Don’t fear the future – anticipate it.
This was the message from Graeme Codrington, South African author, futurist, and founding director of strategic insights firm TomorrowToday, at the recent RGA client webinar "What Will the World Be Like Post-Covid-19?" For Codrington, the COVID-19 pandemic is a form of punctuation – the end of one paragraph and the beginning of another. RGA's Michael Porter recently interviewed the futurist to learn the rest of the story.
Can you describe what a futurist does, especially amid a global pandemic?
Well, my business card says futurist, but that doesn't mean I can predict the future. Futurists track trends. We spend a lot of time looking at history to provide insights into where we're going. In the last three months, with COVID-19 cases on the rise worldwide, our team has put their efforts and energies into trying to offer scenarios to businesses.
Let me be clear: We are not medical professionals. The corollary to that is if you are not a medical doctor, do not give medical advice. My primary advice is to listen to health authorities in your community and follow the advice of the professionals.
COVID-19 isn’t the first deadly disease of the 21st century. In 2003 and 2004, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) swept around the world. Now, we have lockdown or stay-at-home orders in place in many nations, and many are wondering what’s next?
It’s important to understand three things about how public health authorities make decisions about lifting lockdown measures:
- First, you've got to have extensive testing because it isn’t enough to just lock down if you don't know who is sick. And, what people often forget, testing is not just about who is ill; it’s also about who has already recovered. I’m not a doctor, and much remains unknown about how this disease moves through populations, but the more public health officials understand about transmission in a community, the more we can see lockdown restrictions relaxed without risking a rapid surge in cases.
- The second thing you need is contact tracing. So, if you find somebody who is infectious, you then have to try and work out where they picked up the infection and quarantine those contacts, which means you need adequate personal protective equipment for the responders.
- And then finally, you've got to have available hospital facilities. And this is the most important point: why do we do lockdown? I like Singapore's phrase for lockdown: They call it a “circuit breaker”, which is essentially what we're doing. We can't cure the disease because we don’t have a cure yet. We can’t prevent the disease because it will be one to two years before we get a vaccine. All we can do at the moment is to try and slow the rate of transmission to avoid overwhelming healthcare systems.
So, this brings us to how we come back from this after restrictions are lifted. Every single country that has had lockdown measures implemented had them extended not once, but at least twice. Most of us are now in season two – I hope you enjoyed season one! And not every country has fully prepared – with adequate population-level testing and contact tracing – to lift restrictions.
The good news is that lockdown works. And the other piece of good news is that even those nations that cannot or have not fully prepared can look at the acid test of our hospitals – and many hospital systems are not overwhelmed. Intensive care units that were once overflowing are under control. The rate of hospitalizations is declining in some of the worst-hit areas. We also know that until we have a vaccine, COVID-19 is just going to live and breathe in our communities. We face a real danger of a second wave of infections after restrictions are lifted. Of course, viruses also mutate, and even if you've had it, it may be possible to get re-infected – we just don’t know. We may be spending the rest of our lives getting an annual COVID-19 vaccine just like the flu shot. We will come back from this, but we may be facing a new normal.
What do you mean by a “new normal”?
I don't like the word social distancing; we should be socially connecting, but physically distancing. We are going to have to continue to stay physically distanced even after lockdown ends, up until we get a vaccine in 12 to 18 months, at best. Polio took 35 years from the time research began. If we get the vaccine done in two years, it will be a historic breakthrough. That’s why countries that have ended lockdown have all, without exception, phased it out slowly.
So, how do we get back to life after lockdown and still stay physically distanced?
We don’t. A new normal is already emerging. In countries where lockdown measures are lifted, there are still attempts to restrict the number of shoppers who enter certain stores. Restaurants may be allowed to open, but only with greater distance between tables. If you are only allowed to serve half or maybe even a third of your normal customers, is it financially viable for you to open? Think about shopping malls, movie theaters, and – this is a big one – airlines. These business models rely on volume – serving large numbers of people at once. If you are operating at 20-25% capacity, can you afford to run your business as normal? Probably not, but you have the option to hike your prices.
Services that were once viewed as necessities, such as commercial air travel, may begin to feel like luxuries – or, in the case of international business travel, unfounded risks. Are you prepared to risk COVID-19 to attend that conference or personally sign that deal? If you travel to another country and local authorities demand that you go into quarantine, are you willing and able to do so?
On the other hand, luxuries, like working from home, may start to feel like necessities. Some of us love avoiding rush hour traffic; we're happier, we’re working like Trojans, and so our bosses are happier with us. Some businesses that were wary of allowing employees to work from home might reconsider that position. In other cases, you have businesses, like call centers, warehouses, meat packers, coal mines, that are essential but having difficulty functioning properly while socially distancing – and we may see higher levels of automation as a result.
What you are describing seems like a fundamental shift in the way people deliver and buy services.
I lived in London 12 years ago during the 2008 financial crash, and we saw home deliveries take off. In the U.K., online shopping at that time was still very new. Amazon was just getting going and amid the financial meltdown, people retrenched, began working from home, and tried to save money by comparison shopping online. Suddenly, online shopping became big and the High Street became empty, and all without any lockdown.
Trauma and uncertainty can influence consumer psychology; many may not be so eager to congregate and shop even after lockdown orders are lifted. In some ways, this isn’t a new shift, so much as an acceleration of existing trends. All the disruptions you were facing five months ago, five years ago, haven't gone away. Digital disruption is still coming to retail, healthcare, insurance, and many other sectors. Societal change is also coming: The problems of widening wealth inequality and unemployment are not going to magically disappear after this crisis ends. The pandemic only makes these problems more extreme.
Need some good news? Now is the time to change your business because if you can't do it now, you can't do it at all. Give yourself permission as a team to think as if you have a massive reset button that you could just whack and disrupt your industry, company and organization - because a global pandemic is that reset button. Some companies, like RGA, already have that disruption mindset built into their DNA, and it makes them more able to anticipate and adjust to what’s next.
You mention digitization and disruption – but what about data privacy?
This pandemic is affecting that too. Tech giants, like Apple and Google, have released apps that use geolocation data on smartphones to perform contact tracing and alert people to their possible exposure to the virus, and governments have produced similar apps throughout the world. We always knew that companies and some nations had access to this data, and now it is being used. It is intrusive, and although these apps serve the public health today, there are legitimate concerns about unauthorized use and abuse tomorrow.
Can you talk about the tremendous economic cost of the coronavirus pandemic and what that may mean?
So, there's a tradeoff: We lock down to save lives, but people can also die of despair, malnutrition and poverty. My answer is that human lives should always take precedence. I know that we're making a bigger and bigger hole, but we're not filling that hole with bodies; we’re just filling it with debt. It’s not as simple as saying: “Let’s just get back to work to rescue the economy.” If we do that, a percentage of our workforce will be seriously ill within the next few weeks.
For life insurers, one area of concern is older-age mortality and the effects now being seen in long-term care facilities. Can you comment on that?
Sadly, COVID-19 is a disease that takes a particular and very visible toll on the older generation and those with multiple chronic diseases. It seems likely that we may see shifts in longevity estimates at a population level, which could affect retirement and pension funding calculations, as well as the institutions built up around long-term care.
What about the less visible toll the pandemic might take? For example, are we likely to see rising mental health problems as a result?
Psychologists and psychiatrists are absolutely going to be needed as we will see second-order mental health effects arise. We are going to emerge from this with economies and societies that are, at least initially, going to look very different, and that kind of change can be destabilizing to those even in good mental health. However, I also see the ways telemedicine can reach people who are suffering, though less visibly, and this type of care can help many people actively manage these disorders.
We face undeniable adversity in the future, but the world has also demonstrated remarkable resilience. COVID-19 appeared in November 2019, and by January 10, the new virus’s genetic sequence was published. Labs learned to test, and recently the first human trials of vaccines have started. More data will help epidemiologists learn how to get the world back to work. We will get through this, and we will manage the inevitable change that comes.