2020 – An obituary

As we say goodbye to the year, we will remember it mainly for the massive disruption it brought. 

This is my last article for 2020 – and what an extraordinary year has it been. It came, it destroyed so much of what we knew and how we lived, and now it is going away with vaccines on their way in and Donald Trump on his way out, ushering in hopes about the world returning to some sort of normality. 

In the wake of destruction comes creation, of course, and 2020 has given us more chances to rebuild than ever before – at least in my lifetime. On that note, I turned 56 this year, slowly climbing towards the respected senior citizen label. In 2020, I realized more than ever how precious life is and how delicately is it balanced. You breathe in one bad air particle expelled by a sneeze or cough, and that may be it for you. 

The term ‘disruption’ may be synonymous with the tech industry, but nature, in the form of this previously unknown virus, has caused the biggest disruption probably since the Second World War.  So looking back at 2020, do we mainly look back at the pandemic? Perhaps. But we must also look back to the year to see what have we learned and how and where things go from here.

The year began well enough and full of the usual new year resolutions one never really fulfils. The first news of Covid-19 broke in early January about a mysterious new disease emerging in the Chinese city of Wuhan. It was only a few weeks later that we began hearing about the spread in Europe – Italy to start with. I recall cancelling a business trip to Germany and Holland in early February after seeing headlines of the spread there. 

However, most of us in Pakistan didn’t really give it much thought till the first case was reported here in March. Then came the lockdowns coupled with the endless debate on whether they were doing any good. 

Somehow, for completely inexplicable reasons and with good fortune, Pakistan escaped the worse of the impact of Covid-19 and the virus seemed to be almost gone by August. Life was getting back to normal and the economy underwent some sort of a revival. 

However, by November the second phase of the virus was back. This time it seems to be more deadly than before. As I write these words, the reported infection numbers are rising coupled with an alarming increase in the death rates. This time around, one hears of so many people within our own friends and family network who have been infected. A few, sadly, have not survived. The year 2020 has taken away more loved ones for many families than any other year for many decades.

The other big story of the year of course was the U.S. election. It wasn’t so much about who would win but about Donald Trump accepting the results if he was defeated. Indeed, that was borne out to be a correct misgiving as Trump continues to complain about a stolen election despite the electoral college having recently certified the results. It was fascinating to watch from a distance as we saw many Pakistanis become more familiar with U.S. election process than they have ever been about their own country’s voting procedures. 

Speaking of which, politics here continue to follow tried and tested patterns of power struggles with all sides hell bent on communicating as loudly and brashly as possible about how they are the saviours of this poor country. What they don’t realize is that endlessly shouting grimy obscenities at each other makes them increasingly irrelevant to the common person. In this aspect, 2020 brought nothing new. Sad to say, I am unlikely to be wrong in predicting that this state of affairs will continue in the land of the pure for years to come.

So, what other trends will continue beyond 2020 and Covid-19? Fortunately, some very good things have happened, that transformed from being upcoming trends to essentials of modern-day life. An example is ‘work from home’, now abbreviated as WFH. When we started having Zoom or Teams or Google meetings back in March-April, there was a novelty to it and sort of a challenge to master the technology and to become familiar with the possibilities of connecting virtually. 

Surprisingly for most of us, the technology already existed and was readily available to ensure that work did not suffer. And it did not. In fact, office workers and senior managers may have become more productive – they certainly tend to be more available in the virtual meetings world. Would we all go back to our offices after the arrival of vaccines? I don’t think so. I think many of us are now fine with working from home and whenever we return to the office it will be in some sort of hybrid way, with WFH remaining a big part of our work life. 

Similarly, the trends of online education and shopping, about which I have written before, are very much here to stay in some sort of hybrid combination. The ease and convenience of online alternates in both sectors have always been attractive. The exit of Covid-19 is unlikely to impact their growth. 

Likewise, the value of food delivery business is now far higher than before. It looks like this will stay for the long term although eating out will also hopefully find its way back once we feel safe from the coronavirus. Online medical assistance is another positive and fast emerging sector from 2020 which should continue beyond the year. 

All these technology and online trends should be a positive for a country like Pakistan which seems to have developed human capability in the information technology sector. Therefore, these services businesses should continue to benefit from these trends.

On a macro level, the global economy has written off 2020 as an aberration, with most countries posting negative growth for the year. However, economists largely predict that the impact of 2020 will last for some years. It will not be until the coming year, 2021, that recovery is likely to begin, driven by vaccines making people safe from Covid-19. 

Overall, the aftermath of the biggest economic and social disruption we have seen in our lifetime will not disappear in a single year. Most predictions are that growth will return in 2022 but still far below the levels which would have been reached had the 2020 coronavirus pandemic never happened. 

It will not be till 2024 that the world is likely to return to normal levels of growth. Unfortunately, predictions for Pakistan are not rosy, with the World Bank forecasting an increase in poverty levels after the resumption of the IMF programme. But we have shown ourselves to be a resilient people and hopefully will bounce back stronger than these dismal forecasts predict. 

Adios 2020! Rest in peace and may you and your types never return to this world.

Asif Saad
The writer is a strategy consultant who has previously worked at various C-level positions for national and multinational corporations

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