The pandemic period began some years ago, but we only realised it in January 2020. The coronavirus pandemic follows in a long line of zoonotic diseases — HIV/AIDS, Ebola, SARS, MERS, H1N1, etc — that have stricken us in the past few years. The human and economic cost of Covid-19 will be unimaginable.
How do we prevent such pandemics from happening again? Based on actions already taken by many countries, it appears that there are at least four major areas that we need to focus on: risk management, healthcare systems, health tracking, and cloud-based services.
On the economic side, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has already declared that we have entered a global recession equal to or worse than the one following the 2008-09 global financial crisis. Global 2020 GDP has been reset from growing at about 3.3 per cent (as per IMF’s January 2020 forecast) to contracting by 1.5-2 per cent by various forecasting agencies. Note that global GDP in 2020 was going to be over $90 trillion; a 5 per cent contraction from this baseline implies that we may lose about $4-5 trillion in global economic output this year alone. This is greater than India’s total GDP – and all this due to a virus.
Moving towards universal healthcare
Risk management has to be embedded in all our policy-making and business strategies. We shy away from thinking the unthinkable and pretend that black swan events will not happen. Every organisation has to have contingency plans, which are war-gamed by all participants so that pre-emptive actions can be undertaken swiftly. All organisations prepare an annual budget; similarly, they must prepare contingency plans too and require all key personnel to simulate what they will do under worst-case circumstances.
We are likely to make massive investments in healthcare systems and will probably move to some type of universal healthcare across the world. This is certainly going to be expensive, but it is less expensive than going through another pandemic. Basic healthcare for all could thus become a global public good. WHO and various organisations like the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) are going to have to become even better at identifying and controlling disease outbreaks. There will have to be some type of global transfers (in technology, funds, and expertise) to ensure that poorer nations can also build well-functioning healthcare systems.
Our vaccination records are already used to regulate access to countries (yellow fever vaccination is recommended when travelling to Africa and South America) and for various activities such as going to school. It is possible that this will be standardised into a cloud-based global protocol that will enable us to travel across countries and attend large public events. Testing infrastructure will become even more widespread to ensure that only disease-negative people can access certain privileges. Disease tracking for individuals is likely to become pervasive – China already has a green, yellow, red QR tracking system.
Our current cloud-based services — content streaming, videoconferencing, messaging, e-commerce, gaming, and so on — are going to mutate into a SuperCloud. The global lockdown has demonstrated the importance of all these cloud-based services; now, our virtual lives may well become more significant than our real lives.
First, cloud infrastructure is going to become even more resilient, powerful, and pervasive. There will be data centres set up around the world linked together with massive high-bandwidth data pipes. Content and applications will get shuttled around to ensure fast response and redundancy.
Second, more sectors are going to become cloud-driven. For instance, the education sector is already moving towards more continuous remote learning. We may soon have cloud-based student tracking and examinations. Finance will become even more technology-driven and we will likely transact almost entirely digitally — even with the thelawala.
Finally, different applications will be closely integrated for convenience. For example, student and health records may be linked together to ensure that only students that are up to date on their vaccinations are admitted.
India can play a vital role in what comes next.
Tracking health services
Our Ayushman Bharat Yojana is already the world’s largest healthcare programme. We can build an even more sophisticated testing infrastructure and wellness capabilities. Aadhaar-based public health records, with all the necessary privacy safeguards, could ensure that we track vaccination and disease status well. Just like we have done with digital identity and payments, our personal data protection framework could become a global standard and enable the SuperCloud to take shape in India.
They say that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Let’s all work together to not only end this pandemic period quickly, but also to build robust systems for the future.
Jayant Sinha is the Chairman of the Standing Committee on Finance in Parliament and a Lok Sabha MP from Hazaribagh, Jharkhand. These are his personal views.