Journalist Fareed Zakaria on How the Pandemic Will Shape the Future

COVID-19 may have brought with it global lockdowns, but in parallel it has driven the acceleration of digital technologies. During our digital event, Conversations for a Changing World, journalist Fareed Zakaria shared insights about how quickly the pandemic has changed our world, and his thoughts on what’s yet to come.

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At our global digital event, Conversations for a Changing World, Robynne Sisco, president and CFO at Workday, was joined by Fareed Zakaria, CNN host and The Washington Post columnist. In the discussion, Zakaria, author of the book "Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World," shared his perspective on how COVID-19 is speeding up history and shaping the world.

Don’t Mention the “U” Word

If there was an award for the most-used word of 2020, “unprecedented” would surely take the gold medal. A seemingly endless plethora of public health, economic, social, and environmental crises pushed the world into a continuous vacuum of uncharted territory. Yet the pace of change was truly unprecedented, and the uncertain world we are moving into equally ambiguous. Zakaria told attendees he believes the pandemic may be the most transformative, unique thing to happen in our lifetimes—in part because it impacted virtually everyone on the planet.

Citing an interview with a CEO, Zakaria said: “When I look at the effects that this pandemic has had, then I think back to 9/11, and I recognize that in India, 9/11 had very little impact. The same in China and in Brazil—very little impact. We all got better X-ray scanners at airports, and we had to go through those lines for a little bit longer, but that was about it. When you look at the global financial crisis, it was actually very similar. And then I look at the pandemic. Every single person in India has been affected by this pandemic. [It] may be affecting every single person on the planet in a way that no event certainly of my lifetime has ever. And also changing the world.” 

COVID-19: Accelerating Trends and the Pace of Change

As the global lockdown forced businesses to accelerate their shift to digital virtually overnight, enabling a remote workforce became a huge priority. Of course, remote work, cloud computing, automation, and other aspects of digital transformation are not new trends, but businesses were forced to push the button on them when the pandemic hit. There is normally a catalyst for transformation, but that catalyst is not usually a global pandemic.

Zakaria explained, “If you think about COVID-19 and the lockdowns that followed, collectively, what they have done is not to change the course of history dramatically but to accelerate it. If you think about it, the biggest effect of COVID-19 has been to accelerate trends that were already underway; sort of put the world on fast forward. And that has enormous, interesting, and seismic shifts. Sometimes when you go much, much faster than you were, it does produce unintended side effects.”

The Power of the Platform

Discussing the second phase of the pandemic recovery, following the emergence of vaccines, Zakaria pointed to the success of many nations in keeping their economies afloat by accelerating their digital processes. That is to say that large parts of the economy have been able to function even though physical interaction has become extremely limited. He points to the role of technology and various digital platforms in enabling this success.

“What you're really seeing is the transformation of whole industries. Telehealth is probably the best example, because it was a wonderful example of a psychological breakthrough, more than anything else. People did not like going to their doctors online. There will be, by the end of 2020, a billion visits between a patient and a doctor online. We were predicted to reach that number in 2035. So, you've had a 15-year acceleration of this trend.”

“It’s worth keeping in mind that even 20 years ago, that would not have been possible. We have now built a digital infrastructure in much of the advanced industrial world, and actually, in large parts of the world that has been able to withstand this massive upscaling of traffic. The last number I saw was traffic has risen tenfold on the Internet, and yet, the system has been able to handle it pretty well.”

“The coming acceleration is going to be around artificial intelligence because as everything has moved online, it's important to remember what that also means. It has moved to software. In other words, software has become the controlling factor in these businesses. And what is happening increasingly to software is it is being ruled by artificial intelligence, quantum computing, the cloud, all those revolutions, but fundamentally driven by artificial intelligence, which is able to produce algorithms which increase productivity dramatically.”

“COVID-19 and the lockdowns that followed, collectively; what they have done is not to change the course of history dramatically but to accelerate it.”

Fareed Zakaria CNN Host and The Washington Post Columnist

Technology Inequality and the Digital Divide

The debate around access to technology and the digital divide it creates stretches much further back than the COVID-19 outbreak. Yet the shift towards digital and the reliance of global organizations on it further highlight the “haves” and “have nots” of the world economy. Despite the global lockdown, many businesses, via digital platforms, have continued to operate and generate some form of revenue. While this is good news for those employees and organizations, for those in sectors not able to utilize digital, the outlook is not so clear.

“Imagine if you work in a restaurant, a hotel, a retail mall, a cruise ship, a theme park—any of those kinds of businesses. You have unemployment insurance, so it's not quite as devastating. But the loss of employment, the loss of economic activity, is equivalent only to the Great Depression. And that divide between a kind of cognitive elite and a noncognitive working population is only getting much, much worse. Lawyers, accountants, consultants, most businessmen, journalists, academics, graphic designers—all those fields are doing fine. But if you look at what is happening with people who work with their hands, it's a whole different story. And that inequality is going to rise and rise,” said Zakaria.

“The big countries that have large domestic markets are going to do better than the smaller ones that are often dependent on trade and tourism. Thailand, for example, gets 25% of its GDP from tourism. I think it's going to be a while before that comes back. And so when you look at it in those terms, what you realize is that we are experiencing a kind of slow moving rise of inequality—of comprehensive inequality along all these dimensions, that is much larger, I think, than most people came to recognize. The result of all this digital life is going to be to transform cities. Now, none of us know exactly where this is going, but one thing I can tell you from history is that the flight away from cities is a very familiar pattern. Every time there has been a plague in history, people have emptied out the cities and gone into the Countryside.”

“The biggest effect of COVID-19 has been to accelerate trends that were already underway; sort of put the world on fast forward. And that has enormous, interesting, and seismic shifts.” 

Fareed Zakaria CNN Host and The Washington Post Columnist

Digital and the Future of Workspaces

So what does the future look like, both for businesses and their workforce? Is this the death of the office, fueled by digital acceleration? Zakaria believes it’s more complex than that, but his outlook is positive in that society and business have the tools needed to bounce back from the pandemic.

“I suspect that what you will see will be something different, but history never repeats itself exactly because we do have this rise of digital life and people will be able to work remotely. You are going to see some kind of hybrid model where people will do some work at home, but then come into the office some days,” said Zakaria. “Offices will be transformed. What I think we will end up with is an office model where you are essentially renting hotel space rather than having a permanent office with your own desk or your own family photographs; your own space.”

Interested in learning more? Check out the webinar: Fareed Zakaria on the Changing World of Business.

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