How the Covid-19 crisis changes our world

Publish Date

21 MAR 2020


Kai Beckmann


The coronavirus crisis has hit us hard. The surprise it has caused is actually itself surprising. After all, there were plenty of reports and images of Covid-19 in China – and despite this, we in Europe were not sufficiently prepared.

The coronavirus crisis has hit us hard. The surprise it has caused is actually itself surprising. After all, there were plenty of reports and images of Covid-19 in China – and despite this, we in Europe were not sufficiently prepared. Face masks donated to China with all due haste ultimately came back to Italy as a gift from the People's Republic.

  • Europe: Our Europe, the Europe of the single market, the Europe without national borders, has suddenly fallen to shambles. Border controls and border closings within the union; export bans on medical supplies even to fellow EU states; a glaring patchwork of national, regional and local decision-making chaos – within the last few weeks, things we never could have imagined have become a reality. The resulting heap of ruins is being cleared up only in very small steps and hesitantly. 
    Yet, despite all this, there is no alternative to a unified Europe. As the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining. From my perspective, the failure of European institutions and regulations can only pave the way to a stronger Europe. After all, coronavirus is making it painfully clear that country-level solutions do not work in a globalized world. Not when it comes to policymaking, or economics, or regulations, and most certainly not for a pandemic. This realization will not be accepted within political circles in the immediate aftermath of Covid-19, nor will that acceptance be automatic. It will take time, and we must be proactive in driving the concept. A strong Europe cannot prevent epidemics like the coronavirus; we are sharing the fate of this experience with major countries such as China and the United States. In the health industry, however, we must also take a more European mindset, reduce our dependencies and ensure uninterrupted supply chains, thereby offering all EU citizens a greater sense of security. 
  • Economy: In one fell swoop, the Covid-19 crisis has catapulted millions of people in Europe into a new working environment. The buzzword right now is “home office”, a term being discussed at many conferences, scrutinized from a labor law perspective, and negotiated between trade unions and employers. Overnight, home office has become a universal reality, not only for companies, but for civil servants as well. And it's working amazingly well, which comes as no surprise to us at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany – after all, we have been offering home office for over seven years (see also “Cooperation in times of Covid-19”). More than a mere technical solution, our remote working approach also involves flexible work arrangements in terms of schedule and location, along with a suitable program of training opportunities.  But many other employers now find themselves in uncharted territory. You don’t have to be a psychic to see that within mere days, coronavirus has immersed European society in the reality of the future world of work and Industry 4.0. In truth, I would have preferred for this to have happened for reasons other than Covid-19, but there's no turning back now. Another takeaway from all this? Companies that have digitalized heavily have a real advantage in times of crisis. They can react better and faster. Companies in the chemical industry are particularly well positioned in this regard. Many years of productive social partnership with the labor unions, extensive pilot projects, early adoption of digitalized approaches, and, last but not least, investments in digital infrastructure have borne fruit. Going forward, digitalization will be viewed more than ever as an advantage. A pandemic in the real world has finally enabled the breakthrough of the digitalized world of work. Although we sincerely hope that progress and digitalization continue to advance even without such crises and pandemics, this page of creative destruction has been added to the economics history books by the virus. Schumpeter would be astonished. 
  • Togetherness: Covid-19 has changed and will continue to change more than just Europe and the world of work; it is also putting interpersonal relations and social coexistence to a serious test. Isolation, quarantines, closed borders, travel bans, no handshakes or hugs – these are all altering our attitude towards other people. Once we stop seeing others as friends, neighbors or helpers and start viewing them as potential disease vectors and dangers, then something happens to us. The sad culmination of this debate was the call for people to practice “social distancing”. What a dangerous and sociopolitically toxic misconception. It is not really hard to stay two meters away from other people. In the current situation, this physical distance is not only sensible, but also essential to many people's survival. But we cannot allow “social distance” to develop. I am very happy that this crisis is resulting in many fine initiatives. Families are becoming closer; people are reaching out to fellow neighbors from vulnerable populations and going shopping for them. Despite individual separation and isolation, communities are thus also growing more tightly knit and there’s a lot of willingness to help. This trend is partially attributable to people working from home because they are spending more time in their immediate area. Linguistically speaking, the term “social distancing” is, by contrast, simply dangerous nonsense. Placing shopping bags in front of the door for safety's sake is an expression of proximity. Although calling up the lady across the street by phone involves physical distance, it also helps bring both parties closer together while serving as a safe form of contact. Despite all the suffering and hardship caused by the coronavirus, I am happy to see greater social cohesion among people, who are helping each other more than ever. Going forward, this will certainly impact us professionally and personally, acting as a positive influence long after the crisis has passed. 

The health risks from Covid-19 are not to be ignored; the economic and financial impacts will keep us occupied for a long time to come, and the social consequences will continue to be felt for a while. But as always, when considered through the lens of distance and time, people tend to come out of crises stronger rather than weaker. This applies to individuals as well as to entire communities. My prediction today? We will make Europe strong, even if it takes us a little while. We will implement digitalization and new working models faster than ever, thereby building a lasting foundation to bolster our economic power. From this traumatic experience, we will learn how to build a stronger community, learn how to better distinguish between what matters and what doesn’t.

A world without a coronavirus pandemic would have doubtlessly been preferable. However, this virus is now our reality, and our future depends on how we play the hand we’ve been dealt! 

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