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Waiting for Government to Solve Our Problems…by@e.p.m.vermeulen
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Waiting for Government to Solve Our Problems…

by Erik P.M. VermeulenMarch 16th, 2020
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The coronavirus is quickly spreading across the world, leading to an unprecedented public health crisis and unprecedented government measures. We have no previous example of what is happening in the world today. The resulting travel restrictions have unprecedented consequences for my colleagues and myself. A crisis of this magnitude cannot be stopped by governments alone. Fighting the virus is everyone’s responsibility — communities, schools, businesses as well as ordinary people like you and me. We are all in this together. We turn to the nation-state and traditional political institutions and actors to find a solution.
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Unprecedented.

I have never come across this word more times than in the past couple of days. And I am sure this will continue. For sure, it won’t stop anytime soon.

We have no previous example of what is happening in the world today.

Just take last week. The coronavirus is quickly spreading across the world, leading to an unprecedented public health crisis and unprecedented government measures.

Consider the following:

On March 11, the official White House website stated that President Trump “has taken unprecedented steps” by suspending most travel from Europe for 30 days.

Travel bans and quarantine restrictions are everywhere. Israel decided not to allow tourists for two weeks. India declared all tourist visas invalid for one month. Italy has “locked down” large parts of the country in an attempt to contain the virus and alleviate pressure on the health care system.

The resulting travel restrictions have unprecedented consequences for my colleagues and myself. A colleague from Australia decided to go back home after three days to avoid possible inbound travel bans. She was supposed to stay for more than three weeks. Being unwillingly stranded in a foreign country for an indefinite period didn’t sound attractive to her.

Personally, I have not been home this long for over ten years. Usually, the Christmas period “grounds” me for approximately two weeks (which is long). Now I will be at home for at least two months. There is nowhere to go. Expert meetings, conferences, working group sessions at the United Nations, international teaching engagements are all being postponed or canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak and the government responses.

All unprecedented.

And don’t get me wrong. This is a good thing (under the current circumstances). I am sure that social (and physical) distancing is crucial to help health authorities deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and avoid pressure on healthcare systems.

Of course, government measures don’t stop with travel restrictions. More and more countries close schools nationwide, impacting almost 400 million children on March 14. They urge residents to work from home, prohibit large events, and want sports events to be canceled or held in empty stadiums. They also ask people to avoid physical contact and give each other an “elbow” (instead of a hand or kiss).

Again, the measures are understandable. Governments want to avoid that a majority of the population is infected by the virus while at the same time preventing an Italian-like lockdown situation. A coronavirus lockdown has unprecedented and devastating economic and social side effects. Normal life in Italy has literally come to a halt. Comparisons with war, bomb attack, and other disasters are everywhere.

Government Disrupted?

One aspect of the current crisis is striking.

Everyone expects government — and by government, I mean national governments — to solve our common problems. In a crisis, we turn to the nation-state and traditional political institutions and actors to find a solution. I often read about declining trust in politics and politicians — and I believe such a narrative myself — but when faced with an unprecedented problem — we look for direction and leadership from those same political structures and politicians.

But should we solely rely on government intervention in a global crisis? Are they the best placed to solve the coronavirus problem?

Of course, the answer is “no.” A crisis of this magnitude cannot be stopped by governments alone. We are all in this together. Fighting the virus is everyone’s responsibility — communities, schools, businesses as well as ordinary people like you and me.

But this answer is too simple. The discussion shouldn’t stop here. More unprecedented things are happening these days.

I work at a company that was early in implementing stringent measures and travel restrictions. Too strict, according to my colleagues and — if I am honest — myself.

Now with most of us working from home, we decided to organize an online chit-chat meeting, using work-from-home and remote work software tools. You know, just to hear from each other and see how we were coping with the “new normal” of working from home.

It didn’t take long before we were all praising our company for its diligent and swift action. We were ahead of the curve in introducing “social distancing” to prevent an outbreak.

There was less praise for government. People believed that government didn’t act fast enough and failed to take the necessary precautions in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak. Also, their often uncoordinated, slow, and political (factually incorrect and unclear) responses lead to confusion with citizens, businesses, and investors everywhere. And I don’t even mention the lack of accurate information.

Look at the financial markets. Stock markets are falling and show unprecedented drops. People are panicking. Industries are in turmoil.

Companies try to save whatever there is to be saved. I have received several emails from “CEOs” of airlines and hotels trying to convince me that it is safe to use their services. Of course, I have always assumed that they take their cleaning and hygiene protocols seriously. But that’s, of course, not the reason why I am homebound.

Perhaps it is time for a different approach. We must realize that government isn’t the primary solution to the problems of the world today.

Government isn’t up to speed. Technological developments are occurring at lightning speed. I have attended too many events that show that governments aren’t aware of the latest innovations. They are detached from what’s going on in the world (of tech). Also, social media and increased transparency provide us plenty of opportunities to see this detachment and lack of awareness.

Government is losing ground. Space exploration is an illustrative example here. Government dominated space, and we (the public) accepted that space exploration belonged to nations. But in the digital economy, it becomes clearer and more evident that this is wrong. Private companies, such as Elon Musk’s Space-X, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, are entering the space race, disrupting governments’ previous domination.

There’s no room for politicians. The world doesn’t need more politicians. I am a member of the supervisory board of a healthcare organization. We currently have a vacancy. What was interesting is that it only needed a few seconds to decide that we don’t want a politician or former government official on the board. They don’t add value and don’t understand the digital way of working. Also, we see more and more businessmen becoming successful in “politics” because they define themselves as “anti-politicians.”A “Tech-Ecosystem” Approach

With the fight against the coronavirus, we see a similar development as we see in space. Big Tech and tech billionaires are already stepping in to help governments.

These initiatives are met with suspicion and controversy, particularly when they supplant government action. Tech moguls are accused of window-dressing, image-building, or keeping-up appearances.

But we shouldn’t dismiss Big Tech initiatives and the help of tech billionaires too quickly. It isn’t surprising that the White House turned to Amazon, Apple, Cisco, Facebook, Google, IBM, and Twitter to discuss possible actions.

For a start, Big Tech companies understand the digital economy. They are the most advanced in artificial intelligence and Big Data solutions. Obviously, AI can help predict the spread of the coronavirus. It can also assist scientists in understanding the virus, which will undoubtedly lead to earlier diagnoses and, hopefully, the development of a vaccine.

But there is so much more. Big Tech can also mitigate the indirect economic and social consequences of the virus.

We need them to improve social media and protect us from false information and fake news. The crucial role of social media is beyond dispute here. Just take Italy as an example again. In regions (that are) in lockdown, social media is a crucial means of communication. It helps people to stay in touch and share and curate essential information. Also, it gives them peace and let the world know how they are doing.

In a world that is widely adopting the work-from-home approach, Big Tech offers essential tools to communicate. In my company, WhatsApp is continuously being used for work-related matters (to give each other updates and ask urgent questions), but also to stay in touch and maintain a level of entertainment and creativity. Social media connects us and brings us closer together in this unprecedented time.

And then there are the tools that make online teaching possible and, more importantly, fun and attractive. My university wants teachers to only give online lectures for the next month or so. Of course, standing in front of a whiteboard and a screen, talking to a camera could do the job. However, in most cases, it will resemble watching a football or basketball game without any fans present. It’s boring and makes you wonder why players get paid so much. Big Tech can help teachers design a more useful online learning experience.

It is clear that “going digital” is the only solution to the current crisis. Work. Education. Information. The downside is that “going digital” also reveals the digital divide. People without access to social media and the Internet are excluded in an increasingly locked-down world. Clearly, Big Tech is in a better position to provide technological inclusion.

I know I sound like a Big Tech evangelist. But nothing is further from the truth. I see the current developments as an intermediate step from a world dominated by centralized governments to a fully decentralized world. I am convinced that we will see unprecedented advances in the development of emerging technologies, such as blockchain. These technologies have the potential to empower us and offer us more transparency in a world where creative thinking is so critical.

But, for the moment, we need Big Tech, just as much as we need government. And you don’t need to be a fan of either to appreciate this.

Closing the World

We are experiencing unprecedented changes in our world. Free movement has stopped. Flights are being canceled. Airports are empty. The coronavirus outbreak is a “new world problem” partly caused by the interconnected world we are living in. Now we mainly connect through digital means. New world problems need new world solutions. Centralized governments aren’t the answer. And they know it. Governments are becoming aware that they also have to become part of decentralized tech-driven ecosystems. It is only such ecosystems — comprising diverse actors working collaboratively together — that can effectively detect, respond, and solve coronavirus-type issues right now and in the future.

Coronavirus, digitization, globalization: We need a more decentralized approach.