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Social Analysis

What is Covid-19 Teaching Us?

I welcome this opportunity to share what I have been thinking about this terrible Covid-19 pandemic. Like many of you, I have found this time to be one of reflection, of resetting priorities, and of considering what is most important in life. At the same time, I have mourned the physical and emotional damage wrought by the pandemic. My heart goes out to all who have suffered loss. Never has the entire planet been so stricken. I am sure that the world will never return to the norms of 2019. What will the new normal look like? What can we do to make the new normal better than the past? We will wrestle with those questions for years to come.

But the pandemic has brought some good news. The world has responded to it with unprecedented demonstrations of tolerance and human fraternity. As nature has thrown her worst at us, we have responded with the best of human virtues. We are seeing countries helping other countries, countries helping businesses, businesses caring for their employees, and people caring for each other selflessly. The medical professionals have been exceptional heroes during this time. The many examples of altruistic responses to the pandemic assure me that the world’s diverse peoples have the capacity to work together for our mutual good. The pandemic has forced us to recognize our deep interdependence, and we have been largely united in our response.

One thing has become abundantly clear: a government’s response to the pandemic directly affects how many people will become infected and how many will perish. I am proud that the leadership of the United Arab Emirates responded quickly and effectively to flatten the curve and curb the pandemic. Our leaders made difficult decisions based on the best scientific knowledge. Our government has put the safety of its people first and continues to do so. I am particularly proud of the people of the UAE, citizens and expats alike, for following the guidance of the government and looking out for each other.

Our experience indicates that a country’s success in dealing with pandemics in the future will depend on the capacity of a government to make and implement sound, fact-based decisions, to respond quickly and effectively to challenges, and to maintain the confidence of the people. Because pandemics threaten the entire population, the government has a leading role to play that no other institution, civil or corporate, can fill in mobilizing people in response to emerging challenges and opportunities.

Businesses have confronted major challenges during this crisis. As in any time of great change, there are businesses that can adapt and thrive, those that are only inconvenienced, and those that discover they are inadequately financed to survive without income or have simply become obsolete. We are seeing the shortcomings of some conventional business wisdom in dealing with such upheaval. For example, many businesses subscribe to the idea that they can increase shareholder wealth by leveraging cash flow to fund expansion. While that strategy may work well when economic growth is continuous, it can be disastrous during a major economic crisis such as that experienced in 2008. The Covid-19 crisis is worse. Businesses will need to consider more sustainable ways of thinking that give risk considerations more weight.

Businesses must also reconsider their drive for continuous growth and expansion. Such drive inevitably affects our natural environment that is already under terrible stress. We consume natural resources at an unsustainable rate. Our planet cannot survive growth that destroys. We need to devise new models for measuring success in business. And we must find ways to protect small businesses from the growth of behemoths.

This pandemic has emphasized our basic need for other human beings. Physical distancing during the pandemic has introduced us to new ways for maintaining these connections. These connections will be crucial to our survival as we begin to deal with the economic fallout. Many businesses anticipate employing fewer people than they did before the pandemic. Many businesses will no longer employ any human beings because the businesses will be closed. And all the time, our knowledge economy continues to develop automated technologies that replace humans. We humans will have to be better—better educated, more creative, more compassionate, more resilient. We will have to help each other adapt to radically new working conditions.

We have seen some remarkable resurgence of the natural environment due to reduced pollution and decreases in human presence: dolphins in the canals of Venice, cleaner air over cities, wild animals venturing onto city streets with little or no traffic. The pandemic has for a moment reminded us of the complexity and extent of our environment as well as the precarious position of us humans in an environment marked anywhere and everywhere by Covid-19. We should realize more than ever that, just as we harm our environment, so nature can harm us. We must realize that we share our world with other living creatures. We must be aware of our common human fraternity. We must recognize that we all have the same basic needs and are affected by the same dangers worldwide. With that knowledge we can perhaps cooperate globally to stop climate change. Our inspiration can be, so we may hope, our global cooperation in stopping Covid-19.

The most uplifting phenomenon that has emerged around the world during this pandemic is the incredible power of individuals to make a positive difference for others. The acts of kindness, expressions of support, practical actions taken to help others such as donations to food banks have proliferated. While each of these may be small individually, collectively they have made a profound difference. Seeing the best of human fraternity in action gives me great hope for the future. We have demonstrated a significant concern for the well-being of others and a willingness to actually take action in the face of adversity.

We, each individually, have surely reviewed our values and concerns. I suspect that many of us have reaffirmed the importance of personal resilience, particularly as affected by our own health. While not everyone has been blessed with natural good health, we must all pay attention to those activities that promote good health. Eating intelligently, engaging in regular exercise, avoiding negative behaviors such as smoking, and maintaining a reasonable weight are all things we can do to make our bodies more resilient. Viruses thrive on weaknesses.

The pandemic has underscored the importance not only of personal health but also of financial prudence and community support. Resilience foresees rainy days and knows that a strong social support network can work wonders. Even though we are practicing physical distancing, we are able to maintain our connections to the people we are emotionally close to. A conversation with a good friend can do wonders to put what seem to be insurmountable problems into perspective. It takes a little more work to stay connected now, but the effort is worth it. I hope that post-Covid-19 we will nurture our resilience.

Covid-19 is also teaching us some important lessons for our longer-term future. During this pandemic, people have had to learn in an incredibly short time new ways of interacting personally and working remotely. Ask any teacher who has had to switch from face-to-face to remote teaching. The learning curve is steep, and the effort required, intense. Teachers, students, and parents have labored hard and learned together in the past months. Both the many successes and the inevitable failures in remote learning raise questions about the shape of future education. If the virus persists, schools and universities must devise ways for safe and effective education. Even in a virus-free environment, new approaches to education will emerge from our Covid-19 days.

The world was not prepared for the Covid-19 pandemic. While a few scientists were concerned and had given due warning, we were too busy or too skeptical to act. Though proud of our global progress, we were not altogether modern in the sense conveyed by Oscar Wilde’s character who observes that “To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect.” We cannot afford to be intellectually antiquated.

The Covid-19 pandemic reveals that people who have established a healthy lifestyle have in effect prepared for the unexpected. Although we cannot predict the next world-changing geo-political event or the specific threat of disease or the state of technology in 20 years, we can identify the characteristics of individuals who will compose the future workforce and will be personally positioned to weather future storms, whatever they may be.

Resilience enables us to adjust to a changing future. We must stay healthy, have a strong social support network, and be financially responsible.

A knowledgeable grasp of technology and the mastery of skills that technology requires will continue to be essential in the future. Continuous learning will need to proceed at a much higher pace than that of the past. People who develop their learning skills and apply them rigorously throughout their careers will have a much greater likelihood of maintaining their relevance and capacity for contributing to an organization’s success.

Given that human skills will be the key differentiating success factor for businesses, people who establish and continually grow those skills will be most valuable. Communication, organization, dialog, conflict-resolution, negotiation, problem-solving, opportunity-generation, compassion, and teamwork are all good examples of the types of human skills and characteristics that will grow in importance.

This pandemic caught us unexpectedly. We must come to terms with the fact that not everything can be anticipated. Our collective challenge as governments, businesses, and fellow humans involves a re-positioning, a re-thinking and a re-aligning of our mindset. We must make a collective choice to learn from the current situation.

This is an opportunity to question conventional approaches, to devise new business models, new personal skills, and new mindsets that look to sustainable growth that is beneficial to society and the environment. While an opportunity taken alone can increase risk, the same opportunity taken together brings forth possibilities and makes us stronger in the process.

I have great confidence in the ability of the UAE government, the businesses in the UAE, and the Emirati and expatriate population to weather this Covid-19 storm and to emerge stronger than ever. That is not simply optimistic thinking; it is based on my personal experience. Over the past 49 years, under wise leadership and with the support of its productive population, the UAE has become a thriving country. From humble beginnings, our leaders have made the UAE globally competitive in education, health, transportation, housing, governance, tourism, and economic and security infrastructure. Our leaders have developed a tolerant and diverse society that has learned to work together peacefully and effectively. The UAE is a trade and financial hub for the region and exerts influence internationally. The same leadership, wisdom, creativity, innovation, and determination that have served us so well in the past will continue to shape a successful future.

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