It’s time we reimagine our world after the Covid-19 pandemic

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He recently penned an opinion article published in the Sunday Independent on 24 May 2020.

While in a chain supermarket recently, a prominent politician approached me expressing surprise at how some universities have ensured that the transition from contact face-to-face teaching and learning was as seamless as possible. The woman, who is a Member of Parliament, wasted no time expressing her wish that the business of parliament in the post-coronavirus era could break with the century-old tradition that requires members to be physically present in the house to participate in the proceedings. She said holding meetings via the Zoom videoconferencing during the national lockdown has spared her the troubles of waking up in the wee hours to catch flights from Johannesburg to parliament in Cape Town. “I really wish this could continue even when the coronavirus has abated, especially in cases where I have to brief committee meetings.”

That seems like stating the obvious because each year, politicians spend millions of rands of taxpayers money on these jaunts. Zoom has exponentially increased in popularity during the Covid-19 lockdown as a tool for communication for both social and business purposes, with its technology being used by banks and other businesses, universities and governments around the world. Of course, teething problems over cybersecurity have emerged, which we need to be alert to. However, this seems to be new world order.

The question is, could the huge shifts in our way of working and living as a result of the Covid-19 pave the way for a more innovative and cost-effective way of doing things? Where will we be in a year and a decade from now? There are several possible futures, all of which are dependent on how governments, businesses and society respond to coronavirus and its economic aftermath.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, for instances, delivered a stark warning in his most recent address to the nation this year, on 15 May. The promise of phasing down to lockdown level three for parts of the country cushioned the crux of his message, “We will need to re-organise workplaces, schools, universities, colleges and other public places to limit transmission. We will need to adapt to new ways of worshipping, socialising, exercising and meeting that minimise opportunities for the virus to spread.”

This, of course, was in the context of the slow reopening of the economy. However, in thinking of a post-corona world, this may continue to be our new normal long after the lockdown lifts. What is a post-corona world? Is this the world we envision after a vaccine or as many experts will tell you, is this a world in which the coronavirus persists, but we adapt. Regardless of what this new normal will be, it is crucial to design a post-corona world.

It is in this context that the University of Johannesburg (UJ) is hosting a series of webinars that seeks to answer exactly that: how do we reimagine the world after the pandemic. This is a daunting task because the impact of the pandemic on the world economy and other sectors have already been so severe and an end does not seem in sight. The webinars are designed to provide a holistic examination of the post-pandemic future: from the impacts on humanity, the economy, health, education, the environment, and the future world of work.

Interestingly, these conversations are located in something that we at UJ have been preaching with enthusiasm: the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). Simply put, the 4IR is an era when intelligent technologies permeate all aspects of our lives which is envisioned to potentially grow economies exponentially and could be the key to finding solutions to some of our most deep-seated problems. Arguably, the pandemic has become somewhat of a watershed moment for the 4IR. It has hastened shifts that the 4IR would have brought. It has forced many of those still skeptical of technology to adopt online alternatives.

As we navigate these difficult conversations, there are some givens. What is already apparent is that the economic fallout will continue long after the lockdown lifts. Many financial institutions have likened the growth projections to the great depression. The most pessimistic forecasts see South Africa’s economy contracting by up to 17%. It will no longer be enough to call for structural reforms to counteract this, the economy will need a significant overhaul. Part of this is fundamentally relooking at economic activity. For one, the functioning of businesses and academic institutions, for instance, will need to shift completely online.

While this has been necessitated by the lockdown, there is of course the need to interrogate which methods will continue to be the new normal. Will we see some companies completely shift to remote working? The technology to do so is certainty in place and has proven to be effective. Will we see less full time employees as we move towards a gig economy? What is certain is that the pandemic has sped up the move towards a workforce predicated on the 4IR.

With countries having to look at local suppliers and producers to keep supply chains going, we could see a shift in production modes in countries. This could significantly change the balance of trade for many countries. Much of this is speculation as economic activity has largely come to a halt. Yet should restrictions continue, companies need to look to local suppliers, which could become a permanent shift despite possibly higher margins. Countries are already starting to relook at what needs to be imported. In many instances, there is scope to produce these goods locally. Of course, with the automation of processes in production, there is far greater urgency to adopt this technology. These are costly initial investments but they do pay off in the long run through increased efficiency.

There has been a similar shift in higher education. Prior to the lockdown, many universities had already begun implementing blended modules, which combined online learning with traditional classroom learning. This is not without its challenges given that many students struggle with access to devices and data. While there have been short term solutions posited, there needs to be a long-term plan in place. It is becoming increasingly clear that as universities shift to remote online teaching and learning, this will continue to be integrated into the curriculum where relevant.

We will also need to reimagine tourism once international borders reopen. One solution that has already been posited is the establishment of “travel bubbles” which will entail free movement between countries who have manageable rates of infections. We could also potentially see the incorporation of digital identification into visas. This includes biometric data as well as biographic and travel history data. The use of this information will give countries more control over risk-rating, verification and access of travelers. We should, however, be congnisant of the myriad risks and potential for misuse. We will need to build safeguards to ensure privacy and security. We will need to ensure that there is transparency regarding who has access to this data. As the race to find solutions to the pandemic continues, we have seen far greater multilateralism despite initial worries of further divisiveness.

As we continue to find ways to function against the fraught context, our gaze must constantly shift to the future. After all, pandemics have historically been a precursor for social change and this one just happens to coincide with the paradigm shift that is the 4IR. As Aldous Huxley wrote in 1932 of a Brave New World, a dystopian novel predicting a grim future, the brave new world we enter into following the pandemic will be a shift from what we know but this won’t likely be as foreboding as Huxley imagined.

The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

prof tshilidzi marwala
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala Vice- Chancellor & Principal of the University of Johannesburg
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