Photo: Hu Wei (4th R), charge d'affaires of the Chinese Embassy, attends a ceremony with Sri Lankan Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi (4th left front) in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 1, 2020. China has handed over its first donation of humanitarian aid and medical supplies to Sri Lanka to strengthen the solidarity between the two countries as Sri Lanka fights the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Xinhua/Tang Lu - Photo: 2020

COVID-19 : An Unprecedented Crisis and Also an Exceptional Opportunity

Viewpoint by Dr Palitha Kohona

The writer is former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, and former Foreign Secretary.

Henry Kissinger, in one of his infrequent statements said, “When the COVID-19 pandemic is over, many countries’ institutions will be perceived as having failed. Whether this judgment is objectively fair is irrelevant. The reality is the world will never be the same after the coronavirus. To argue now about the past only makes it harder to do what has to be done”. Countries must adjust and adapt and also move with the times. Responding proactively to the challenge of COVID-19 is key.

COLOMBO (IDN) – I spent fifteen years of my life in New York City, the throbbing heart of the American economy, the greased skate board of the world economy. But today it is eerily quiet. Even after 9/11, the city briefly faltered but recovered its swagger rapidly. But COVID-19 has caused an unprecedented and unmanageable crisis and the city is facing a disturbing emptying after Governor Cuomo, ordered the shutdown of all non-essential businesses in the state.

New York hospitals are overwhelmed as COVID-19 cases have soared to more than 222,000 and 14,500 deaths, accounting for more than 40% of America’s cases and 7% of the world’s. Alarmingly, this number is not going to remain static. (The US has recorded over 730,000 confirmed cases and 32,000 deaths, leaving China way behind). Afro-Americans account for over 70% of the infected.

The devastating gray cape of COVID-19 is visible everywhere. The usual posies of fresh flowers, red roses, carnations, at the 9/11 Memorial are missing. The forlorn postcard-sized Stars and Stripes, abandoned behind a makeshift plastic railing, are faded. Broadway, the “Great White Way”, is missing its glitz. The subway system is eerily silent. Times Square, normally such a roiling mass of raucous humanity, is almost devoid of people.

After an almost comical and widely watched denial for weeks of the looming threat of COVID-19 by the US Administration initially, and the ungainly and crude attempt to shift blame and score political mileage at the expense of China, a furious and uncoordinated flurry of response measures have been launched as the epicentre of the outbreak in the US has centred on New York. An almost disorganised rush to secure respirator and mask supplies, bemused and simultaneously annoyed the world.

Now the WHO is being blamed for the pandemic!!! One is tempted to suggest that if the US had taken precautionary action early instead of seeking to score political mileage by piling blame on China, many lives which are being lost now by the thousands could have been saved. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned on March 29 that between 100,000 and 200,000 Americans could die of the disease.

According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, the global death toll from COVID-19 has reached a grim tally of over 158,690 deaths (as of April 19), now predominantly in the US and Western Europe. Over 2,231,000 have been infected in 183 countries. It has not left too many communities untouched. The UK heir to the throne, Prince Charles is infected and is placed in isolation and the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has had to be treated in the ICU. The Queen makes an unprecedented address to the nation, seeking to reassure to an unsettled people.

The Olympics and other glamorous international sporting events have been postponed. Football tournaments, the Wimbledon Tennis tournament, the Tour de France, the marathons traditionally run at this time of the year, have all fallen victim to COVID-19.

Around the world, COVID-19, a grim reaper from the dark beyond, has forced a fundamentally changed approach to life, work, leisure and business, a possibility which was predicted by some observers over the years but now is rapidly becoming a reality. IT and AI are being used more than ever to compensate for the disruptions caused by COVID-19 and are likely to stay.

The changes forced upon the world by COVID-19 can and must be viewed as the new opportunity which will enable those who grasp it to evolve in to a dynamic new global socio-economic environment. A challenging new landscape beckons, as underlined by Henry Kissinger. The reality is that the world will never be the same after the COVID-19. And those who wish to survive and succeed, must also make the clever choices in the major drama of our times.


Lockdowns and curfews around the world have driven professional and social life out of the physical world and into the virtual realm. The cynical dream of computer geeks for decades is actually becoming a reality. Individuals and families are being restricted to their own homes as never before and are forced to confront both its negatives and the positives.

Though self-isolation means no longer seeing friends and colleagues in person, it has opened a window on their private, domestic selves via the internet, along with unflattering camera angles. Many, video conferencing for hours every day, will find themselves unexpectedly familiar with other people’s homes, their kitchen layouts, wall decorations and interior designs, depending on how they position their devices.

This may add a new personal dimension to social and professional interactions that were previously camouflaged by custom, propriety and expectations. Live streaming, which is almost a cottage industry in China, might catch on globally as well.

Sociologically, the increased familiarity with the domestic environment of individuals, will necessarily change traditional concepts of privacy and the way we relate to the domestic environment of relatives, friends and colleagues. Will we arrange our living room to present a pleasant view before switching on the camera on our computers?

A New Work Environment

Many pilot projects were tested over the years on how effective working from home in a virtually connected office would be. Some corporations actually began implementing the concept as did government agencies, hoping that work life would become more satisfying and the costs would be reduced.

The UN, traditional and conservative, began testing this concept in the 2000s mainly as a cost saving measure. With properly trained staff and with the right equipment this approach to office work could be a success. The only limits would be imposed by the imagination of the corporations, the skill sets of the workers and the versatility of the equipment. Trainers will have their work cut out at the beginning. One recalls the resistance to desk top computers at the early stages and their gradual acceptance.

The new challenge would be to ensure that the virtual office provides the same motivation and incentives as the traditional one and the ease of access to colleagues. Confronted by COVID-19 , many teams have rapidly converted themselves to virtual offices, especially in the major financial hubs such as New York, London, Tokyo, Singapore and Sydney. The financial sector, always a pioneer, is already deeply involved in online transactions. This work is only going to become more widespread, seeping into all aspects of office work.

Ordering stocks, managing supply chains and delivery to customers will be done by online. Singapore is actively encouraging companies to let their staff work from home. New Yorkers are even enjoying the transition which had been occurring slowly for some time. Women and men who mixed and balanced their home duties and work, would find the virtual office and teleconferencing attractive.

Costly international conferences with casts of hundreds will become a thing of the past as teleconferencing is adapted to serve the needs of global negotiations. One will only have nostalgic memories of those long hours spent in UN conference rooms where much passion was generated with little achieved. But a good time was had by all. The EU has already set the trend in high level video conferencing. In the private sector, Lufthansa set the bar high by calling the first ever virtual AGM.


The traditional world of medicine is being disrupted with doctors beginning to provide consultations on line. With 5G, it will become possible to substitute much of the face to face consultations with on line interactions. Many Sri Lankan doctors have taken the initial steps in this direction. In China, doctors use artificial intelligence provided by Huawei to detect COVID-19in CT scans. In Israel, Tyto Care Ltd offers in-home medical exams, using AI to deliver clinical grade data to remote located doctors for diagnosis.

China’s Baidu devised an algorithm that can analyse the biological structure of the new coronavirus and made it available to scientists everywhere. While the traditional reassurance of your doctor being in your presence will be missing, the doctor at the other end of the line or in front of his computer would be as or more effective and will be dealing with a range of complaints remotely.

Already, hospitals communicate more with each other on line. With AI to assist, some surgeries are beginning to be performed by doctors located remotely. These are developments that will be here to stay.

E- Government and E-commerce

A much discussed recent innovation, which will now be given a fresh opportunity to flourish, is e-government. Many government services now compelled  to be delivered online due to the constraints imposed by COVID-19, should continue to be provided through the same medium with refined delivery systems. This would be more efficient, convenient and cheaper.

E-commerce, already becoming the norm in many developed countries, will necessarily begin to be widely used in developing countries also. Those who clamber aboard the new train are likely to be more competitive in the post COVID-19 world.  Sri Lanka conducted the first online tea auction ever.

Home Deliveries

New Yorkers were used to home deliveries of groceries and food. In fact, they may even have pioneered the home delivery industry. The Latino on a pedal bicycle delivering Chinese take outs may now be replaced with motorised vehicles delivering to whole communities after the orders had been placed and payments made on line. Fresh Direct established a well-received home delivery system.

Poorer countries, such as Sri Lanka, have tentatively begun to use home deliveries and the quicker that they make the transition in an effective manner, the better that their economies will be able to cope with the new world forced on us by COVID-19 . The home delivery system needs to be refined further so that payments could also be made hassle free.

What was already available in Japan, Korea and China a few years ago, of all payments being made through a QR Code via a smart phone, will now become the norm elsewhere. Ali Pay has made payments and cash transfers a simple exercise. Department stores were already offering their products online and now COVID-19 will make their practice become the norm. In China, Alibaba’s Tabao’s regular daily turn-over is bigger than the turnover on Black Friday in the whole of the USA. Delivery in China through services such as SF Express takes less than a day. Habits of convenience, once formed and the facility appreciated, will last.

The developing countries have much to adopt from the digitalised world.

Distant Learning

Students staying at home because their schools have closed will be another opportunity for teachers offering on line teaching, using either the television set or the computer. For centuries, teaching happened in establishments where children and young adults in universities were brought together and they were instructed in groups. With schools and universities closed, education will have to continue and online teaching will be the ready option.

It is happening already in Australia and New Zealand and might come to stay in those countries. Some of the older teachers will find the new challenge daunting. The Sri Lanka government has encouraged the use of the TV for teaching purposes. This will be an innovation that is likely to be developed and continue into the future.

The Environment

The lack of motor cars on the roads and closed factories have resulted in an unexpected bonus, less pollution. Beijing’s air quality is the best in years. New Delhi has enjoyed a blue sky. The waterways of Venice, devoid of gondolas, have attracted dolphins again. Seeing the benefits to nature, NZ is considering limiting camping sites. Nature reserves are enjoying a well-deserved rest and now would be the time to plan for a sustainable future. With no tourists, the beaches of Sri Lanka have witnessed spotted dear playing in the surf. Online work will have the added benefit of reducing global warming. The challenge would be to manage the post COVID-19 world, continuing to emphasise the importance of respecting and conserving nature.


Due to the unparalleled travel restrictions across the world, grounding of air lines and forced airport closures, international tourist arrivals will likely decrease by over 30% or much more in 2020 when compared with 2019. International tourism receipts will decline in excess of US$300-450 billion, almost one-third of the US$ 1.5 trillion generated in 2019.

According to IATA, the coronavirus pandemic has sent global air passenger demand plunging 14 percent in February, marking the steepest decline in traffic since the September 11 attacks in 2001. Airlines are incurring huge losses. The German giant, Lufthansa, does not expect the aviation industry to return to pre-crisis levels for some years. Delta Air Lines has said that it expected second-quarter revenue to plunge 90% and that it was leaching more than $60 million in cash a day. United Airlines has said that it’s losing $100 million a day in revenue. The aviation industry will lose 25 million jobs.

Adding to the disaster confronting international tourism, cruise lines have almost stopped operating. Hurtigruten, the world’s largest expedition cruise line, will extend the temporary suspension of operations from pole to pole. Hurtigruten CEO, Danie, says that the situation is a serious setback for the company, in particular, for the local communities and its guests.

The crisis would provide the opportunity for managers to plan for the recovery and attend to the necessary upgrades, reduce staff, update publicity material, link ups with new travel promoters and retrain staff. Singapore’s Changi has used the lull in traffic to undertake modernization of its Terminal 2. The world was forced to get used to stricter security checks at airports after  9/11. Now, the travelling public will need to get used to more intrusive health checks at airports. Always a pioneer, Emirates has already begun to testing its passengers prior to boarding. Aircraft may have to switch to cargo transportation until normalcy returns.

Domestic tourism will need to be encouraged to cushion the loss from international tourism. Countries, such as Sri Lanka, which has so far dealt with COVID-19 impressively, will be able to exploit the resulting  subliminal pull as international tourism recovers and need to use this factor as an attraction from now itself. Where the necessary promotional measures are undertaken, this will provide the incentive to attract the initial wave of travellers who may not be from the high end. 

Governments must assist by encouraging banks to roll over loans and themselves undertaking tax and other relief measures. After all, many governments, especially developing countries, will look to tourism, the golden sector, to lead the economic recovery, including by generating employment and revenue before the other economic sectors swing in to full activity post COVID-19.

At a later stage, countries such as Sri Lanka which have succeeded in controlling the demon COVID-19, could make its personnel, doctors, health workers, military personnel, available to other countries. Little Cuba is doing this already. China has dispatched hundreds of personnel to assist other countries. The UN (especially the WHO, UNDP, etc) is bound to look for hundreds of experienced staff to help other countries.

Impact on developing countries

The COVID-19 crisis, will be yet another obstacle to realising the development aspirations, including the SDGs, of developing countries, due to the unanticipated disruptions caused by lockdowns and office closures and the interruption of global value chains and the crash in tourism, falling commodity prices and foreign direct investment, as well as the consequences of capital flight and a stronger dollar.

With unemployment soaring in the West, (22 million have filed for unemployment benefits in the USA) purchasing a new set of summer clothes may not happen this year with many of the potential buyers in developed world confined to their homes, and perhaps without work.

Scores of clothing brands and retailers in the developed world have cancelled orders without assuming any financial responsibility. Countries which depended on apparel exports, such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Mauritius are confronting the prospect of silent factories and massive unemployment. Adjusting to producing or not producing the traditional export items for major brands will pose a severe challenge. Marketing managers and designers will need to focus on what could be produced for buyers whose needs may be limited or different.

Reduced Chinese demand for raw materials and leisure travel, as its economy stumbles, will have further negative implications. China which accounted for over 137 million tourists per year may cease to be the driving force of global tourism. 

The industrialization dream of many developing countries is likely to evaporate.  UNCTAD estimates lost output in the order of US$1 trillion, just around a third of Bloomberg‘s expectation of US$2.7 trillion in losses. The OECD expects global economic growth to halve from already ‘anemic’ levels. The WTO predicts world trade to shrink by over 32%.

Heavily indebted developing countries are facing a crunch. The Institute for International Finance estimates that around US$67.45 billion has flowed out of emerging economies since late January, an amount larger than emerging market capital outflows in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. Calls are already being made for debt roll over and debt forgiveness. Encouragingly, the G20 has agreed to suspend debt repayments of the world’s poorest 77 countries.

The failure of the already faltering Agenda 2030 for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) appears inevitable.

While new jobs are being created through IT and AI, millions could face starvation without a more “coordinated global response, including helping countries that are less prepared or capable of responding to the crisis”, as “global solidarity is not only a moral imperative, it is in everyone’s interest”.

While both developing and developed countries, including the US, have initiated a range of economic stimulus measures, and some form of cash transfer or social assistance, as to whether they could be sustained is a critical question. Generating funds to help the developing world may not be politically easy in an environment where the developed world is also crippled by the virus.  [IDN-InDepthNews – 18 April 2020]

Photo:  Hu Wei (4th R), charge d’affaires of the Chinese Embassy, attends a ceremony with Sri Lankan Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi (4th left front) in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 1, 2020. China has handed over its first donation of humanitarian aid and medical supplies to Sri Lanka to strengthen the solidarity between the two countries as Sri Lanka fights the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Xinhua/Tang Lu

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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