As we send out “Welcome back” emails, I am sure a lot of us are struck by the irony. There is a sense of déjà vu about the third wave and all the anxiety it brings. There is bound to be a lot of frustration, pandemic fatigue, and angst that a lot of us are feeling. Many of us may have managed to get away on vacations and finally seen close relatives who stay far away.
All of us will have wanted more – and different from 2022. On current evidence, that may not be.
Maybe this is as good as it gets. I am an optimist when I make that comment. Allow me to explain please.
In some respects, 2020 was the “first” year of the 21st century – in the way it typified how the rest of the century might pan out. Every prediction went out of the window by February 2020 as the virus took hold of Europe, India, US and other parts of the world. 2021 was more of the same – with multiple cycles of infection impacting “normal” life and further uncertainty.
So perhaps it is an unfair ask – to expect 2022 to be suddenly different from the past two years.
The actual turn of the millennium—2000 AD—seems a distant mirage. We are a far cry from the euphoria of the dot-com era startups and the second generation of the internet. Then we had a world that was rapidly interconnecting, globally integrated, technology empowered. It seemed like the good times would last forever – everywhere, especially here in India. The sky was the limit.
In 21 years, we have been brought back to earth. With pit stops along the way in the form of 9/11, the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, the surge of nationalist strongmen and a taut geopolitical fabric.
We now realise that our actions have consequences – that history resonates, Black Lives Matter, diversity cannot lead to differentiation, inequity has far-reaching impact, human-animal conflict causes strife and that we have no Planet B. More importantly, the implications of these—and other century defining concerns—will not be left to some distant “children of my children’s” generation. Human beings alive today—our parents, our children and us—will likely face these consequences in our lifetime.
We now realise that it is the uncertainty that we have all lived through in the past two years that will likely be the defining feature of this century.
The pandemic era will persist through 2022…and will potentially stretch out ahead of us for the rest of our lives, and will present multiple non-linear manifestations.
So how does a business leader look at the risk implications and reputation impact of such a transformed world in the first month of 2022?
21 months in, it still seems like Day One – but it doesn’t have to be Square One. Here are a few observations I would like to make, through conversations that I have had with many of you and others over the last few weeks that give me hope.
Man vs Virus
For one, we all realise now that it is potentially erroneous to start referring to the present day as “post -pandemic”. The Omicron variant is the first “post vaccine” variant, and there is some merit to observations that the huge number of mutations on it (as compared to the Delta variant) may be down to the virus learning to adapt to the vaccine and burrow into our lives permanently. This will likely be more like a seesaw than a game of hide-n-seek (which our lockdown transfixed governments might still believe). We have to be like the virus and challenge it across the world as one. This possibly means more global sharing of scientific insight, greater openness and collaborative solution mapping.
One may supplant the same argument for Man vs Carbon, Man vs Cyber, Man vs Terror, Man vs Globalisation – and most other global issues.
Coming together as one and defining a global response to our problems has to be the defining mantra for the biggest problems we face. Even as national governments become more statist, multinational corporations working in health, technology, financial services and energy should come together and build coalitions for the future.
Culture of learning
We initially thought Omicron was milder, with the ultimate message from South Africa being that households did not even need to quarantine from infected individuals. The vaccine was dismissed as being largely ineffective in preventing infections but very helpful in dampening the effect of the virus. In addition to Omicron being the first “post vaccine” variant, we might be remiss in discounting the huge amount of hard work that went into building our defence against this dark foe in the past 24 months.
We must acknowledge and accept that the foundation the medical and scientific community has laid in the past two years has helped us build better defences. Consolidating these learnings will help us ensure that we are not at square one even if it seems like Day One after all these months. Siphoning insights from the initial waves, mixed with the knowledge we have gained from genome mapping is no doubt helping us activate, respond and act faster.
Companies must get smarter about how they crisis manage and plan for business continuity by learning from their own past, sharing knowledge with peers and even competitors, and gleaning from the collective wisdom around them.
Global corporations have a responsibility in continuing to fund innovation and research to help us look through the fog and around the next bend. Investment into the future should not stop, but it should become more sustainable and cohesive.
Getting ready for the main act – the Climate Crisis
There was a joke doing the rounds in early 2020 that suggested that climate change get the PR company that was “managing COVID”. It was said in jest, I’m sure. But make no mistake – just because it has a lower profile, political and business leaders will disregard the climate impact on their constituents at their own peril. As Control Risks espoused in our year-end compendium of risks expected to face businesses in 2022, RiskMap 22, “While COVID-19 continues to pressure business operations globally, extreme weather events and natural disasters will take centre stage by disproportionally influencing politics, economic policy, urbanisation, infrastructure and capital investments – to say nothing of the compounding impacts on business continuity, global supply chains and duty of care considerations.”
The pandemic is simply the opening act. There is undoubtedly a much bigger risk emerging – and globally, businesses must re-orient their planning and execution strategies for a world with a changing climate and unpredictable weather patterns. The financial, reputational and accompanying life-safety repercussions are too large to ignore.
If 2020 and 2021 were to be the first two years that typified what the 21st century will likely be like, then 2022 should be used to build our roadmap for this long game.
Amit Narayan is partner & managing director South Asia at Control Risks, a global risk consulting firm. Amit manages a team that specialises in designing, developing and implementing operational risk mitigation strategies. Prior to Control Risks, Amit worked across Asia-Pacific for over a decade–at Vodafone in Singapore and The Walt Disney Company in Hong Kong–in strategy, marketing, communications and public policy roles.