Will the World Be Able To Limp Back to Normalcy After The Coronavirus Scare?by@e.p.m.vermeulen
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Will the World Be Able To Limp Back to Normalcy After The Coronavirus Scare?

by Erik P.M. VermeulenMarch 8th, 2020
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There is still a lack of consensus on how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Measures vary widely per country. Governments may decide to downplay the threat or underreport the number of cases to avoid being perceived as a global problem (with all the economic doom and gloom) But there is a Consensus About One Thing: We will be able to combat the pandemic successfully. We need to avoid hysteria. Let’s not give up. This is not the time to give up, says Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

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This is not a drill. This is not the time to give up. This is not a time for excuses. This is a time for pulling out all the stops. Sounds dramatic, right?

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, doesn’t think so. He used these words at the media briefing on COVID-19 on March 5, 2020, to encourage governments and public health organizations to collaborate in the fight against corona.

He believes that only a coordinated and collective approach will help us stop the global spread of the virus.

Or to use his words: “We’re all in this together, and we can only save lives together.”

No matter what you think of the WHO or the Director-General’s statements, he is right about one thing: There is still a lack of consensus on how to respond.

Governments aren’t on the same page when it comes to the coronavirus. Measures vary widely per country. They have different ways to count and report cases of coronavirus infections, different approaches to virus testing, and different recommendations as to what to do when you have a cold or fever.

The sense of urgency is an important factor that can explain the differences. Regions that experienced a coronavirus outbreak or are unclear about the source of infections tend to implement more stringent measures, such as school closures and the cancellation of large events.

But there are also political reasons for the different measures. Governments may decide to downplay the coronavirus threat or underreport the number of cases to avoid being perceived as a global problem (with all the economic doom and gloom).

And don’t forget the cultural differences. Deep-rooted traditions in the workplace may make it difficult for people who are infected to come forward. This is particularly true in countries/workplaces where a sick day is frowned upon.

A lack of consensus makes it extremely difficult to triangulate the truth.

The result?

The unclear facts about the coronavirus contribute to jitters in the stock market and beyond. Investors have a hard time getting their heads around the economic impact of the pandemic

Private organizations also struggle. What should they do to avoid an outbreak on their premises? More and more companies and other organizations implement travel restrictions and travel bans. But also here there is hardly any consensus. One of my friends has to self-isolate because he spent a few days in Italy. His wife, on the other hand, is expected to go to the office. Her employer only urges workers to stay home when they have symptoms of a fever.

All these different reactions and approaches appear to have a counterproductive effect.

On the one hand, people believe that some countries and companies overreact. Also, we start to see more and more stories about conspiracy theories around the outbreak. On the other hand, we witness stockpiling and panic-buying out of fear of the possibility of becoming subject to self-isolation and quarantine measures. Depending on the country, we already see shortages of face masks, toilet paper, hand sanitizers, pasta, or rice.

But there is a Consensus About One Thing

We (societies) will recover!

Everybody seems to agree that we will be able to combat the pandemic successfully.

The number of newly reported cases from China and South Korea appears to be declining. New cases predominantly come from known clusters. As soon as we have beaten the coronavirus, things will quickly go back to business as usual. Let’s avoid hysteria.

I received an email from my bank last week, warning me not to let my emotions get the better of me when stock markets plunge. “It’s just an irrational reaction to what’s currently happening in the world.”

Also, my students are convinced that sooner or later, things will reset. I asked them to write an analyst report on a company that they believed would be a fruitful investment. They made their investment decisions by the beginning of February, and all of their investments are currently loss-making. But, rest assured! My students are convinced that by the end of Spring 2020, their investments will again show a positive return. The stocks will soon return to pre-corona levels.

And no matter how much I want to believe them, their responses made me think.

I am a traveler and follow the news on the coronavirus carefully. And the more I think about it, the more I believe that the impact of the coronavirus will be more significant than we now realize.

The “Coronavirus” is Changing the World

No, I am not exaggerating. I truly think we haven’t seen the full impact yet.

Why? Well, the answer goes back to 2000. I was writing my Ph.D. on evolutionary patterns and processes in law and economics and stumbled upon an article by Ronald Gilson from Stanford and Columbia.

One of the sentences in the articles has always stuck with me:

“Accomplishing change is more complicated than merely having to protect the status quo.”

He referred to an example from San Francisco where a large number of residents unsuccessfully sought to have the Embarcadero Freeway, a two-level concrete highway that separated downtown San Francisco from the waterfront, torn down. A smaller group, including the Chinatown community, successfully blocked the removal of the “skyway” (protecting the status quo).

Only when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake inflicted significant damage on the freeway, the opposition to the Embarcadero Freeway was able to push for the removal of the structure. Even though the minority suffered a dramatic decline in business due to the damaged freeway, the destruction became a fact. The earthquake radically changed the status quo.

Of course, it is difficult to compare an earthquake with the outbreak of the coronavirus. But, similar to what happened in California in 1989, the coronavirus is changing the status quo in many areas.

Here are some examples.

The Environment

Have you seen the satellite images that show the indirect impact of the coronavirus on the environment?

It is amazing how the air above infected areas and clusters is rapidly cleaning up. Pollution levels go down as governments and other organizations close down businesses, reduce productivity, and restrict or ban travel.

So far, environmentalists haven’t been very effective in restricting heavy industrial development, business operations, and commercial travel.

But with the “Embarcadero Freeway” story in mind, it isn’t immediately obvious that affected industries and commercial transportation will easily return to pre-coronavirus levels after we have stopped the pandemic.


I have always considered myself lucky that I could travel the world and speak at so many international conferences and other events.

But things have dramatically changed this month. Easy travel is slowly but surely disappearing. Countries are closing their borders for people that come from (or have traveled through) infected areas. Most of the scheduled events for March and even April have been postponed or canceled. I tend to agree with these decisions. Not so much because of the fear of getting infected, but I don’t want to be stuck in a hotel or airport, deprived of my freedom, for one or more weeks.

Will we ever go back to the old world of traveling?

Organizers of events are desperately looking for alternatives. We predictably see a breakthrough of online and virtual meetings/events (which so far have been a disaster due to connectivity issues). I am already looking for new gear (better cameras and microphones) to be prepared for the new “status quo” of virtual conferences and keynote presentations.


On March 4, 2020, UNESCO announced that 13 countries implemented school closures, affecting an unprecedented amount of almost 290 million learners.

The adverse consequences are clear: higher dropout rates, increased pressure on teachers, and higher economic costs, just to name a few.

The solutions are clear and straightforward. Governments and schools have no other choice than to promote and facilitate online and remote learning.

There are plenty of education startups that can help pave the way to develop distance learning environments. It has always been difficult for them to change the status quo of in-class learning. And I am sure that the road to more online learning platforms will be bumpy. As a teacher, I understand the challenges. But when more and more schools are offering digital learning portals, a new status quo could quickly emerge.


Working from home and working remotely remain controversial issues in most companies. Deep-rooted work cultures often make distance working something bad. For instance, working from home is still the exception. Not feeling well or having a cold is usually not perceived as a good reason for not coming to the office.

Well, this perception has rapidly changed. People who are coughing, sneezing, and sniffing are now asked not to come to the office. “Please stay home.” The cloud and online office apps and tools are readily available. Working for home and working remotely are quickly becoming the new normal/status quo.


The coronavirus is disrupting the big tech industry. Companies like Apple and Microsoft have given profit warnings to investors. The production of new tech devices, such as smartphones and laptops, is heavily impacted by the spread of the virus.

But, as always, there is another side to the story. And here I don’t only refer to companies that offer technologies that support work-from-home and distance learning, or coronavirus vaccine developers. There are other examples of companies that will benefit from changes in the status quo.

Think about companies that build ecosystems around emerging technologies, such as robotics and drones. These emerging tech solutions are more and more being used to prevent the further spread of the virus. Many of these technologies weren’t immediately accepted by society, but now they enable remote interactions among people and help doctors with diagnosing coronavirus infections.

The benefits of these emerging technologies are clear in the current health crisis but will not easily be forgotten after the coronavirus. The new ecosystems will quickly move to other use-cases in other industries and businesses.

The same can be said about companies that operate in the area of sensors, artificial intelligence, and big data analytics. These technologies were already near mainstream pre-corona. The fact that the technologies are being used to make outbreak predictions and search for treatments will also make their use post-corona stronger.

I can see similar developments in the area of augmented reality and virtual reality. They will surely benefit from the new “status quo” in travel, education, and work.

Back to the World Health Organization

The Director-General of the World Health Organization calls for a collective and coordinated approach. Governments should set vested interests and political motives aside and work together to fight the coronavirus.

He is correct. For instance, trying to bury the truth about coronavirus infections is wishful thinking in the world of social media.

Also, the lessons learned from the pre-iPhone SARS pandemic 17 years ago are important, but many things have changed in almost two decades.

The coronavirus is the first pandemic in the digital economy. The world has become flatter, more transparent, and more decentralized. Ironically, COVID-19 will only accelerate this trend.

Governments and industry should understand the full impact of the pandemic. Only then will we be able to adequately respond to this crisis (as well as future outbreaks), while at the same time prepare ourselves for a new, even more, digital and tech-oriented world.

It feels like we haven’t seen the full impact of the coronavirus yet.