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Understanding the legacy of Covid-19

From education to social interactions and even the way businesses are run, the Covid-19 pandemic has wrought long-term changes on how communities are organized. Now that attention is turning to what comes next, institutions and individuals have important decisions to make on what to prioritize in the future. 

Next normal. Post-pandemic era. The new future. As attention turns to what happens once the world has recovered from Covid-19, experts are trying to find language to describe the situation in which society finds itself after the worst global pandemic in 100 years.

But for Nicholas Christakis, Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale University, we are far from the end of the pandemic; instead, we’re merely at the end of the beginning.

“It’s helpful to think about this pandemic, and all pandemics, as involving three phases. There’s the first phase involving the biological impact of the virus, the second intermediate phase which is a kind of socio-economic recovery, and then there’s the post pandemic phase,” he explained.

Christakis’s claim that we are yet to exit the first stage is based on his forecast that it will take until 2021 to vaccinate enough people to reach a herd immunity level of at least 50%. Only then can the real recovery begin, and that will take another couple of years.

“Finally, around the end of 2023, the beginning of 2024, we’ll begin to enter the post-pandemic period and that will be like the Roaring Twenties of the 20th century - people will relentlessly seek out social opportunities,” said the professor whose current work focuses on how human biology and health affect, and are affected by, social interactions and social networks.

School’s out…forever?

So it looks as if the champagne will need to stay on ice for now. However, even if the end of the pandemic is a few years away, it’s not too early to consider how society should organize itself for this new reality. 

As Christakis notes, “plagues tend to be accelerators” and that has certainly been the case with Covid-19. From remote working to online shopping and payments, the pandemic has shifted technology trends into overdrive.

One sector where digital technology has had an enormous impact is education. The UN estimates that 160 billion learners in more than 190 countries have been affected by school closures. In many cases, the gap was filled by online learning. 

The speed of this change was underlined by Byju Raveendran, Founder and CEO of the Indian EdTech firm and unicorn, BYJU’s, who revealed that while it took four to five years to attract the first 45 million students to the online platform, the company attracted another 40 million over the past 10 months. 

Perhaps to the relief of parents, Raveendran does not believe the future of learning is digital-only. “Schools are here to stay, teachers are here to stay but an ideal format from a student’s perspective will be a blended one between online and offline,” he said. 

Learning the lessons of the pandemic

Covid-19 may have accelerated disruption, but it has also led to a period of reflection and a reassessment of priorities. At least that was the hope of Professor Esther Duflo, co-winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences and Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 

For instance, as education authorities consider how to tackle the problem of children missing so many school days, rather than pressurizing students to catch up with their missing education as quickly as possible, Duflo suggested a more radical idea.

“What the world needs to do now – in rich and poor countries – is to forget the curriculum and meet children where they are. If that means going back to the basics, then so be it. Kids should not be arranged by age or by year, but by what they know,” she emphasized. 

Raveendran also believes now is the time for a fundamental rethink of education which he described as “driven by the fear of exams, not the love of learning.” Moreover, there is also a need to ensure education equips the students of today with skills they will need for the jobs of tomorrow, he added.

“The 21st century illiterates are not those that cannot read and write, they are the ones who can’t learn and unlearn. For most students entering school today, the types of jobs they will be doing are not even defined so how do you get them ready for that? How do you teach them the most important skill of learning how to learn?”

Does business serve a purpose? 

However, it’s not just in education where priorities are changing. The need for businesses to be purpose-led and stand for something is one of the clear outcomes of the upheaval of the past 12 months. The problem, according to author and renowned leadership expert Simon Sinek, is too many companies pay lip service to the idea of purpose, and do not put their words into action. 

 “If you are purpose driven, that should be reflected in your product, your marketing, your sales, your hiring and your incentives. Not just in your ESG practices, but across the organization. If you're only doing it because the law dictates it or because you're responding to social pressure, then you’re not purpose-driven, you're fear-driven.”

So if there’s one key legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s that it offers businesses and individuals a chance to reorganize society for the betterment of all.