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Sunday, May 31, 2020

Change will be the only constant in the post-COVID-19 world

The most fundamental change will be in perceptions of technology and technological competence.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | New Delhi | Updated: May 3, 2020 1:59:04 pm
Pratik Kanjilal, Coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic, working from home, drones, globalisation, india lockdown, coronavirus india death, indian express news Migrant workers gather outside Bandra West Railway Station on April 14, hoping for the lockdown to be lifted. (Express Photo)

After coronavirus, many eternal verities are expected to change. The most unexpected news concerns the drug trade in the US. Washington waged a war on it. Hollywood made popular movies and streamed a series glamourising its unstoppable energy. And, now, the business is power-diving faster than oil futures. Not because no one is selling, but because no one has the guts to buy from a street pusher with no obvious concern for health or hygiene. Imagine a nation the size of America going cold turkey from coast to coast. It’s breathtaking.

Other verities are also failing to live up to expectations. Globalisation, which has steered geopolitics from the colonial era and came to be regarded as a force of nature in the industrial age, no longer looks either natural or reliable. Instead, socialist self-reliance is beginning to look like a virtue, and world leaders are being scolded for allowing outsourcing to undermine sovereignty. If China has access to a disproportionate share of the world’s rare earths, for instance, it will obviously determine the future of microprocessors. Speaking of China, a geopolitical reversal had been expected for years, as Trump’s Washington furled the flag of the Pax Americana and the superior financial muscle of Beijing began to tell. That process can only be accelerated by the pandemic.

Media could see a balancing of powers, too, as initiatives in Australia and France suggest. Digital platforms, which have been making money for jam by freeloading on original content produced by the local media, may now have to pay for it. The death of the press had seemed to be imminent, with Mark Zuckerberg travelling across America with a view to buying out small newspapers. That time may be over.

But, perhaps, the most fundamental change will be in perceptions of technology and technological competence. The positive stories about how technology has made house arrest tolerable because of Netflix, and working from home a breeze because of WhatsApp and Zoom, are a smokescreen obscuring the awful truth — nations with considerable technological prowess, which have sent people to the moon or have realistic aspirations of doing so, do not have the installed capacity to protect their people from a medieval plague.

That’s the big canvas. At the micro level, where exactly are the drones and 3D printers which were touted as solutions for everything? Pizza delivery was the original proof of concept for civilian drones, but no Margheritas are being delivered to hungry migrants by contactless drones. Last year, some Americans were delighted and others alarmed because the state of the art in 3D printing was nearing the point where a gun and the ammunition for it could be downloaded off the internet and printed in your study. But drone delivery of drugs and medical equipment is still in the pilot stage, and very few coronavirus test kits are being 3D-printed at the point of use. It’s too slow, too expensive and very plasticky. It’s the last resort only for a nation which has outsourced its swab-making machinery to another continent.

Of course, drones are being used to monitor crowds that could become super-focuses of infection, like the near-stampede that occurred outside Bandra West station in Mumbai. In America, drones fitted with thermal sensors are scanning crowds for potentially sick people, instead of taking their temperature one by one. But aesthetically, it’s not the same as a drone hovering sleekly in your balcony, waiting to be unloaded of a bucket of biryani. Despite years of PR push, that is still science fiction.

In education, the reliability of technology has varied. Lots of adults are picking up new skills on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to keep from going stir crazy. Beats making candles and soap as a diversion, like jail inmates do. But in formal school and university education, success depends on how deeply invested the system already was in internet-mediated pedagogy.

In British and North American campuses, even dissertations are being successfully defended online. But in India, an elementary Sanskrit class is black comedy that the well-named emperor Harsha would have appreciated. The vidvan and his class watch helplessly, only able to squeak in weak protest, as a rogue student who has logged into their Zoom session with a fake identity silently doodles in rainbow colours all over the whiteboard, obscuring the first declension of lata and nara. Technology is only as good as the person controlling it, and like so many CEOs, presidents, prime ministers, chief ministers, thought leaders, influencers and interventionists who are struggling to get the coronavirus plot, the vidvan has flaked out. “If this carries on, I shall end the class,” he threatens, and being a fatalist, he carries out the threat by logging out. The children stay on, sharing congratulations in chat mode. Class dismissed!

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