THE FACT OF THE MATTER
It’s 2022, and is the coronavirus, new strains and all, at long last being put in its place? After an unimaginable and miserable two years, alternating between lockdowns and new outbreaks, are we beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel? Or see the tunnel at any rate.
Will the Pfizer pill pay off?
The new normal will not be the old normal. Ours will be a new world, with a reshaped economy, much as war and economic depression reshaped life for previous generations. Globally, thousands of companies have disappeared. Colleges and schools have been reshuffled. Outdoor socialising is more so, business trips less so. And global politics has entered a new era — with a greater divide between the developed and the developing worlds.
Okay, this is pretty much conjecture. The future is unknowable. But the pandemic increasingly looks like one of the defining events of our time. The best-case scenarios now seeming somewhat out of reach.
The course of the virus itself will play the biggest role in the medium term. If scientific breakthroughs come quickly and the virus is largely defeated this year, there may not be many permanent changes to everyday life. On the other hand, if a wholly effective vaccine remains out of reach, the long-term changes could be profound.
This we do know: While millions of workers have returned or are returning to the office sometime soon, many others have no choice, including teachers, carers and retail workers. But for many workers, the remote-work experiment shows no sign of ending — as Microsoft puts it: “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.”
In my in-tray is a copy of The Economist’s The World Ahead 2022, a look at the important themes and trends that will shape the year ahead. Now in its 36th year, it includes a special section on emerging technologies that could have an unexpectedly sudden impact on society, as the coronavirus and its fledgling vaccines have done.
Pandemic-wise, it predicts that new antiviral pills, improved antibody treatments and more vaccines are coming. For the developed world, the virus will no longer be life-threatening, but will still pose a deadly danger in the developing world.
Inflation worries will kick in, caused by supply-chain disruptions and a spike in energy demand having pushed up prices. The banks say it’s temporary, but not everyone believes them. As to the future of work, there is a broad consensus that the future is ‘hybrid’, and that more people will spend more days working from home. But dare I ask, will it be fair? Surveys show that women are less keen to return to the office, so they may risk being passed over for promotions. Debates also loom over tax rules and monitoring of remote workers.
Back to new tech. Regulators in Europe have been trying to rein in the tech giants for years, but have yet to make a dent in their growth or profits. Now China has taken the lead, lashing its tech firms in a brutal crackdown, wanting them to focus on ‘deep tech’ that provides a global advantage, not frivolities like games and shopping.
But will this boost Chinese innovation, or stifle the industry’s dynamism?
Next up, the climate crunch. Even as global wildfires, heatwaves and hurricanes increase in frequency, a striking lack of urgency, as Glasgow showed, prevails among policymakers when it comes to tackling climate change. Moreover, decarbonisation requires the West and China to co-operate, but their geopolitical rivalry is actually deepening. Keep an eye, too, on a solar-engineering experiment due to be carried out by Harvard researchers in 2022.
Finally, 2022 will be the first year, according to The Economist, in which more people go into space as paying passengers, carried afar by rival space-tourism companies. I believe that space travel and other matters concerning emerging technology and ‘new realities’ are not going to change all of a sudden in just one year but over a longer course of time.
About 70% of the world population is expected to live in urban areas by 2050, according to the United Nations. Other than that, though, much of our world may not have changed that dramatically 30 years from now, never mind in one year. Then again, it’s all conjecture.
Meanwhile, we have the Winter Olympics in Beijing and the World Cup in Qatar coming up… to remind us of how sport can bring the world together once more.
Happy New Year…