It's the last day of 2020, a year many will be glad to see the back of. The last year has been associated with some of the most unpleasant memories, mainly because of the Covid-19 pandemic that disrupted normal life, impacted livelihoods, and -- not least, took many lives. For many families that lost loved ones or suffered economic hardship over the past year, the very sight of the number "2020" will forever retain a negative connotation.
The Tamil culture that I'm a part of has the astrological notion of the shani-dasai (period of Saturn), a phase of life that is associated with suffering, hardship, trials and tribulations. Importantly however, this period is believed to lead one to ultimate success by putting one through a test. Further, when the shani-dasai ends, Saturn is believed to leave one with a gift.
While I'm hardly superstitious, I like to take the positive from every example and allegory, and so this is what I wish will happen to the world once 2020 is but a memory.
The Way the World Works
I believe that we are on our way to the Leisure Society, but until we get there, work will continue to be a major part of our lives. Having said that, there is no reason why the nature of work should not make a clean break from the past.
I hope the culture of working from home forced by the pandemic has helped both employers and employees understand its benefits enough to want to retain this new culture. So much wasted time and effort has been eliminated from society these past few months. People haven't had to commute, and have saved at least a couple of hours every day. They could afford to get more sleep and spend more time with their families. So much energy has been saved and pollution avoided because of the virtual elimination of rush-hour traffic, especially its wasteful waits and crawling pace. For employers too, the opportunity to permanently save on commercial real estate would not have gone unnoticed. This also has knock-on effects. Employees can afford to move away from congested urban centres to more spacious homes in regional areas. The counter-magnets that urban planners have long been searching for have made their appearance at last.
Some professions cannot operate remotely. Hairdressers, physiotherapists, care-givers to the elderly or the handicapped, all of these will have to continue working on site. But these professionals can also operate in local clusters, without unnecessary centralisation in CBDs.
Employers have to learn to embrace tools that give them the ability to set tasks and measure deliverables without having to physically watch over a roomful of employees like a strict schoolteacher.
The Public Health Landscape
I believe Covid-19 has permanently altered some aspects of public health. With the awareness that this is by no means the last pandemic we are going to see, the world has doubtless improved its ability to respond with alacrity to the next one. The admirable capability that East Asia as a whole has demonstrated this year (thanks to the experience of past regional outbreaks) will eventually be par for the course worldwide. Quarantining, social distancing norms, the habit of wearing facemasks, the infrastructure for contact tracing and alerting, all of these will become embedded in the hardware and software of society. The next pandemic will not take us by surprise the way this one has. We will take it in our stride, with little disruption to our daily lives.
Victory Over the Pathogen
Let me be even more ambitious in my predictions. I believe that the threshold of tolerance breached by this year's pandemic has finally forced humankind to stop seeing viral pathogens as merely a nuisance to be tolerated year after year. The flu vaccine of recent years has been a hit-and-miss approach with partial success against the ever-new strains of influenza that attacked every winter, but the tide has now decisively turned. I believe the forced research into the details of how viruses work will result in the the development of a super-vaccine, one that will end, once and for all, the threat of all viral diseases in humankind, including the flu and the common cold. In a few short years after 2020, we will not remember what a cold or the flu was like.
I think medical research in general has received a boost because of the urgency of the search for treatments for Covid-vulnerable people. I would not be surprised if cures for autoimmune diseases as well as other conditions classed as co-morbidities are also found in the very near future.
In short, while I agree with most people that 2020 has been a year like none other, I prefer to interpret that in a positive sense. I hope and believe that 2020 will mark a turning point in the fortunes of the world, because of the gift that Saturn is going to leave behind.
We are entering the future now. Cheers!