- Amarjit Singh
In years to come, the 2020 UK Budget will be known as the ‘get it done coronavirus’ call-to-arms. When the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the man who controls Britain’s purse strings, stood up at the despatch box, few of us knew what lay ahead. Few of us thought that thousands would die. And few of us anticipated that our prime minister, Boris Johnson, would end up in intensive care. The disease is a great leveller. Like any crisis, coronavirus has created leaders – none more so than sure-footed, Southampton-born, Rishi Sunak. The chancellor, who is married to the daughter of Infosys co-founder, N. R. Narayana Murthy, has understood that there are times when political doctrine needs to give way to pragmatic action.
Think about what he has promised – paying 80 per cent of people’s wages; tens of billions of pounds to stave off a UK recession; and £750 million to the third sector, so charities can help those in most need. Who would have thought a Conservative party, whose first woman PM said there was no such thing as society, would do that? These measures are one way of showing how the paradigm of survival, economics and well-being has shifted in the UK.
The way we do business has undoubtedly advanced at least a decade. We always knew that flexible home working, using digital technology, was possible. Some firms have been using Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Skype to conduct virtual meetings for years. What COVID-19 has done is to show that we no longer need expensive land space in premium-priced cities, such as London, to be effective or efficient. Days before Boris went into the hospital, Downing Street held its first weekly cabinet e-meeting, which also included a stricken health secretary, Scotland secretary and chief medical officer. The bonus of no travel, closed offices and buying essentials means we are also helping the environment.
What we have learnt is that if this were the new normal, then Britain’s broadband infrastructure needs to be improved to avoid lines dropping off and glitches on-screen which make us sound like the 1980s icon, Max Headroom. Trust is also at a premium. We have to trust our elected political leaders and unelected captains of industry have a plan to make sure the UK does not follow France and slide into recession.
According to the FT, “the Port of Oakland in America has seen a 20 per cent drop in shipping traffic entering the port due to the coronavirus outbreak in China”. Economists talk about a rapid ‘V-shaped’ recovery post-pandemic, but in the States, they are anxiously watching the impact of the virus on ‘supply chains and trade flows’. The signs are not good. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) frighteningly predicts that we are heading for the worst fallout since the 1930s Great Depression.
Another important lesson from this global pandemic is the emotional toll it is having on all of us. The uncertainty of whether we have a job to which we can return is most certainly high on the list. But for parents, it is the anguish of a sudden unstructured life where their child’s education has become virtual, and virtually non-existent. Students do not know when they will return to higher education. Some UK universities were struggling financially long before the pandemic because of a demographic decline in student numbers, and others do not have endless reserves of cash. But if COVID-19 has taught us one thing it is that we are innovative and resilient. My university has embraced ‘blended learning’, created virtual class rooms and we have engaged our cohorts across the globe.
But it comes at a cost. Added together, self-isolation and concern about contracting a killer disease are a recipe for mental health disaster. Until now, we have taken for granted the value of the humble local pub, club, or restaurant to our mental and physical well-being. Suddenly the lockdown, and threats of more draconian measures, have made most of us see the benefit of the ‘two-metre-dance’ as we swerve to avoid our fellow human. Will we ever return to firm handshakes, air kisses and hugs or are social distancing, namaste, furloughing, and job insecurity here for the next 20 years?
Some big businesses have stepped up their corporate social responsibility mission. An MNC Bank is supporting the Indian Institute of Technology and its incubated company that makes medical equipment in Kanpur, India’s Uttar Pradesh. The bank hopes they will produce an affordable and portable ventilator, which is at the prototype stage. It has understood the need to stay grounded and put people first. No matter what cynics will say these are potential customers and it makes business sense, it is multi-nationals, which provide hope for humanity, especially those who are the poorest and most overlooked in society.
History is a good indicator of our future. But only if we learn its lessons. Only then will the UK plc understand this pandemic is one which has changed our lives, maybe for the better, in every area, irrevocably.
Amarjit Singh is CEO, India Business Group, lawyer, and special adviser for India to the University of Southampton. Views expressed are the author’s personal.