The Covid-19 pandemic has changed everything, accelerating the realisation that the way we’ve lived for decades is unsustainable and unjust. The honourees on the Gen.T List 2020 are part of a community of young leaders carving out a better world post-pandemic
As you’ve probably noticed, things have changed. The advent of Covid-19 has shaken up just about every aspect of human life. It’s also accelerated a lot of changes that were already happening, from remote working and reduced travel to increased digitisation and growing inequality.
Some of those changes will be permanent. The Black Death of the Middle Ages, for example, so devastated European worker populations that it effectively ended the feudal system and kick-started the Renaissance. The challenge is working out which of them will constitute what global consultancy firm McKinsey has been referring to as “the next normal”. As Ruth Shapiro, chief executive of the Centre for Asian Philanthropy and Society (CAPS), puts it: “We’re in the midst of being hit by a truck, and it’s difficult to forecast what life will be like after.”
While the global economy is taking a gigantic hit, the pandemic has benefited some sectors: the medical industry, for example, along with just about the entire digital sector and the delivery companies that serve it. Says 2020 Gen.T honouree Ruby Chui, founder of consumer insight consultancy Brandnographer: “We’re definitely seeing a pattern of change in how people shop, eat and learn. This pandemic has urged us to overcome barriers and try something new. I see a lot of opportunity here. The major beneficiaries are likely to be tech companies.”
Fellow 2020 honouree Jaeson Ma, who among many other things is founder of talent and brand strategy firm East West Ventures and co-founder of record label and management company 88rising, says that he’s never ordered more online in his life, adding that one of his businesses, Tik Tok rival Triller, has seen a 300 percent rise in uploads since the pandemic hit. “I’ve been more productive during the pandemic than in the past 10 years of flying around and being stuck in traffic,” he adds.
The nature of the workplace has been transformed, as people have tried remote working and found that it’s doable. This will have a long-term impact, says Joe Ngai, managing partner of McKinsey Greater China. “Certain industries will realise: why do I need this big office? We’ll find physical space is a bit of a luxury.” It could also spell the end of hot desking and increase work flexibility, according to 2020 honouree Medhy Souidi, head of fintech and the StartupXchange accelerator for Singaporean bank DBS. “Bustling offices with multiple people using the same desk space [are] hotbeds for transmission.
Many businesses may need to stagger work shifts so that offices and factories don’t become too crowded.” All of this, of course, only applies to knowledge workers, pointing out the pandemic’s most unfortunate potential long-term impact. As Ngai puts it: “From a social inequality standpoint, it has put more people at a disadvantage; the impact has been disproportionate on people who rely on physical labour. I hate to say it, but there’s a little bit of the strong get stronger and the weak get weaker.”
Healthcare access is dominated by rich, privileged people, reflected in how swab tests are more accessible for them. I believe the same issue will happen with the [Covid-19] vaccine, once it is found.
Renzo Guinto, a 2020 honouree and founder of ‘think-and-do tank’ PH Labs, who has proposed an overhaul of the Philippine health system in response to the pandemic, says an increase in inequality is inevitable. “There is no doubt that Covid-19 will exacerbate existing inequalities, whether along socioeconomic, gender, racial and ethnic or other lines. Those who are worse off have less assets than others to be able to cope with Covid-19 and its myriad side effects. The poor are much faster to lose their jobs and their savings become easily depleted.”
A key facet of a successful recovery, he adds, will be ensuring that economically or otherwise excluded people are included, particularly as technology is set to play such a pivotal role. “The main challenge will be unequal access to digital innovations—the poor who have limited access to smartphones and wireless connectivity will be left behind.”
According to 2020 honouree Jasmine Puteri, formerly a senior campaigner at Greenpeace and now an advisor to Rainforest Foundation Norway, that challenge will also be reflected in healthcare, starting with ridding the world of the disease. “Healthcare access is dominated by rich, privileged people, reflected in how swab tests are more accessible for them,” she says. “I believe the same issue will happen with the [Covid-19] vaccine, once it is found.”
There has, however, been a pandemic-influenced uptick in interest in helping underprivileged members of society, says Shapiro, who’s also a member of the Tribe, a panel of industry experts who nominate and help vet candidates for the Gen.T List. “For the philanthropic and social sector, it’s been good and bad. The good is that we’re seeing an extraordinary outpouring of concern and help at all levels of society. The bad is the economic turbulence caused by this. “People have become more aware of the hazards of income inequality. This is a turning point, a fork in the road. Are we going to double down on this thing of just taking care of ourselves or are we going to realise that we’re all connected?”
Similarly, Guinto likens the disease to “a mirror and magnifying glass” that has exposed the fragilities of our world. “I think that the change that we need—that Covid-19 reiterates to us—is to redesign our society and our economy around the value of care. How can we rebuild a new economy that cares not for profit, but for people and planet?
“One silver lining of Covid-19 is that people are morehealth-conscious now than ever before. Never have we seen a surge of concern for human health with this rapid pace and at a planetary scale.”
Other honourees have also been doing their bit to improve public health and well-being, and help on the road towards post-pandemic recovery. Sharlini Eriza Putri of Indonesia’s Nusantics, for example, has retooled her company to make Covid-19 testing kits, Mark Mak of Hong Kong’s Roborn Technology has developed a body temperature checking robot and Lim Wai Mun of Singapore’s Doctor Anywhere has established a Covid-19 mobile advisory clinic and city-wide temperature checkpoints. Rajan Uttamchandani of the Philippines’ Esquire Financing, meanwhile, has been lending to small businesses during the pandemic and will work with the Philippine government to help get them back on their feet after it, while Peter Shearer Setiawan of Indonesia’s Wahyoo and Kimberly Yao of the Philippines’ CloudEats have been using their companies’ resources to make sure first responders and people who have lost their jobs are able to eat properly.
This is Earth crying out to humanity that we’ve tortured and toxified it for too long. This is a good moment for us to detach and reassess.
Perhaps the greatest of the changes we need to make, of course, is in our attitude to our environment. The enormous ructions caused by Covid-19, in fact, could be viewed as a sort of dress rehearsal for the potential effects of climate change.
“This is Earth crying out to humanity that we’ve tortured and toxified it for too long,” says Ma. “This is a good moment for us to detach and reassess.” “This pandemic and prior pandemics are linked to environmental destruction,” says Puteri. “Diseases that should be kept in the forest are being transmitted to people. When the permafrost reveals itself due to global warming, then old diseases will reappear.”
The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of food security, she says. “Independent, sovereign food provision will be a long-term key to surviving this and upcoming pandemics. This event has taught us that we cannot depend on global trade solely.”
Potentially most positively of all, the need for global co-operation highlighted by the pandemic might bode well when it comes to fighting climate change. As Souidi puts it: “The fast response to the pandemic shows that it is possible for governments to be united to respond to climate change.
“Covid-19 has connected people from all over the world regardless of their race and cultural background. The pandemic has put us in the same situation—we tend to care more about others’ well-being.”
Read how Gen.T honourees are contributing to the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.