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A look into the COVID crystal ball |

Young Star

A look into the COVID crystal ball

Oleen Florendo - The Philippine Star
A look into the COVID crystal ball
Art by Kitty Jardenil

MANILA, Philippines — In mid-March, before the world as we know it shifted into the way it is today, the idea that we’d spend the majority of 2020 at home with recurring lockdowns didn’t even cross my mind, and maybe neither did it yours. In the seven months since the Philippines reported its first case of COVID-19, we have ascended (descended?) into the list of countries with the most reported cases in Southeast Asia.

This pandemic isn’t the first of its kind nor is it the disease that brought to life quarantine measures, but its effects are unprecedented in our 21st-century lives. With modern medicine in place and improved health systems vis-à-vis the circumstances of earlier, even deadlier pandemics, the truth is, the coronavirus is just as capable of changing and reorienting the way we live and work.

In the 14th century, the Black Death wiped out one-third of Europe’s population, decimating the system of feudalism. With the working population massively decreased, serfs and laborers grumbled for wages and the status once held by nobles gradually disintegrated. The plague and its sustained effects also steered the general public towards the mysticism of the Catholic Church.

In 1918, the Spanish flu introduced the concept of mass-scale medicine (vaccinations), rejecting an individualistic approach to treating the infected. This eventually allowed expanded access to healthcare, and created a more global response to diseases to what was once dealt with on a national level.

Call it what you want: life threatening, surreal, distressful, historical. End result is, contagions change the course of history.

Relying on the availability of a vaccine as the redemption arc to a seemingly dystopian reality feels comforting, but it’s much more complex than that. First, it could take months, even years, before a fully-tested COVID vaccine will be ready for mass production; and second, the politics of which country and which sectors first receive doses only means more waiting and stagnancy. Perhaps a disclaimer — that it isn’t a one-time quick remedy before we all get our old lives back — would help manage the nation’s expectations.

Much has been said about adjusting to the “new normal” — this looping rut we’re stuck in at the moment. Precaution has shown itself in the form of layers: masks, face shields, gloves and even full PPE. We abide by this measures, not just because it’s protocol, but for the benefit of our sanity and safety. For other countries that have come a long way back since their first wave of infection, the fear of another surge still looms every day.

But months into this new normal, the magnitude of the pandemic may not be fully realized yet, and it clearly hasn’t run and finished its full course. For some families, life will now be divided to “before and after the pandemic.” So, when masks are no longer deemed essential, and when the pandemic has lost its top spot in the news, how will our future be altered by this and how do we as a society emerge from this?

In the wake of lockdown implementations, businesses and companies that used to shy away from going remote shifted to working from home. This came with the realization that so many in-person meetings could have been resolved in email threads. Transitioning to a flexible working setup is vital because failing to keep up with our current times means closed businesses and bankruptcy.

This will then ensue an even more digitized economy. We now turn to online services and shopping to fulfill our needs while bureaucratic organizations are forced to adopt a more digital-based way of serving the public. Online medical consultations and e-learning have become part of our daily life, albeit with difficulties and limitations. James Manyika, who has led researches on the global economy, described it as an acceleration of the future of work. What was once seen as a trend has now taken over and will continue to be the norm.

The power acquired by states to monitor public health, control resistance and allow citizens to be placed under surveillance will not be abandoned completely post-pandemic, predicts Basheer Nafi, a senior researcher from Al Jazeera Centre of Studies. In our case, the emergency power initially acquired to deal with the crisis will be retained and in effect will create a governing body more controlling and powerful than it was before.

The travel and tourism industry has also been indefinitely affected by the pandemic: even as flights are slowly reinstated, the number of bookings and reservations has drastically decreased. Analysts believe flights will return normal levels, but with frequent thermal checks as part of the protocols. The team of Medical Futurists predicts an immunity passport may now become a requirement; proof that your health is not a threat to your destination’s safety.

This pandemic has also laid bare that even the wealth and healthcare systems of great and powerful nations are not exempt from the effects of the virus. Big cities like New York and countries like Italy became hotbeds of infection, driving them deep into recession. Douglas Irwin of the Peterson Institute for International Economics said that the pandemic has added momentum towards the end of the cycle of globalization. Economic trade of critical goods will decline as countries focus on keeping these goods on a local level in an effort to jump-start their own economies.

In recovering from a grueling battle with coronavirus, a nation has to place its crisis program and response under review to cushion it from the devastating effects of unexpected circumstances in the future. With the pandemic exposing the vulnerabilities of our system, it’s time to give it an overhaul with intentions of protecting the most vulnerable and creating a more sustainable model of economy. This means decentralizing the bulk of economic activity in Metro Manila while filling the gaps of our social protection system that benefits the underprivileged, the elderly, the unemployed, and small-business owners.

How fast a country recovers reveals a lot about how it’s governed. A global health crisis should not be the time for self-serving politicians to mull things over, but it’s what most have been forced to do. In the end, nothing in our future is certain, but one can hope that this becomes a striking lesson for all and that this drives major shifts and beneficial preparations for any country to better withstand unprecedented situations.

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