MySay: Expect a change in behaviour

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 6, 2020 - April 12, 2020.
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A couple of weeks ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “Since German unification, no, since the Second World War, there has been no challenge to our nation that has demanded such a degree of common and united action.” The challenge she was speaking of was, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic. The disease has ravaged the world, leading to mass panic, extremely volatile financial markets, lockdowns or Movement Control Orders (MCOs) in many countries and, most importantly, a direct adverse impact on the lives and livelihoods of people.

Governments around the world have come up not just with public health measures to combat the spread of Covid-19 but also economic relief measures to cushion the blow of the pandemic to livelihoods. On March 27, Malaysian Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin unveiled a stimulus package that aims to leave no one behind as the economy faces perhaps its most dire test.

Given the stakes, the consequences and the money being spent on dealing with the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, it can be argued that this is a landmark moment of sorts in human history. After all, if Merkel thinks the Covid-19 pandemic is Germany’s greatest challenge since World War 2, we should not underestimate the magnitude of this moment in history.

With that in mind, such moments in history come with far-reaching social consequences. Many have commented on the different aspects of this pandemic, from the public health measures of social distancing and flattening the curve to the effectiveness of the economic relief packages announced by governments to the acceleration of digital technology in dealing with lockdowns and MCOs.

Here, I would like to offer some predictions, some of them potentially far-fetched, of how social behaviours, at least in Malaysia, may change once the Covid-19 situation is more manageable or once a viable mass-produced vaccine is found. Here, I assume that the virus is never eradicated but remains transmissible. I could be entirely wrong with any or all of them but let’s see.

Prediction 1

The increased awareness of hygiene is here to stay. This is perhaps somewhat of a no-brainer but my sense is that hand sanitisers and the like are here to stay. We may also see a push for more automatic doors, taps and other such devices that are typically touched by multitudes of people. This is a good thing.

Prediction 2

There will be a serious change in the business model of buffets. Infectious diseases spread easily at buffets because you have a situation where a bunch of people are touching the same serving tools. While the food and beverage industry will see pent-up demand once the Covid-19 situation is under control, I think self-service buffets will continue to suffer. The model needs to be changed to table service, which will incur higher staff cost.

Prediction 3

People will avoid large gatherings at first but only for a while. To be clear, by large gatherings, I mean gatherings of at least 100 people or so. The fear of the virus’ transmission will linger for a bit and people will tend to avoid large gatherings. But after a while, with a more manageable Covid-19 situation, or with a vaccine, people will no longer be afraid of transmission and Malaysians do have a culture and history of large gatherings, and we will revert to form, risking transmission.

Prediction 4

Social consciousness will increase. During the MCO, we saw Malaysians deliberately flout the rules of the order, sometimes for no reason at all. This is a form of the Tragedy of the Commons — what may be good (fun) for an individual may be detrimental to the commons. Fortunately, there are many other civic-minded Malaysians who have become more conscious of what the greater good entails and I do hope that this will continue. Even if it is just a few more members of society.

Prediction 5

Respect for teachers will increase but, unfortunately, nothing will happen. I don’t have children but my friends and colleagues tell me they have a deeper appreciation of teachers after being stuck at home with their children for close to a month now. I have argued before that we need to pay our teachers far more, not only because of their service and value as nation-builders but also because of the difficulties they face in dealing with all these children. Sadly, it won’t happen. It should. The pay of teachers should be seriously hiked.

Prediction 6

We will have a new appreciation of who our heroes in society are. Healthcare professionals on the frontline of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic deserve all our gratitude. So too do those who work in food supply or groceries and those who perform any and all sorts of essential services — street maintenance, police, delivery and much, much more. They all deserve so much more from society. It is too bad that we have an economic system that prioritises scarcity and not value.

Prediction 7

Community activism is here to stay. If there is anything we learnt, it’s that communities need to take care of each other, regardless of what governments or businesses do. It would be nice if governments or businesses helped but, ultimately, we have to rely on each other. Movements like #kitajagakita and other such initiatives need to be applauded and encouraged. I hope they stay on even after Covid-19 becomes manageable as there are many still in society who require the support of the community.

Prediction 8

For non-essential work, working from home will take off. Many white-collar jobs, like economists, are generally fairly non-essential. Or, at least, they really do not require us to be stuck in an office. I think the nature of work for those types of jobs will change. And maybe the value that the economic system gives to such types of jobs should also change. In any case, we will probably see more flexible hours (or even working arrangements) for such jobs, given the enforced work from home during the MCO period.

Prediction 9

People will wear masks everywhere, especially in public. The World Health Organization’s official guideline is that people carrying out day-to-day activities do not need to wear masks. Rather, masks are for those who need to come into close contact with Covid-19 patients, such as frontline health workers and caregivers. Nonetheless, masks may provide peace of mind and once the situation is more manageable and there is no real risk of hoarding (in any case, people should not hoard), mask-wearing will be the norm rather than the exception.

All in all, a crisis of such magnitude is bound to have some deep and long-lasting consequences for societal behaviour. This will impact our customs and norms, which will then impact the way our Collective Brain functions. Understanding how social behaviour changes in response to such a crisis is also crucial in figuring out what comes next for us.

Nicholas Khaw is an economist with the Khazanah Research and Investment Strategy Division

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