Two years ago, the world marked the 100-year anniversary of the start of the Spanish flu pandemic that claimed the lives of more than 50 million people. Historians state that, in March 1918, while the US was preparing to send its troops to Europe to fight in the First World War, a feverish soldier was reported at an infirmary in Kansas. A few hours later, hundreds of soldiers fell ill with the same flu-like symptoms. Other soldiers would then transmit the virus to Europe over the coming weeks. The crowded encampments during the war and the subsequent return of the troops to their homes caused the virus to spread swiftly to different countries and local communities.
Because of strict media censorship during the war, the European and American press were limited in their ability to report on the outbreak. Spain did not take part in the war, meaning its press was free to report on the flu that was ravaging its population — hence the illness took that country’s name.
With the advent of the current coronavirus pandemic, many articles have been published to compare the two outbreaks. Though COVID-19 has caused chaos and worldwide disruption, it is an opportunity for governments to break out of their rigid systems and shift archaic mindsets.
In countries that have had one eye on the future for the past few years, COVID-19 has forced them to take the first few steps into the future they had envisioned, albeit sooner than they had anticipated. This has been evident in a number of sectors in different countries. For instance, academic institutions in countries such as China and the UAE put all on-campus teaching activities on hold and promptly began implementing distance learning in an effort to protect students from the risk of infection. Under normal circumstances, this change would require years of planning, prototyping and unnecessary delays and discussions. Today, in a matter of weeks, governments have begun implementing innovative methods to ensure a seamless transition to learning from home.
We have also seen numerous offices and organizations eliminate traditional attendance-tracking systems and encourage flexible working hours from home. This is largely to accommodate working parents, who now need to spend more time caring for their children as they learn from home. This shift from rigid working environments to agile ones encourages reluctant organizations to focus less on the number of hours worked and more on productivity and overall health and well-being. For better or worse, it took COVID-19 to force employers to break free of traditional workplace norms. This, of course, has been made easier by modern technology, which makes adopting remote working a more efficient and effective option.
Governments and international nongovernmental organizations were quick to advise people to steer clear of crowded areas and closed spaces as a precautionary measure. Fortunately, online retail, with its quick and efficient delivery services, has become increasingly popular over the past few years. This comes as a result of years of deliberate government regulations to support and cultivate ecommerce and the gig economy, allowing them to thrive.
COVID-19 is an opportunity for governments to break out of their rigid systems and shift archaic mindsets.
Maria Hanif Al-Qassim, Asma I. Abdulmalik and Sara Al-Mulla
If there were any doubts that we have come a long way since the Spanish flu outbreak more than a century ago, COVID-19 has been quick to eliminate them. Incredible and rapid technological advancements experienced by every sector have not only made it possible for us to work from home, learn from home, shop from home and do business from home, but they have helped us to detect and analyze the virus with previously unmatched speed and accuracy. Humanity has indeed come a long way in the past 100 years.
The outbreak has also prompted sectors to collaborate in the fight against COVID-19. At the beginning of the outbreak in Wuhan, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on the country’s tech sector to help battle the epidemic, and multiple companies answered the call. With the help of the tech industry, China has deployed disinfecting robots, smart helmets, thermal imaging camera-equipped drones and advanced facial recognition software in the fight against COVID-19. Health care tech is also being used to identify coronavirus symptoms, find new treatments and monitor the spread of the disease, while advanced artificial intelligence has been used to help diagnose the disease and accelerate the development of a vaccine.
However, perhaps the most important collaborative efforts we have seen are those at governmental level, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. Historian and bestselling author of the book “Sapiens,” Yuval Noah Harari, rightly said that “the epidemic doesn’t recognize borders. It does not recognize differences in religion or political views. The real antidote is to have closer global cooperation so countries can share information more efficiently. They can learn from the experience of the first victims, they can trust each other and, most importantly, they can help each other.”
In this regard, the UAE has set an extraordinary example, putting the health of humanity above political differences by deploying an aircraft that carried 7.5 tons of medical supplies and equipment to Iran. In addition, the UAE coordinated the evacuation of hundreds of Arab nationals from Wuhan and hosted them in the newly established Emirates Humanitarian City, where they underwent medical testing and monitoring.
During the Second World War, women in the US were suddenly encouraged to take on jobs outside of their homes. This drastic change in gender roles was prompted by American men having to join the war effort in their millions, leaving behind a large number of jobs in every sector. The entrance of women to the job market has not been reversed since, despite the specific circumstances that triggered it being long gone. Similarly, the changes brought about by COVID-19 will also have a long-lasting impact on our lives — be it through changes in industry, social norms, employment, learning, geopolitics and more. Disruptors to human life don’t always come in positive forms, but it’s up to us to adapt and even thrive because of them.