Every Western institution was unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic, despite many prior warnings. This monumental failure of institutional effectiveness will reverberate for the rest of the decade, but it’s not too early to ask why, and what we need to do about it.
Many of us would like to pin the cause on one political party or another, on one government or another. But the harsh reality is that it all failed — no Western country, or state, or city was prepared — and despite hard work and often extraordinary sacrifice by many people within these institutions. So the problem runs deeper than your favorite political opponent or your home nation.
Part of the problem is clearly foresight, a failure of imagination. But the other part of the problem is what we didn’t *do* in advance, and what we’re failing to do now. And that is a failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to *build*.
We see this today with the things we urgently need but don’t have. We don’t have enough coronavirus tests, or test materials — including, amazingly, cotton swabs and common reagents. We don’t have enough ventilators, negative pressure rooms, and ICU beds. And we don’t have enough surgical masks, eye shields, and medical gowns. […] Why do we not have these things? Medical equipment and financial conduits involve no rocket science whatsoever. At least therapies and vaccines are hard! Making masks and transferring money are not hard. We could have these things but we chose not to — specifically we chose not to have the mechanisms, the factories, the systems to make these things. We chose not to *build*.
Labor and robotics experts say social-distancing directives, which are likely to continue in some form after the crisis subsides, could prompt more industries to accelerate their use of automation. And long-simmering worries about job losses or a broad unease about having machines control vital aspects of daily life could dissipate as society sees the benefits of restructuring workplaces in ways that minimize close human contact. […]
Recycling is one industry that may be altered permanently by the pandemic.
We can stop blaming the shortages on the rest of us. It’s a supply chain problem:
If you’re looking for where all the toilet paper went, forget about people’s attics or hall closets. Think instead of all the toilet paper that normally goes to the commercial market — those office buildings, college campuses, Starbucks, and airports that are now either mostly empty or closed. That’s the toilet paper that’s suddenly going unused. […]
In theory, some of the mills that make commercial toilet paper could try to redirect some of that supply to the consumer market. People desperate for toilet paper probably wouldn’t turn up their noses at it. But the industry can’t just flip a switch. Shifting to retail channels would require new relationships and contracts between suppliers, distributors, and stores; different formats for packaging and shipping; new trucking routes — all for a bulky product with lean profit margins.
Similarly, to reroute their suppliers to consumers some restaurants are turning into temporary grocery stores.
As virus-related recession fears escalate, it is important to stress that while automation is likely to surge in general, not everyone is equally vulnerable. As our 2019 assessment of automation trends suggests, it is low-income workers, the young, and workers of color who will be vulnerable if this pandemic shoves the nation into a recession. The automation surge is likely to affect the most “routine” occupations—jobs in areas such as production, food service, and transportation, for example.
Altogether, our research flags some 36 million jobs that have a “high” susceptibility to automation.
Fresh fruit and vegetables will become increasingly scarce in Europe, suppliers warn, as the coronavirus pandemic hampers the global movement of produce and of the people needed to gather crops.
Due to ever growing travel restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus, we are now facing a shortfall of almost 80% of the workers required in Scotland to pick our crops this season.
While many companies have no trouble hiring truck drivers for shorter distance gigs at a few hours at a time, employers have long been struggling to find drivers who can be away for days or even weeks. “Trucking companies are finding it much harder to recruit those long haul drivers,” he explains.
A prediction: regulatory barriers to automation will fall. In the short term we are seeing supermarkets and delivery services going on an hiring spree, but in parallel I’d expect a stronger push to replace humans with machines where this can be done but has insofar been hindered by regulation. Higher contagion risk, current and future, will encourage more businesses to automate more jobs. Continuity of the service — being able to function even when your workforce falls ill — will be another factor.
We would have (one) less problem if trucks did not require drivers, if fruit picking was handled by robots (hard to do, still), if supermarkets could stay open 24/7h with self-checkouts (easy), if the last mile delivery was handled by a drone or machine of some sort, and so on.
On some of these things we’re not there yet, but some sectors have been held back (protected) by regulation: I’d expect that to go away quite soon.
In the long run, I don’t expect normal either. Pre-crisis, our patterns of specialization and trade were optimized for efficiency at the expense of fragility. Expect supply chains in the future to have a lot more redundancy and to be less driven by cost minimization. The Chief Risk Officer’s approval will now be needed before the CEO will approve a major new supply contract.
We will develop a lot of what you might call social-distancing capital, including the ability to make use of remote meetings and distance learning. Last night, some folks attempted a virtual session of dancing. Most of the time was spent getting a bunch of old people up to speed on using Zoom. Next time, we might be able to dance. People will get accustomed to new forms of entertaintment.
The thing that still confused me is how reliable supply chains are, or seem to be. The world is unpredictable—you’ve got earthquakes, labor strikes, mudslides, every conceivable tragedy—and yet as a consumer I can pretty much count on getting what I want whenever I want it. How can it be possible to predict a package’s arrival down to the hour, yet know almost nothing about the conditions of its manufacture? […]
The picture that many of us have of supply chains involve state-of-the-art factories like those owned by Foxconn. In reality, the nodes of most modern supply chains look much less impressive: small, workshop-like outfits run out of garages and outbuildings. The proliferation and decentralization of these improvisational workshops help explain both why it’s hard for companies to understand their own supply chains, and why the supply chains themselves are so resilient.