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Covid, Crises and Catalysts: How the pandemic hasn’t really upended our world 

by | Jan 20, 2023 | Economic Development, Uncategorized

Once upon a time, when I was a know-it-all university student rolling my eyes at my father’s insistence computers were a fad, my grandfather delivered a shock to my smug world view. He phoned me over the internet using his just-bought computer.

Wait, what? “Grandpa knows how to use VoIP?”, I asked myself.

The question was unnecessary, the answer a slap of reality. If an “old” guy could figure out how to make calls over the internet, a brash young man like me needed to up his game. After all, while I had been superficially surfing the computer wave, my grandfather had jumped in the deep end.

He had tossed out the old adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same, instead adopting an adage from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who said: ‘The only thing that stays the same in life is change.’ I was proud of him. And a little worried about my own complacency.

It was at that point I welcomed change to the point I’m now eager to see, and often embrace, whatever comes next. That might leave me a little bored at times, but I’d rather be impatient than left struggling to adapt to the inevitable changes about to bombard us. This is a philosophy that has guided me throughout my life as a father, politician, and business owner. It is something I impress upon my clients and partners whether they be community leaders or business partners.

One of the most profound struggles facing us in life is that adapting to change often becomes harder over time. But we must persevere. My grandfather showed me the value and the need for perseverance, because those who refuse to change often become irrelevant. I’m not just talking about revolutions in technology but rapid evolutions in our values, culture and society.

The past century has seen profound transformations spurred on by crises. The First World War, for example, forced a great social upheaval where women took the place of men who had gone off to fight. Wives, daughters and mothers became truck drivers, train conductors and factory workers. When the men returned, many women were forced back to traditional roles but the genie refused to go back in the bottle. The crucial role women played in the war to keep up with economic development was key to female suffrage. Women in Canada won the right to vote near the end of the Great War. In the United States, suffrage happened shortly after the war.

Of course, today we are not living in a utopia of gender equality but the First World War was a catalyst of change. An abrupt change for those living at the time.

The funny thing about abrupt change, though, is it is rarely abrupt. It might look that way on the surface but it is usually the end result of an evolution already in the works. The fight for women’s suffrage had been in the works for decades. The war simply sped things up.

The atomic age was inevitable. It was simply fast-tracked by the crisis of the Second World War.

And then we have our most recent global emergency: the COVID pandemic. During the height of the crisis, the world moved online. Record numbers of people began using digital platforms to work from home, go to school virtually, and shop digitally. We retreated into stay-at-home bubbles as the world seemed to change overnight. To many observers, the COVID emergency had upended our world economic development and created unforeseen changes to societies and cultures.

I challenge that notion. I don’t think the pandemic changed our world much at all. Rather, it confirmed many things already occurring and sped them up. It didn’t profoundly alter things. It simply reinforced the changes already on the way – and solidified them.

For instance, we have known for ages that students could learn online. However, teachers, parents, administrators and even students resisted the move to digital learning. I imagine teachers were afraid they would become irrelevant to a student’s education – but in fact online education has confirmed teachers are more important than ever. Perhaps administrators resisted because they didn’t know how the virtual world would improve education – and are now realizing their fears were unfounded. I imagine parents resisted because of concerns over the quality of education possible in an online environment – but in fact in some cases the quality of the education improved. Students may have been concerned the change would be too difficult – but now many of them don’t want to lose the flexibility and freedom of online classes. I’m not saying this is universal or perfect but the pandemic forced us to change and adapt what was once a rarity into a common practice. It opened our minds and challenged our previous beliefs.

Just look at another example: healthcare. Previously, when needing to refill a prescription, you often had to see your doctor in person. Doctors, after all, didn’t get paid for the time they took to talk to you over the phone for a simple prescription renewal. The pandemic forced the government to change pay structures so the doctors could be compensated for the time they took to talk to you on the phone. Now, we would be hard pressed to go back to a system of economic development where you have to go to a doctors office for a prescription renewal. I doubt patients or doctors want that.

Of course, the pandemic stretched many healthcare systems to the breaking point. But that also showed weaknesses and flaws that we must address. These weaknesses required changes. The pandemic wasn’t the instigator of the need for change, but it did speed up the changes that were needed, and inevitable.

Healthcare has been transformed. Socializing has been transformed. Shopping has been transformed. During the pandemic we weren’t just finding new ways of doing things, we began exploiting opportunities that were already in place but weren’t in widespread use.

One of the most profound was working from home, or working from anywhere, really. That was already happening. The pandemic simply forced more of us to work from home, and sped up virtual engagements via Zoom, Facetime and a myriad of other technologies. It simply confirmed we can perform as well or better from home as we do in the office. Productivity and economic development increased during the pandemic. Teamwork and creativity fell, but those can be overcome with part-time office time, rather than returning to full time office time. With the right combination you can have a solid team, exceptional creativity, and a more productive workforce. Such new opportunities were brought to you by . . . the pandemic.

Economic development and the workplace changed during the pandemic

In fact, so many of us prefer working online now, we wish to stay online. However, company bosses, and the downtown cores of many cities, are relentlessly trying to draw people back to the office. It is creating a conflict of values. People realize they don’t need to be in an office building from 9 to 5 for 40 hours a week. They achieved more in half the time working from home. The new reality gave them an invaluable asset: time. They were performing just as well at work while having more free time. A new concept was blossoming: workers were getting paid for performance, not time spent at a desk. Another innovation brought to you by . . . pandemic.

That is a lesson that’s not going to go away. In the past century, we have seen how women can do any job a man can do. Of course, too many of them are still not being paid the same for the same work. It’s still a work in progress. But it is progressing, given a kick in the pants 100 years ago. Likewise, it might take a generation or two more before work-from-anywhere no longer gets challenged by old-world thinking that says a company is buying your time, not your results, but the change is not going to go away. The pandemic crisis accelerated changes that were already coming, changes that were inevitable.

Let me finish with one of my favourite economic development pandemic confirmation lessons: the importance of daycare and childcare. For too many political and business leaders, looking after the children of workers was a social issue, not an economic issue. Yet, as the pandemic spread, daycares shut down and many employees with children simply had to stay home. Suddenly, our leaders recognized that child care is indeed an economic issue. The pandemic opened eyes and changed opinions. Economic issues are everywhere. We cannot separate economic issues from social issues. Just as we cannot separate economic development from community development. All are intrinsically connected.

COVID hit us with a healthcare nightmare but if every cloud has a silver lining, the pandemic accelerated change that was necessary and overdue. The positive aspects of crises are not always obvious in the moment. Just as world wars spurred on social and technological changes for the better, the pandemic has presented us with opportunities. It is now up to us to learn from our generation’s crisis to make the world a better place.