OpEd: a disrupted future

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The current state of the world is a bleak but let’s be honest, unsurprising one. We have a disease to which nobody has any natural immunity; it is easily transmitted and highly infectious but not lethal enough to break the chain of transmission by itself (by killing off its hosts, like say Ebola or Marburg – both of which tend not to spread because there are no carriers left). In the past, the chain was broken by community isolation; travel was difficult or expensive and few went – certainly not if you were sick. Now, it seems everybody is a tourist – to the point that the lack of tourism probably has a bigger economic impact on most countries than domestic market shutdowns. Like most people around the world, I’m stuck at home on lockdown at least until the end of this month; tomorrow our (unelected*) government decides if we continue for longer or not. Over the past two weeks, I’ve had a lot of thinking time as there hasn’t been a whole lot to do between not being able to go out to photograph and the supply chain for the watch industry shutting down and everything effectively being on hold. Let’s examine a few scenarios and plan accordingly…

*Three weeks before the start of the lockdown, the Malaysian government changed. It’s become clear of late that they really don’t know what they’re doing – conflicting directives, conflicting and inconsistent enforcement, and ultimately, paying the price of years of poor education having to manage a population that doesn’t understand why they need to be isolated or that the rules apply equally – and everybody is able to be infected, whether you know so-and-so or not.

1: The whole thing blows over in 3-6 months and the world goes back to the way it was last year.
This is highly unlikely. Due to the way disease mechanics work, unless we magically have a cure or vaccine and can produce, distribute and inoculate sufficient people within the next few months, the infection will continue. It remains unclear why some infected people die and some people are asymptomatic – and unless you ban contact permanently, there is no way to stop transmission. On top of that, the immediate economic impacts have already been felt: layoffs, small business closures, and commensurate changes in spending by the affected population. What hasn’t yet been felt is the disruption in the supply chain caused by the extinction of these smaller businesses: those holes may or may not be critical (e.g. suppliers for one critical component). On top of that, it isn’t going to be easy to re-provision capacity for industries that have gone into hibernation like airlines or hotels.

2: The world continues on extended lockdown for several more months
No, this isn’t going to change the total number of infected people, but it will spread out the load so the health systems can cope – and hopefully give us sufficient time to find said vaccine and prevent the tail end of the curve from getting infected. This is more likely, but in the meantime more businesses will have collapsed, more people will be unemployed, and those already living pay check to pay check are going to be in serious trouble. Governments may step in with QE or allowing access to retirement fund savings (what’s happening in Malaysia, but a bad move because an extended period of this is simply going to kick a different problem can further down the road) – but markets and currencies are going to take a beating all around. Too much QE will lead to hyperinflation. Ironically people need to spend more to keep things ticking over – this is difficult if you can’t leave your home, but online shopping will have its way with human nature. Fulfilment may be a different thing entirely – if logistics stop, we’re all screwed. Depending on the length of the lockdown, the economy may take anywhere between 12 months to 5 years to recover – shutting down is fast, but scaling back up again isn’t.

3: Somewhere in between: some restrictions lifted, but some remain (like international travel bans)
I suspect this is both the most likely and worst of all scenarios: not only do not have the disease control benefits of lockdown but the associated restrictions remain, but it won’t actually help the economy much because each country is effectively going to be limited to domestic consumption – which is already going to be low due to increased unemployment from the previous period. Export economies might do okay, but those heavily dependent on tourism, commodities or import are going to be really screwed (again, Malaysia). Bigger businesses are going to start feeling the pain now, too: not only is international business going to be difficult, but continuing to carry the same payroll costs with significantly reduced load is going to tax the cash reserves of even the most prudent companies. At this point we’re going to start seeing big relative shifts in currencies – but perhaps not feeling the effects that much due to limitations of access to local markets only. Arbitrage opportunities may increase.

So what does all this mean for photographers and the photography market? Well, for starters, there are no subject except whatever you might have immediately to hand – time to get creative with lighting, brush up on your compositional skills and theory, or post processing (shameless plug: I have plenty of videos for that, here). Pros are going to feel the pinch and a lot will go out of business – you can’t work if you can’t go to your client, and we certainly aren’t an ‘essential’ service. I personally feel the conflict between the socially responsible need to stay in and the photographer’s need to document everything (or nothing, as the case may be) – but here I will side with social responsibility in the hopes that doing my part will help the world go back to normal faster. The camera companies were already in trouble for so many reasons before, but they’re going to be in even more trouble now; we already see it in the form of heavy discounting even of relatively new models on the e-commerce outlets that are still operating. Don’t be surprised if one or two go under entirely. It’s anybody’s guess as to what will happen once travel reopens and tourism is allowed again; movement is likely to be cautious and restricted but needs to happen to restart economies.

On the plus side, I suppose it’s an opportunity for us to revaluate what actually matters and spend time with the people closest to us. It’s also an opportunity for the world to have a common sense reset – do we really need to all be working from an office at the same time to get things done? Probably not. There has been less disruption to core services than expected even though their staff are working from home. The air seems to be better and there’s no traffic at all. Suddenly we have time to get adequate sleep, and people are a lot more aware of personal hygiene. A lot of the international bickering and posturing has been put on hold as countries sort out their own internal problems. Perhaps there is a silver lining after all. Stay safe and be sensible, everybody. MT

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Comments

  1. jason gold says:

    My lady read your article as well and said the positive things i have said and noted same as You, Ming!
    I live in Canada, am retired as is my partner. We both on pension, with many subsidies, rent allowances,
    return of some taxes on purchases and biggest of all “Health Care”.
    The Federal govt. making payments to all out of work, even those without “Unemployment Insurance”.
    Pat-time employees, small business owners, etc.
    Set for more months than lockdown..so maybe many more weeks or months..
    Food, medicine and essentials arriving in supermarkets, small stores that supply same..
    Other stores all closed incl restaurants and bars..Take out, food to go, is allowed.
    The beautiful air and light, the air clean, no noise, no pollution, and good sleep..
    Thanks Ming, we shall endure, Oh! i am 76, but youthful..
    Stay Well and best to you and family, and all here..

    • Looking on the bright side…it is a sort of paid holiday if you don’t have to worry about income, essentials or business continuity. I would try to enjoy it…stay healthy! 🙂

  2. The experience may vary wildly depending on where you live, and obviously we haven’t seen all acts of this tragedy yet. However, I’m not quite so pessimistic about the global outcome as you and many other readers seem to be. So, to try and add some cheerful thoughts to the mix:

    – This won’t be the end of globalisation and the vast wealth it generates. The system will become more resilient as diversification takes place across supply chains. Of course there is an adjustment cost, just as there was in removing a lot of the leverage from financial systems after the previous crisis. However, what matters most is that people keep doing useful things. Wealth could also be more evenly distributed across the globe when the recovery is complete.

    – At least some useless activity is going to be removed, such as mandatory commuting and parts of business travel. Possibly also services that people don’t really need but have been made to believe so. The useful ones will recover quickly on global/national level, though individual businesses may suffer greatly from stupid policies/banks/property owners.

    – All nations will become much more resilient against future pandemics. The level of preparedness will obviously differ between countries, but a 10x multiplier is meaningful regardless of the starting point.

    – Suddenly it has become a good thing that there’s a very R&D-capable industry that profits hugely from 70+ age group and has all the incentives to keep those people alive. The attack that pharmaceuticals are mounting on this virus is way beyond what university research could accomplish alone. And no, it’s not because finding a cure would be very profitable (it isn’t).

    – We’ll see some interesting behaviour changes in both everyday life and business. Common cold will become much less common with improved hygiene, and the growth of remote/digital services will be permanent as people get used to them.

    – Maybe some of those whose health or economy isn’t greatly affected will find a new meaning in life by slowing down and thinking about what’s happening around them…

    • “– At least some useless activity is going to be removed, such as mandatory commuting and parts of business travel. Possibly also services that people don’t really need but have been made to believe so. “

      This is probably the best thing that can come out of it. In most of Asia there is far too much unnecessary commuting for jobs that don’t require it, leading to traffic, crowding, property spikes etc…

      “– Maybe some of those whose health or economy isn’t greatly affected will find a new meaning in life by slowing down and thinking about what’s happening around them…”

      This is also a good thing – if it sticks. Right now locally we’re seeing more selfishness than anything in the form of “the rules don’t apply to me so I’ll go out anyway”…I will say that it’s revealing some nasty things about human nature, too. 😦

  3. Kathleen O’Meara’s poem, ‘And People Stayed Home,’ written in 1869.

    And people stayed home
    and read books and listened
    and rested and exercised
    and made art and played
    and learned new ways of being
    and stopped
    and listened deeper
    someone meditated
    someone prayed
    someone danced
    someone met their shadow
    and people began to think differently
    and people healed
    and in the absence of people who lived in ignorant ways,
    dangerous, meaningless and heartless,
    even the earth began to heal
    and when the danger ended
    and people found each other
    grieved for the dead people
    and they made new choices
    and dreamed of new visions
    and created new ways of life
    and healed the earth completely
    just as they were healed themselves.

  4. Kristian Wannebo says:

    > “I’m also increasingly unsure that the problem is COVID so much as the government responses to COVID.”
    !!
    I believe thats true in many countries, democracies or not.

    • But at least you had a choice.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        ?? , 🙂
        Between what, any elected governement would be pretty unpredictable in a situation like this – probably even more so than a governement that has been in power a longish time.

        At least in Sweden ministers have no direct power over public authorities, the governement as a whole can, of course, intervene if necessary.

        • Oh, it’s the opposite here: a bunch of unelected and unqualified people have absolute power over everything including military and healthcare deployment…

          • Kristian Wannebo says:

            Oh, worse than I feared.

            Well, after the flood, at the ebb, we can compare the results – although it may take some hard work to separate the effects of policies from those of different social behaviors – and we’ll probably be in for some surprises.

            Let’s hope – hmm – they’ll be remembered till the next pandemic.

          • How do unelected people have power Ming? Was the government not changed by election?

  5. A thoughtful set of observations and conclusions as always Ming, and I value the further insights in the comments in reply.

    While it is true that the pandemic is not distributed evenly, and each country’s capacity to respond is not the same, nonetheless, this crisis is unusual in that each country is being challenged by the same common issue at the same time, and we will see the quality of the responses. This crisis reveals much about culture. Of course it is a more complex mix than that – the challenge is also to systems of commerce and industry, to organisations of various kinds, and to various ways of life. It is a less existential threat than climate change, but a more imaginable one for a greater portion of humanity. We are responding less passively. We are going to learn a great deal about ourselves in the coming months – it has been so revealing already.

    • “While it is true that the pandemic is not distributed evenly, and each country’s capacity to respond is not the same, nonetheless, this crisis is unusual in that each country is being challenged by the same common issue at the same time, and we will see the quality of the responses.”

      Very true. And so far, no real surprises: the socialist countries practice mass dictatorial responses which the population goes along with; the open ones are in a mess because nobody was prepared since it to do so would have affected the bottom line too much. I can’t honestly say that there have been any positive surprises about the way people in general react: selfishness and stupidity up and down the chain has been the order of the day, especially in Malaysia (hard to see elsewhere). We have an ignorant population who think the rules don’t apply to them and it’s okay if they do it ‘just this once’; we have an unelected government that’s using this as an excuse to restart handouts from a treasury that has no money to shore up the mass voting population for the next election, but leaves businesses stuck with the bill (and if you declare bankruptcy, you’re effectively unemployable here). I have a close friend whose company provides critical maintenance for power generation hardware – he’s not permitted to operate because it’s not a ‘critical service’, yet the same desperate power companies owned by government cronies refuse to intervene to get permits. The solution of course? Grease, of the non-mechanical kind…sigh.

      The much bigger consequence that hasn’t yet been revealed is the knock on effect of the global interdependency chain (suppliers, financiers, consumers) being disrupted – and I fear we’re going to see yet more selfish asymmetry here…

  6. I find the observations in the blog post reasonable as far as they go. I promise not to take it too much further.

    I am not authorized to speak on behalf my employer, nor would I want to.

    I come at this as someone who works in an academic group that spans epidemiology, health policy and human rights. I’m currently in the US, though I did live and work for two years in KL back in 1998-99 and S.E. Asia for 17 years. Since this is a photography blog I’ll add that I bought a Leica M6 in a shop in KLCC. I wish I still had that camera.

    How the edges (movement in and out) between groups are controlled is only part of the overall overall picture. The performance of public institutions (healthcare being only one of them) within each group is critical. These groups are not always defined by geographic or political boundaries. The impact of movement across edges of groups with functioning public institutions is very different than movement in and out of groups with one or more dysfunctional systems. Building enormous temporary hospitals in empty lots is seen as competence by some and evidence of failure by others. What has been lost is real measures of how well those hospitals functioned. What is functional has become a matter of opinion. That’s dangerous.

    It’s not hard to model how this will play out. It’s been done for years. Currently those predictions are being downplayed, spun or outright ignored. It’s not the first time. Competent organizations, the W.H.O. for example, are operating on the sidelines of policy and the public discourse. I recently requested data on the number of identified covid19 cases in long term care facilities (nursing homes) from the Department of Health and Human Services. My request was denied as a matter of national security. That’s crazy. That’s dangerous.

    Overwhelming the healthcare system? Flattening the curve to prevent that? Only matters if the healthcare system is functional for you to begin with. Again, that has become a matter of perspective. It is for some and not for others. That’s dangerous.

    How many people will be infected or die of covid19? Not the question to ask. How many people will die, who could otherwise have reasonable access to public institutions, over the next (pick some number greater than 1) years because they lost that access is a better question. The killer spreading is not covid19 but the systematic apportionment of access to education, stable employment and healthcare. Covid19 is an accelerant to that apportionment. To see choices between health (lockdown) and economic impact (limited or no lockdown) is a false dichotomy. Those who are in an economically advantaged group will continue to enjoy unfettered access to necessary services and have better outcomes regardless of the policy enacted. Those who are in an economically advantaged group may see their wealth reduced. They will not be destitute. Any thought that covid19 is the great equalizer is laughably ignorant.

    • I agree with everything you’ve said here. In particular:

      “Overwhelming the healthcare system? Flattening the curve to prevent that? Only matters if the healthcare system is functional for you to begin with. Again, that has become a matter of perspective. It is for some and not for others. That’s dangerous.”
      Flattening doesn’t change the totals. It might spread them out so the healthcare system can better handle it, but then we’re back to who can pay.

      “How many people will be infected or die of covid19? Not the question to ask. How many people will die, who could otherwise have reasonable access to public institutions, over the next (pick some number greater than 1) years because they lost that access is a better question. The killer spreading is not covid19 but the systematic apportionment of access to education, stable employment and healthcare. Covid19 is an accelerant to that apportionment. To see choices between health (lockdown) and economic impact (limited or no lockdown) is a false dichotomy. Those who are in an economically advantaged group will continue to enjoy unfettered access to necessary services and have better outcomes regardless of the policy enacted. Those who are in an economically advantaged group may see their wealth reduced. They will not be destitute. Any thought that covid19 is the great equalizer is laughably ignorant.”
      It infects equally but outcomes are not equal – that’s always been the case with anything health related. Yet we still have more poor people than rich ones even though the latter have better odds of survival. It may be a bit different in some countries though: the US shifted recently to community-assessed healthcare outcome (read: averaged, some people are going to die). Malaysia has universal healthcare and only government hospitals are permitted to treat COVID patients, so private isn’t even an option. Those are the two extremes, which a third being countries with no healthcare at all. Is any one of these right? Probably not. But deciding who gets to live or die, on any basis or metric – is not, either…yet when nature does just that, we try to intervene and wring our collective hands – especially when there’s an agenda to serve or money to be made.

  7. Do you think when it all settles down that governments, employers and society at large for that matter may realise that citizens and their welfare are actually more important than they realised and start to help low income and the underprivileged more than in the past or will they quickly get back to their self serving capitalist thinking?

    • Our government did and does just that: they hand out money to the lower income groups to make them vote for them at election time. They’re even doing it again now; all stimulus packages related to COVID are aimed at the lower income segment or big companies and royally shaft the SMEs. The rest of the country is left to pay for it, either through cronyism, taxes or permits. And guess what: it isn’t better for anybody. People get handouts, we get loans to pay for wages we are legally required to continue even though there is no revenue. These loans of course have a fixed term and normal interest…and who’s going to employ these people once the SMEs go under?

  8. K.Weber-Grellet says:

    Hello Ming!
    I believe, that what is happening now, is not extraordinary. It is actually only the logical consequence of an ongoing development. With the luck given to us , we have unfortunately built up an environment that is far too sensitive to the influence of external circumstances.
    Now we are directly affected and only underthese circumstances we ready are to resign – usually only under duress -. This is shameful, but unfortunately always recurring reality.
    What follows from this:
    1. Nothing will change in general.
    2. You (“we”) yourself could change your behavior if you want to (many people in our world do inot have this freedom of choice at all). But do you want to iichange it at all? –
    Stay healthy!

    • I’m inclined to agree with you.

      What’s the freedom of choice though: to go out and get infected? To accept the curtailment of freedoms in the hope that it might actually work? To accept the dictat of our unelected government and their ‘aid’ policies designed to ensure mass voter favour, but SME bankruptcy? Or…to walk away? Except we can’t, since there’s no way to leave, nowhere to go that will take us.

  9. Well stated summary and possible scenarios. The global economy is a bit like a shark in that it needs to keep moving forward or it begins to die. We created a (mostly) very efficient system under the current economic model with global supply chains and just in time delivery systems. But, it is a system that has almost no buffers or reserve capacity for sudden surges. And the impact to those at the bottom of the chain have been positively devastating. Gig workers and “contractors” have no support systems other than what they have managed to create, but most of those people live paycheck to paycheck. They get by so long as the shark keeps moving forward. I do wonder if folks will give some serious consideration to putting some checks and relief valves on whatever economy emerges from this pandemic. I would like to believe that we may have learned a lesson or two, but I am also seeing folks who have routinely ignored the advice of trained professionals now start to dig deeper into their denial and/or alternate realty. I have seen a lot of empathy over the past few months as this has progressed, but I have also seen a lot of behavior that is concerning. Let’s hope our better angels prevail as we continue to deal with COVID-19 and try to get the planet on a more sound track going forward.

    –Ken

    • The thread through time into the now and tomorrow, without change in the nature of its phenomenal testing, sadest failure and conquering triumph, is human spiririt evolution. In this is also born our desire to capture and present fleeting moments of and in time. I feel this time we are in could be very important for photography (and watches). There is even a crucial role in medical and social health research. Imagin the first image taken of the virus and what it will offer when the cure is found and shown in images to the world. I should be out with a camera in the face of the disease untill we kill it but for now i see the birds, buggs and flowers in my garden. I get to edit “those” photos and relive beautifull moments of the past. I dont fear death, i dont even mind it. I fear and mind not taking photographs.

      • I don’t fear death, either. I fear living in a world where the average intelligence has become so eroded common sense becomes uncommon…and we aren’t far away from that.

        • L. Ron Hubbard says:

          Every view the movie, “Idiocracy”? It’s a must watch based on your comments.

        • Hi Ming,
          Given the broad array of humanity and each individual needs/assessment of how to get thru life, common sense is a varied thing.
          I also used to think ‘common sense’ is disappearing, until the obvious hit me between the eyes – common sense is based on each situation. A city dweller in LA or HgKg or wherever will have a different ‘common sense’ pallete, as would someone in any other region of the world or in a different living environment. Population also adds many pressures; very much so.
          Given that the world’s human population is inevitably heading upwards, those pressure will continue to intensify.
          Back to ‘Now’ and ‘After’
          Change is inevitable (as much as I ‘like’ so many things as they are… LOL!) So ‘Now’ is a big moment in our Human history. It truly is the FIRST ever ‘Universal/Global Event’, broader than anything prior, including events like WW II. Countries and regions yet to be greatly involved, will be. This will be more than 3 – 6 months.
          ‘After’ is the change which will take place. Hopefully Humanity can find a new ‘ground’ and realize this may be only the beginning.
          Behind ‘COVID19’ looms the much larger and more earth-wrenching spectre of ‘Climate Change’. Until now it has been so varied and piecemeal, that only those paying attention will be feeling its potential and strong impact.
          The planet needs ALL Humans to acknowledge this 800 lb. Gorilla, and weave it into each individual’s framework of ‘common sense’.
          The change to be experienced, due to Climate Change, will pale COVID19.
          Not being a doom-sayer; just sayin that ‘change’ is inevitable. ‘Change’ in the Human process can forestall some of the more drastic and deleterious changes – many of which can’t yet be predicted.
          Work… I’m hoping that with all the ‘stay/work from home’ going on now. We realize that some degree of ‘workplace’ and ‘remote’ might be a real improvement, in so many ways. We have the technology, where it can be appropriate; and if directly applied to the combination of workplace/remote, ‘Change’ could be for the better, in so many ways, and affect the ‘After’ in a positive fashion.
          I’m trying to be confident that realization will come to many people. We shall see…
          Jurij

          • The lack of common sense even in local context is the problem here. Unless we are of course only considering extremely local to the point of only being under your own nose…

            The planet has gone on without us. It will continue to do so long after the last human is gone. What we’re going through now is merely a reminder.

            • True that… ‘Common sense’ seems to be held under by the rationalization underpinning of ‘It’s all about me’. I’m not certain that common sense was ever that common. I look at common sense as an understanding which all can come to, without needing high intelligence or extensive learning – the other interpretation being ‘common in the population’ is definitely more of a reach, if not a Mars landing… LOL!
              With regards the planet, yes it will endure. However, purely personal, I have considerable empathy, appreciation and gratitude for this wonderful place and all that inhabit and make it what it is. Hence my hope that the tide can still be turned.
              namasté
              Jurij

          • The problem with climate change is that it’s happening too slowly to make people sit up and do something about it and, as such, the world is ‘sleepwalking’ into a disaster.

        • ” Common sense becomes uncommon and we aren’t far away from that”.
          Exactly that.
          Over the last few years I have frequently felt that we are already there.We see every day the lack of common sense, lack of consideration for others, lack of clear vision and leadership around the globe. It gets harder day by day to remain optimistic about the future. Still, I’m hanging in there.
          The world has become too greedy and full of excess. We needed to slow down, consider where we are and what we are doing to the world. If the current situation forces that on humanity it might not be such a bad thing.My generation hasn’t lived through a world war ( Thank God! ) but instead we now have this. Here’s hoping we have just enough sense remaining to learn from it.. and quickly.. before it’s too late.

    • Good analogy. The one thing I realised on going solo is that a) you need to finish the month with more than you started, and any month in which you can do that is a good month; and b) the illusion of employment security when working for a company is just that: an illusion. If they go under, so do you – except you weren’t expecting it, and that makes it much more difficult to manage financially.

      The gig economy is good if you’re the kind of person who gets tasked with all the extra random stuff in the office because you’re the go-to, or you already have a side hustle: solely because output is proportional to input. Many however don’t realise that – both giggers and employees.

      I’m also increasingly unsure that the problem is COVID so much as the government responses to COVID. Take Malaysia for example: handouts for lower income people and employers must continue to pay employees (even when not working) – but the employers aren’t allowed to open for business, nor do they get handouts or subsidies (just special loans, which must be procured via ‘authorised agents’ and you know how that goes). How, exactly, are businesses supposed to generate the revenue to pay for these additional loans they are legally obliged to take?

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