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5 Changes We Can Expect in a Post-COVID World

Change can be a real pain, and the current crisis is forcing change on an unprecedented number of people around the world at the same time.

So, perhaps, the question on everyone's mind is just how long things are going to take to return to normalcy. The more appropriate question, however, would be about what the new normal is going to look like. The previous normal may just be a thing of the past. However, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Though it's hard to predict exactly what will change or what the timeline will look like, there are some areas where changes are already becoming apparent. In this post, I will examine 5 key domains where changes are imminent.

Travel: From Safe and Secure to Safe, Secure, and Healthy 

The Travel and Tourism sector was the first casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic, as over 90% of the world’s population was affected by travel restrictions of some form or another. Besides suspending international travel, countries moved to severely restrict even domestic travel. According to the IATA, domestic travel was down by 70% worldwide, with expected losses of $314 billion in revenue. Now, after nearly 6 months since the emergence of the virus, restrictions on international travel continue around the world, with runways serving as makeshift parking lots for miles of grounded airliners in airports.

As operations cautiously resume in some parts of the world, it is likely that aviation and travel sectors will take a far longer time to recover from the crisis. Even when travel resumes, it would be quite different, much like it was following the September 11th attacks that brought landmark changes to air travel globally. While the measures that were introduced after 9/11 may have completely blended into routine travel now, they had a significant impact on the experience of air travel when they were first introduced. Besides achieving the objective of making air travel more secure, the new protocols had the latent effects of making travel more cumbersome. Travel after the pandemic is likely to be similar, with new health safety measures added to what is already a long list of security protocols. Touchless and contactless travel may become the new norm, with more automation in airports aimed at minimizing person-to-person interaction. The Known Traveller Digital Identity is one such initiative by the World Economic Forum that seeks to digitize travel documentation and health information of passengers for a seamless experience at transit points.

Business 2.0

Over fifteen years before COVID-19, a different coronavirus epidemic began spreading in China in 2002. Known as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), the epidemic proved to be a far milder relative of COVID-19, though it did have its own impact on businesses in the short-run. With a vast majority of SARS infections occurring within the Chinese subcontinent, many Chinese businesses were affected after shutdowns in China’s big cities. The disruption in business activity was, however, an opportunity to some. The closures that affected Chinese businesses incidentally played a role in launching E-commerce in China, as Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba grew 50% in 2003, seeing daily revenues of 10 million RMB. Similarly, COVID-19 has already driven up demand for digital services. Even before the pandemic struck, digital technologies and services frequently placed among the hottest areas of investment and opportunity. Now, the pandemic is giving them an additional boost, with digital alternatives vying to fill the gaps left by the indefinite suspension of their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

A recent McKinsey customer behavior research shows that digital interaction with B2B customers is now two times more important than traditional channels—more than a 30 percent jump since before the COVID-19 crisis. Investment continues to pour into a new real estate sector that is witnessing a boom—the digital real estate. The sudden and prolonged disruption in the business activities of brick-and-mortar establishments have forced brands to consider giving their businesses a digital avatar, particularly in retail and services. The DIY and home improvements sector is also gaining renewed importance and attention which may slightly offset the adverse impact to the customer services sector during the crisis.

The crisis also forced the world’s largest “Work-from-home” experiment, which organizations around the world have adopted with varying success and efficacy. Many organizations have seen the merits of allowing remote-work and many are looking to incorporate more of it into their work practices in the long-run.

Learning & Development: Re-Imagining the Classroom

Blanket closures of educational institutions at various levels followed soon after the travel restrictions were introduced. According to data from UNESCO, at the peak of the global shutdowns, around 1.5 billion learners were unable to attend school or university worldwide. As a result, institutions have been turning to digital mediums of instruction, using a range of e-learning tools. Educational technology had already been witnessing high growth—in 2019, global investments in edtech reached an astounding $18.66 billion. In the wake of institutional closures, institutions have been compelled to experiment with different types of online learning. All the experimentation is likely to drive more innovation in the digital delivery of education, which could drive down the costs of education in the future.

However, the pandemic may exacerbate the existing digital divide as digital adoption remains feasible only in the parts of the world where technology is easily accessible to learners. According to the latest figures, around 87% of the population in developed countries has regular access to the internet, whereas only 47% of the people in the developing world have steady internet access. In the least-developed countries, a meager 19% of the population has steady access to the internet. So, while the ample infrastructure in the developed world has the potential to drive major innovations in education technology, a major challenge lies ahead for developing countries and LDCs where internet penetration is low and infrastructure is limited.

Politics: The Era of Local? 

Major global events in the past have given rise to new political sentiments and turned political tides. The current crisis may be one such event, given the scale of its impact.  Until recently, the steady and frequent mobility of people across borders was a commonplace thing in our globalized world. However, in the last couple of months, it gained notoriety as the prime suspect for the spread of a global pandemic, leading to unprecedented travel restrictions. Even now, countries continue to be highly cautious about lifting restrictions or opening up their borders. This wariness may even extend to the movement of goods and services. Specifically, China’s role as a key global economic player and manufacturing hub of the world is on shaky ground for the first time. Besides being the origin of such an epidemic for the second time in the 21st century, China’s administration is receiving global rebuke for its catastrophic mismanagement of the outbreak. Countries are calling for inquiries into the origin of the virus and demanding China to pay reparations for its deliberate inaction in conveying time-critical information to avert the global crisis. The palpable anti-Chinese sentiment and the newfound reservations about doing business with a non-transparent partner like China have coincided with disruptions to international trade caused by border closures and nationwide shutdowns. Nations are now compelled to strive for greater self-sufficiency, as the virus continues to create an atmosphere of isolation that seems to dissuade free trade activity. The growing sentiment against China is also driving countries to reduce trade dependence on China, and rethink their supply chain systems. A time like this may be an opportunity for political movements around the world that favor nationalism and protectionism, to gain momentum.

Recreation: Pressing Play on Playtime

When public areas of recreation all over the world went on a hiatus with social distancing norms taking over, online forms of recreation saw a sharp rise in consumption. While this may be a temporary trend at first glance, there is reason to believe that digital entertainment could gain significant ground over its non-digital counterparts in the coming months. OTT traffic rose sharply by 198%, and the surge in the demand for streaming was so high that services like Amazon, YouTube, and Netflix had to lower the streaming quality in Europe to prevent servers from crashing due to the overwhelming demand. A Morning Consult poll of 923 American adults on video streaming behavior revealed that a vast majority of them indicated that they would continue with their existing streaming subscriptions even after the crisis.

In spite of the negative connotations associated with “direct-to-home” video in the past, today, production houses are opting to directly release films to streaming platforms, as theatres continue to remain shut. 

Besides cloud-based streaming services that have seen significant gains, the video game industry is also going through something of a renaissance. Telecom provider Verizon Communications reported a 200% increase in gaming activities on its network, and gaming giant Electronic Arts (EA) saw a 17% increase in revenues from in-game purchases. Another major opportunity for the gaming industry is the burgeoning area of E-sports. The cancellation or postponement of many major sporting events around the world including the 2020 Olympics may prompt sports audiences to turn to virtual sports tournaments—where top gamers compete in sports games in front of a global digital audience. In an interview podcast with the World Economic Forum, Mike Sepso, the CEO of E-sports company "Vindex," explains why there may be a dramatic spike in interest towards E-sports. “If you're talking about missing an entire baseball season in America, and not having the second half of the NBA season which potentially may not even start later this year, you might wind up in a situation where enough time goes by without sports that people start to develop other fan and viewing behaviors, making them gravitate towards e-sports,” he remarks.  

On a Final Note...

As the world slowly and cautiously returns to its feet, the global economy is faced with the major challenge of making a smooth restart. To most organizations, it may not be a mere resumption of activity, but be a new beginning. As discussed above, digital transformation is likely to be a key element in this new start. The information and communications technology (ICTs) field saw some of the greatest leaps in the first two decades of the 21st century, especially in areas like telecom, cloud computing, and AI. Besides highlighting the importance of digital connectivity, the current crisis has also created greater demand for it, driving more innovation in what has already been a promising field. 

For that reason, though 2020 may go down in history as a dark and tumultuous time, it may also just be the mere precursor to the next digital revolution.

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