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BW Businessworld

Tech’s True Triumph

Economic activity, it seemed, would be at a complete standstill in the pandemic but technology came to the rescue

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If there is one clear winner emerging from the Covid 19 pandemic, it is technology. 

Immediately after the sudden lockdown, practically everything was shut and movement restricted to medical staff and other frontline workers, or for purchase of essential commodities. People were advised to stay in their homes and not cross the threshold of the front door. Factories came to a grinding halt, restaurants, theatres and malls were shut, and offices were empty. Humming industrial areas were silent, and buzzing city centres transformed into ghost towns. Buses and autos, taxis and trains were immobilised. 

Technology: A Key Player

Economic activity, it seemed, would be at a complete standstill. But technology came to the rescue. It facilitated work-from-home (WFH), making possible the continued operation of some services. Amongst these, the most outstanding example – one that exhibited an exceptional speed of response and an immediate re-orientation of organisational and work processes – was the IT industry. India’s biggest export sector was quickly back on its feet, from what could have been a knockout blow, ensuring uninterrupted service to its customers in India and abroad. Other sectors too began to use WFH to the extent possible and a modicum of business became possible.

The enabling technologies for WFH – communication, computers, Internet, video-conferencing – are hardly new, but their widespread use is not. Other technologies, often combining biology with electronics, IT, data analytics and artificial intelligence, are being used to develop vaccines against the virus and to search for cures. 

Tech will help to substantially reduce the time to create and test new vaccines, to the point where a proven vaccine may well be possible as early as year-end. It is also being used for epidemiological studies, analysis and predictive modelling.

Apps like Arogya Setu have been developed to track cases and for contact tracing, while technological innovations are driving cheap and rapid diagnosis or testing. Electro-mechanical technologies are creating cheaper ventilators, while materials science is playing a role in devising safe and comfortable personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline workers. 

Clearly, the magic world of technology is helping to solve some of the most vital problems related to Covid. It is this that gives people the confidence to look ahead and plan for what they see as the ‘new normal’. Almost everyone defines this as including a very substantial amount of WFH, as also learn-at-home (online classes), shop-from-home, cater (food)-to-home, and socialise-from-home (through video calls). 

The New Normal

Many companies are already pivoting their services and business models to meet these emerging needs, moving to greater digitisation and no-contact remote dealings. In all probability, this is what the new normal may need, and agile businesses that quickly make this change may be the ones that succeed. Restaurants that become cloud kitchens, only catering to home delivery, local shops that become warehouses, which only take orders online, travel companies that provide augmented reality content instead of physical sight-seeing tours: these may soon be the stars of tomorrow.

Yet, a very different view is possible: not just as a contrarian viewpoint, but based on the logic of human behaviour. Consider the fact that we are social animals, almost by instinct and as a part of our DNA. Most living beings operate in groups or herds; humans too have, for centuries, been structured as families, communities and tribes. In India, this is even more pronounced, with a definite preference for large gatherings. Practically all festivals are celebrated with friends and family, or by visiting (crowded) temples and mosques. There is little concept of private space: in any queue, for example, the normal distance between two strangers is no more than a foot at most! 

In this socio-cultural context, how long will we maintain physical distancing, and for how long will people avoid throwing a party, or dining out with friends, or going to a movie theatre? Given short public memory, the fears of Covid may soon be forgotten.

 After all, tuberculosis spreads in a manner similar to the Covid and – though it causes 450,000 deaths a year in India – we don’t see anywhere as much concern (amongst people or authorities). Like TB, we may learn to live with Covid and revert to life and business as usual. So, as sociology triumphs over biology in some sense, we may soon see ‘house full’ boards outside theatres, restaurants, where you can’t get a table, and malls bustling with crowds.

This article was first published in the print issue of (10 July - 25 July) BW Businessworld. Click Here to Subscribe to BW Businessworld magazine.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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economic activity Atmanirbhar Bharat COVID-19

Kiran Karnik

The author is an independent policy and strategy analyst, and alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad

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