Issue 122 | Jul-Sep 2020

Post-COVID-19, how will we be Better?

Professor Danny Quah looks at the hard truths that confront us in a world changed by the pandemic, and how we need to alter the way we think, work and live to navigate these new realities.


Professor Danny Quah is Dean and Li Ka Shing Professor in Economics at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS.

During the Great Plague of London of 1665, Cambridge University temporarily sent everyone home as a social-distancing measure. One of the university’s students, a certain Isaac Newton, took the “Work from Home” ethic quite literally. During the lockdown, sitting in his family’s Lincolnshire house, the 23-year-old Newton invented calculus and discovered the laws of optics and light, as well as those of universal gravitation. None of these research advances had anything to do with the bubonic plague then ravaging England, which eventually killed a quarter of London’s population. However, when Cambridge re-opened in 1667, the world had come to understand itself better and would soon be primed for a scientific and industrial revolution unprecedented in scale and scope.

In 2020, how should the world change post-COVID-19? Will we all just go back to business as usual? What lessons do we need to learn from this pandemic? After all, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. What makes this episode so different from, say, the 2008 Global Financial Crisis or the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, that
it might be realistic to expect change in all the world as a result of what we’re now going through?

Upfront And Personal

The key feature of the COVID-19 outbreak is how it engages individuals in global society at a real, personal level. In this pandemic, ordinary people see palpable risk exposure for each of themselves: they know they will die or become gravely ill, unless they behave in a certain way. Each individual is empowered to take actions that can forestall their personal sickness and mortality. People can, of course, choose to act otherwise, but retribution — whether it be a legal sanction, debilitating illness, or death from disease — is both swift and likely. With COVID-19, individual mechanisms of cause-and-effect are made transparent
and immediate. Sure, it is the social behaviour of millions of ordinary people that will determine how the pandemic unfolds, but everybody counts.

For Singapore, Hong Kong, and other parts of East Asia, the 2003 SARS outbreak shared these features:
in these places, political and social systems changed as a result. But for the rest of the world, the SARS pandemic ended too quickly. Thus, its policy lessons were muted and change was not deep. Living through a pandemic changes people and political systems.

Other kinds of crises are different. Certainly, the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) has had substantial impact on individuals. But individual empowerment and responsibility in a financial crisis have levels that
are diminished or delayed in time. In terms of responsibility, individuals might see a link from a reckless investment decision years ago. But the causal mechanism is shrouded in financial collateralisation, other obscure innovations or a misalignment of expectations. More importantly, a financial crisis is not the fault of an individual but that of something bigger: big banks, big corporations, big institutions. Reform coming out of a global financial crisis is needed but individuals hand that responsibility over to someone else and, often, without genuine change taking place. Big banks remained, post-2008 GFC, and many institutions continued to engage in behaviour not profoundly different from before. Asking for the system to change without deep individual engagement does not produce the same kind of real reform that a pandemic engenders.

With COVID-19, too, there will be institutional accounting. But the personal considerations matter for a pandemic in ways that other crises don’t press. Coming out of COVID-19, terms like ‘social awareness’ and ‘solidarity’ will no longer just be intellectual or political ideas, but will be things that ordinary people can see and feel vitally. Abstract tradeoffs such as privacy and individual rights-versus-authoritarian control will no longer be just what academics and ideologues debate. Instead, they will become concrete choices that people, post-COVID-19, routinely face in trading off increased bio-surveillance in return for elevated health security. Based on observing Singapore’s coronavirus responses, my guess is economic life — among many other things — will need to change. 
post-3Globally, the job loss due to COVID-19 is estimated to be over 200 million, with 40% of the global workforce employed in sectors that face high risk of displacement and having limited access to health services and social protection.

Source: International Labour Organization (2020), ILO Monitor 2nd edition: COVID-19 and the World of Work.

Economic Life — The Tradeoffs

On economics then, here are my conjectures for the world post-COVID-19. Post-COVID-19, societies
will realise why it is important to focus on the really big tradeoffs in life, and not sweat the small stuff. In Singapore, there has long been a narrative on how simply getting richer should no longer be the goal of
that population that is already middle-class. Here is the opportunity to act on that.

Think of economic life as a high-performance car, navigating a speed trial. There are two ways to do this. One is, you fine-tune every part of the car to within a nanometer of optimality. You cut excess baggage and trim all edges to perfection. You have a gleaming machine of global optimality that speeds along the smooth runway. The high-tech pieces receive the greatest attention, the large, heavy pieces less so: inequality in care is high, because that’s how you make the parts fit together. The car’s handling is wondrous, light as a bird. However, if that car hits a bump in the road that shouldn’t be there, the whole thing falls apart; the pieces that have been fine-tuned in expectation of only smooth running suddenly flounder, and the entire machine grinds to a halt.

Alternatively, you put together a heavier, sturdier vehicle, not as fast as the other car. This one takes bumps in its stride — because it has not been so optimised for maximum speed on a perfectly smooth track — but then again it’s not as quick when the runway is without blemish. Every part of the car matters — you provide more equal care across components — because it is the weakest link that needs to be strong. The first car wins every time when everything runs as it should, because it is a machine of global optimality. Every component in the car knows its place and gets appropriately rewarded. The second car, however, will not blow up when things don’t go so well. This car is heavily laden down with all kinds of back-up systems that, most of the time, apparently do nothing but just make the system less efficient. This second car’s leading, high-tech parts don’t always get the greatest attention, because it’s the old-school, greasy stuff that will blow up if the road gets bumpy, and so those get better care too.

Think back now to the economy as if it were one of these cars. An economic strategy is not short-term efficient and profit-maximising if it provides spare, long-run, excess capacity — in hospital beds and emergency wards, in food supply lines, agricultural production, or Internet connections and storage capacity. The rich are not going to become richer through installing spare back-up systems that aren’t optimised to whisker-thin margins for dealing with the normal ebb and flow of business. But if society is no longer about obsessively and incessantly raising material living standards, then it can certainly tolerate spare and idle capacity with built-in redundancies.

Healthcare and health security systems have long been known to be rife with problems of adverse selection and incomplete information, and cannot be driven to maximum economic efficiency. Building a health system that is robust with spare capacity is expensive, but not conceptually hard. It’s when that system seeks to optimise every single feature that adverse selection and other informational challenges become paramount. Societies should be satisfied with developing good health systems that, in the short-term, most of the time, seem idle with lots of spare capacity, and aren’t being run at optimal performance, but are actually gleaming, long-run models of complete responsiveness for those urgent crises that periodically but randomly hit society.

Extreme optimisation is how the well-off continue to increase wealth. But extreme optimisation comes by concentrating risk down to razor-thin shells. So, instead, post-COVID-19, make it a social imperative to emphasise redundancy and robustness in production systems. Ameliorate “economics of superstars” inequalities by eschewing global efficiency in favour of local resilience. This flattens income distribution at the same time that it builds long-run social robustness. This tradeoff between global efficiency and local robustness is everywhere, once you start looking.

In protecting that new way of work and life, societies might have to build an entire second mirroring Internet to run parallel and be back-up to the first. But that is still a lot cheaper and less wasteful than building an entire second mass transit system to operate alongside the first.

post-4A Global Burden of Disease Study

The Lancet (2017) estimates that only half of all countries have the requisite health workforce required to deliver quality healthcare services. For instance, the US requires 1 million nurses and Japan 2.5 million by 2020 and 2025 respectively, and India faces a shortage of over 3.9 million doctors and nurses. Without timely action, a shortfall of 18 million workers is predicted by 2030.

The Weightless Economy

Across the world, cities and other urban agglomerations are dense with humanity and value creation. No other humanity-constructed economic scaffolding aside from cities light up the night sky when you view our planet from outer space. The greater the concentration, the higher the population and economic densities, and thus the higher the efficiency in producing material wealth. That higher efficiency from concentration makes for inequality across space, regions and geographies. But that higher concentration also makes
for speed in transmitting viral infection. Post-COVID-19, social and economic systems will learn not to be maximally efficient in producing material wealth through urban concentration, when doing so only makes your society ever more susceptible to epidemic transmission.

If efficiency through concentration is no longer what economies seek, commercial real estate will lose its historical sparkle. The need for mass transport systems will wither. Decades ago, when the Internet was
first being used for commercial purposes, writers noted that the so-called ‘weightless economy’ entailed a shift in economic activity away from moving physical molecules to flipping 0–1 bits of logic. Telecommuting during COVID-19 over the Internet infrastructure has driven home to workers and businesses how such a weightless economy is not just feasible but actually life-saving. In protecting that new way of work and life, societies might have to build an entire second mirroring Internet to run parallel and be back-up to the first. But that is still a lot cheaper and less wasteful than building an entire second mass transit system to operate alongside the first.

Hedging Anchors

Maximal global efficiency in production calls for cross-country specialisation. Post-COVID-19 societies need to balance global efficiency with local resilience. As a proposition in logic alone, not every nation can be the best in the world at producing medication, personal protective equipment, rice and instant noodles, eggs or toilet rolls. A lesson from COVID-19 is that societies will want to have some production capacity in all these. But nations need not refer to these industries as ‘strategic’ — suggesting something geopolitically sinister — but instead as ‘hedging anchors’. Every nation should foster their own hedging anchors: it is okay to tolerate a bit of global inefficiency if doing so raises local resilience. A cross-nation network of semi-independent hedging anchors is no longer a supply chain and is not globally-efficient but will make the entire world more resilient.

In a world of spillovers, individual rights are immediately social. COVID-19 has shown how our economic life is rife with externalities, where we will ourselves rise only by lifting others around us.

The State and Market Shortcomings

Finally, COVID-19 has made clear how economic externalities are more widespread than previously thought. The key implication from this is that public policy needs to look out for and repair market shortcomings. Two cases illustrate this. First, in a world of externalities, you help yourself by helping others, because spillovers are rife. In Singapore, many foreign workers live in crowded dormitories because these workers are poor. COVID-19 cases in these clusters have accounted for over 70% of all new cases in the past weeks. A national healthcare system is strained the same way from an additional patient — whether rich patriarch or poor construction worker — taking up a hospital bed and receiving intensive care on a ventilator. Isolating infections in vulnerable concentrated groups would have gone a long way to helping
the entire nation in its COVID-19 battle. We help ourselves by helping others through alleviating crowded unhealthy accommodations and uplifting the vulnerable. For COVID-19, those vulnerable can be rich seniors living in crowded nursing homes; vacationers holidaying on a cruise ship; detainees cramped together in prisons; poor families densely huddled in shanty-towns, slums and decrepit public housing;
or, in Singapore’s case, foreign workers jam-packed in dormitories.

Second, decreasing returns in vaccine production mean that profit-seeking pharmaceutical companies hardly ever find it worth their while to engage sufficiently in vaccine-making, with or without them acquiring monopoly over intellectual property rights. Producing vaccines entails large fixed costs; intensive testing
on human subjects typically takes up to 18 months. While that is happening, company stockholders are wondering why no returns are manifest from all the science and research. So in normal business life, vaccine discovery and production are not high-priority items. And although a pandemic means vaccine demand will be widespread and high, the outbreak’s sudden vanishing also means profit opportunities can quickly and unexpectedly disappear. Private, profit-driven companies stay away from such markets. Instead, for society to be safe, government stockpiles and the public production of vaccines will almost always be needed. The state legitimately provides science and research and development, when externalities mean the private sector will never do so sufficiently.

The Bottom Line

What will the post-COVID-19 world look like? I have focused on just economic life in this article, but even just here there are clear fault-lines that need repair. I have told a story about a fast car and a sturdy car: you can guide your economy to become the speedy, finely-tuned machine that on a clear road comes in first every time; but if it hits a bump, it’s dead in its tracks. Or, you can ask that your economy be sturdier, able to take unexpected knocks, and doesn’t have to top league tables in normal times — but always crosses the finish line.

The critical tradeoff is between driving an economic system to maximal efficiency, on the one hand, and on the other, building in redundancies and resilience through spare back-up capacity. Government intervention is needed to repair the problems created by externalities in health systems. Post-COVID-19, the new focus will more sharply concentrate on individual well-being and individual responsibility: old political dogmas about individual rights on one hand, and state surveillance and control on the other, will need to be re-calibrated. In a world of spillovers, individual rights are immediately social. COVID-19 has shown how
our economic life is rife with externalities, where we will ourselves rise only by lifting others around us. 
This article was originally published at on 23 April 2020. (An edited version was published as Quah, D. 2020. “Could it be time to swop a fast car for slower, sturdier one?”, The Straits Times (23 April 2020))
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