handful of individuals had a net worth that far outstripped the budgets of entire countries. The launch of the latest smartphone model used to be one of the most anticipated events of the year.
The service sector grew, and new business models based on the sharing economy (Booking, Airbnb, Uber) emerged and thrived, taking over from their traditional competitors. Low-cost airlines flourished by enabling us to fly worldwide at ridiculously low prices. Holidays were increasingly spent abroad, often half the world away from home. Shopping and hanging out in shopping centres were commonly a replacement for the Sunday mass or a family get-together.
Overall, it seemed as if nothing can stop the growth of opulence. The only trouble was that the Earth was becoming a little too small for its growing population, which consumed more energy, more natural resources each year. This started to upset the balance of the natural environment, and the planet began heating up as the human-caused emissions were simply too high for the world’s forests to be able to absorb them. Indeed, the world full of riches and all sorts of comforts was becoming a stifling place.
Food consumption, too, was growing quickly, especially in terms of animal-based proteins (meat, milk, cheese, etc.), as it became affordable to many in developing countries, where people 30 years ago, before the age of globalisation and digitalisation, had had to literally subsist on a handful of rice. Like other products, food started to reach consumers worldwide.
Was everything we used to do really necessary?
Can anything be changed? Are we ready to step back and ask ourselves whether our lifestyles were perhaps not somewhat excessive? Could it be that we started to ignore nature as well as people around us, including sometimes our own family?
We could or would somehow never find answers to the questions that the coronavirus crisis has now surfaced, or would not even ask them in the first place. This was until news started spreading “far away” in China about some new virus that apparently got out of hand. It is still not entirely clear under whose control the virus was to begin with, that of the scientists of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or of the Chinese healthcare system, which failed to recognise and try to stop it while there was still time, or at least warn the rest of the world of how dangerous it is. In record time, the dangerous virus has changed the world considerably, enforcing on it a number of answers including a brand-new view of the world itself.
Planes were suddenly grounded, restaurants and hotels closed their doors, people were quickly brought back from all corners of the world and told to stay at home. Public transport stopped, schools and nurseries closed, as did many companies. People started dying in overcrowded hospitals, with exhausted healthcare workers losing the coronavirus battle due to the lack of personal protective equipment, which is produced in the faraway China.
The reduced economic activity and a drastic reduction in transport services as a result of lockdown have cut energy demand worldwide, with oil prices even plunging into negative territory. Electricity and fossil fuel consumption has declined so much that starry skies have emerged again in many parts of the world, the Himalayas can be seen again from parts of India for the first time in 30 years, and fish have returned to the Venice canals.
Many of the things deemed impossible just months ago have suddenly become doable, and in a very short period of time. In the coming weeks and months, the realisation of the price of this substantial change in terms of the jobs lost will also strike. What is already clear is that the tourism industry can no longer save the year, that many airlines will struggle to stay afloat, with no indications as to when or how quickly air travel can go back to normal. Sooner or later it will become apparent just how many people will be paying the price of the pandemic as the economic and social crises truly hit in the coming months.
During the coronavirus crisis, people realised the importance of a good broadband connection, saw how quickly one can switch to online school lessons, e-shopping, working remotely, running online meetings. E-commerce businesses have been struggling to keep up with the demand, hiring new employees and making huge profits.
The lack of face masks and ventilators has shown in the most brutal way the vulnerability of the present world order, where the EU and the U.S. are suddenly incapable of manufacturing enough simple masks and ventilators, although these are made under European licences.
Lessons to learn from, and how to go on after the COVID-19 crisis subsides
Looking ahead, I expect many manufacturing industries to be localised. People will be growing food in their gardens, buying it from local producers, ordering it online from progressive farmers and having it delivered. Trust in local food networks will endure even after viruses are no longer a threat. People will more often spend their holidays locally, getting to know the beauties of their own country they have so far neglected in favour of the wide world. Keeping strategic businesses in European hands is becoming vital. This had previously often been overlooked, and the pitfalls of globalisation underestimated in comparison with its many benefits.
The importance of self-sufficiency in strategic fields such as energy, food, and public health, has again moved to the centre stage. Self-sufficiency will be under consideration both at the EU level and the level of individual member states.
There is no doubt that investment will increase in green technology, low-carbon energy sources, resource efficiency, and circular economy, to reduce the human impact on the environment.
By continuing to invest in digitalisation, Slovenia should enable each citizen to have a good broadband connection as soon as possible; it should digitalise its economy and help empower people of all ages with digital skills they can use to be more effective in their daily lives, jobs and tasks.
While technological progress will continue, states should not forget to ensure effective public services. The healthcare system should be made more robust, and better interconnected within the EU. In turn, the EU should never let healthcare rely on Chinese medical supplies again. The safety of a family environment has turned out to be the best refuge during lockdown. For many, this clearly unfamiliar proximity during isolation has been a tough test of the strength of family ties.
The new normal after coronavirus is going to be quite different from the old one. It will often entail making difficult decisions, as a society and as individuals.
As we are building the new reality together, we need to embrace it and learn to live in it.
Franc Bogovič is an MEP for the Slovenian People's Party (SLS/EPP).
The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Energetika.NET.
This article is available also in Slovene.