2020 has proven to be one of the most challenging years for many people in their lifetimes; even though we were warned for years of a potential pandemic, it seemed to come out of the blue and shocked and surprised us all. With domestic and international travel halted and non-essential retail businesses closed for months, many have had their jobs become displaced or seen mass unemployment. News reports of large, well-known companies going under and the constant fear of contracting a deadly disease always in the back of people’s minds, it has been challenging, but there is still the hope of a better future. Let’s explore what 2021 might look like across the world
Returning to normal (sort of)
With over 50 vaccines in different stages of clinical trials, and the confirmation that vaccines created by pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford–AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Sputnik V have all been approved during stage 3. We are now close to vaccines being issued to the most vulnerable in society, all of which is hugely positive news. The vaccines, regardless of the pharmaceutical companies behind them, are good news for the world but vaccinating the population will not only be expensive but will also take time. Russia, the USA and the UK have already started their vaccination programmes and who gets it and when is purely based on need. The first group to receive the vaccines are typically the front-line workers (doctors, nurses etc.) quickly followed by those most vulnerable (elderly and people with low immune systems). It will likely take months for the vaccine to be rolled out across an entire country, but industry experts are predicting that the majority of countries could be vaccinated as early as March 2021. The vaccines will likely be rolled out quicker in wealthier nations; however, it could take years, if at all, for the vaccine to be given to people in poorer countries. For the virus to truly be beaten and under control, it is vital that everyone, around the world, becomes vaccinated. If not, anyone that travels to a country with a low vaccination rate could contract a new strain of the virus and reintroduce it back into virus-low countries in the future, not to mention to the devastation it would have on those hard-hit countries. To vaccinate or not to vaccinate, likely will not be an option, of course, some might choose not to take the vaccine; however, it might result in them not being able to travel, to work or even to access essential services. A current example of this is yellow fever, all those countries at risk of the disease require travellers to become vaccinated before their arrival and to carry a certificate to show upon entry into that country. Failure to get vaccinated or to produce the certificate can result in being turned away.
The most interesting factors relating to the vaccine is the nature of the disease and how the COVID-19 vaccines could create positive developments for other killer diseases. A vaccine for the COVID type viruses in the past were problematic given the way the virus attacks the immune system and how quickly it spreads throughout the body. Though the virus is often compared to the influenza flu, it also has similarities and characteristics to HIV and other immune diseases. That does not mean that there is a cure, for say HIV, just because a COVID-19 vaccine has been found. Instead, it could mean that the research and lessons from the clinical trials could be used to help advance medicines relating to those other deadly diseases.
Changing the workplace/digitalisation
The technology and means for working from home have been around for some time, with many companies spending years working and planning on how to implement the change to working practices within their business. In addition to the logistical challenges for employers, some employees have been resistant, preferring the office environment, as it gives them the ability to get away from distractions and to leave home for long periods of the day. Though working from home can be a positive experience for some, for others, especially those that are lonely, it can have a negative impact and is one of the main reason that some have been so resistant to it over the years. All of the trial runs, and even previous plans by companies were thrown out of the window when COVID-19 hit. For many businesses, they no longer had the option to home-work or not. COVID-19 has shown businesses that they can home-work successfully, which also has given companies the opportunity to iron out potential issues. It has also, for staff previously resistant to change, a chance to see that it can be done and it is not as bad as it first seems.
Home-working will likely not replace the office environment in the short-term; however, it is expected more people will begin working from home more frequently after the pandemic. For most countries, it has, however, shown that telecommunication companies need to further invest in improving their infrastructure especially home broadband connections for the future and that there is a vast potential market for tech companies developing solutions for video conference and home-working software. Digitalisation in the past has been a significant obstacle, given that so many businesses still use paper, for contracts and mail received from clients. Converting paper documents to a digital form is a must for home-working. Though it requires businesses to invest in hardware, technology and training of staff, the long-term benefits mean better indexing and locating of files, preserving the life/quality of a document and of course, the ability to move documents around from point A to point B at the push of a button. Good quality solutions are not as expensive as they once were, and many are now affordable and readily available to small to medium-sized businesses. One of the most significant issues and obstacles around digitalisation relates to official documents, and of which, many governments have been investing heavily in digital infrastructures for some time. For documents requiring a physical signature, many courts, lawyers and businesses still require paper-based documentation, which still poses a real problem.
Simply put digital processes are cost-effective, more efficient and kinder to the environment as less paper is used, resulting in fewer trees being cut down. Home-working does offer significant cost-saving opportunities for businesses (smaller office spaces and staff efficiencies) and savings for employees (reduce travel costs and time saved from travelling); however, it does not always work for every business or employee. In an environmentally conscious world, home-working indeed has a significant impact on the environment, which was evidenced during the various lockdowns; however, companies need also to consider their staff’s mental health. Technological solutions need to be developed, but so do the tools and approaches for keeping staff happy, engaged and healthy when home-working.
Economic Woes / Central-Left Politics Globally
The effects of the COVID-19 virus will dominate the economies of the world in 2021. For how long and to understand the real impact the virus has had on world economies depends on how quickly people are vaccinated and the speed in which a country can return to business-as-usual. Many countries around the world have already have put in place fiscal packages to help both businesses and individuals affected by the virus. The cost of these packages will begin to be factored into governmental budgets in 2021. The risk of tax hikes and a reduction in government spending in critical areas is significant in 2021; however, once the virus and its effects are under control, the focus can be more on recovery. For the businesses that failed during the pandemic, they typically fell into three categories, the first being those businesses that were unable to evolve within the digital era, with web and postal sales dominating the markets. The second fell into cash flow problems, whether due to expansion plans or the accounting practices of the firm. These firms will typically hold significant value in their business; however, they likely had little or no liquidity, meaning they were unable to access or have cash available. The third and final group relates to companies that are small-to-medium enterprises, and that given how long the lockdowns have lasted, resulted in many being unable to survive with little income for so long. Whatever way you look at it, it is sad that we have lost so many well-known businesses and those run by individuals that failed for no fault of their own.
2021 could see some of these businesses reappear in different guises and under new management. There has been a shift for some time to an online, postal and package related retail space. Unfortunately, for traditional store-based businesses, the nationwide lockdowns have only strengthened the demand, converting people that were previously resistant to using these ways of purchasing goods and services in the past. Many large online retailers have already announced that they are looking for more staff in their distribution and despatch centres and increased numbers of drivers for deliveries. These types of announcements present an opportunity for many of the retail workers displaced due to the pandemic, with many of the retail workers likely finding new opportunities with these types of online businesses. Taxing of these global-multinationals will also likely be a big theme of 2021. Many online companies have seen phenomenal growth, especially with regards to their popularity and demand. With more money being spent by consumers, governments are going to make sure that these companies pay more in taxes, shutting down and reducing legal loopholes, especially around where the business is registered or where the parent company is located. We are already seeing the EU looking at introducing a digital tax as one way of combating these types of problems.
For Europeans and the UK, Brexit has dominated the news for the past four and a half years. Good or bad, the UK finishes the transition period on the 31st of December 2020. Whether the UK has a deal with the EU or not, the main benefit will be the end to all of the countless news items, uncertainty and pundits predicting the future. Hopefully also an end to a divided nation, frustration and division, with the UK beginning to operate as an independent sovereign nation. President-Elect Jo Biden will be inaugurated on the 20th of January 2021, and his presidency is already seen as a return to normality, a return to centre-left politics, which for many, has been sorely missed over the past four years. Hopefully, in 2021, we will see a calmer and one of building relationships, rather than isolation and instability.
For me, 2021, is a year of hope, of opportunity and hopefully, a return to normality. 2020 has been challenging; however, there are some positives, it has shown people that working from home is an option, it gave the environment a short period to recover, and hopefully sensationalism will be replaced with calm and consistency. For those adversely affected by the pandemic, I sincerely hope that opportunities arise for them to find work. Hopefully, some businesses do not take advantage of the situation and push people towards more zero-hour contracts contacts. Instead, opting to introduce fair pay structures and benefits designed to help and protect employees. For the poorer countries, I hope that wealthier nations, governments and even pharmaceutical companies work together to ensure that the vaccine is rolled out all around the world. With it, all of the economies of the world, hopefully beginning to show signs of recovery in 2021.
With only weeks to go until 2021, we do not have long to wait to find out what happens; however, I wish you all a very merry Christmas and hope that 2021 brings you and your families, health, happiness and prosperity.