Avik Chattopadhyay: A year-full of learnings!

25 Mar,2021

Avik ChattopadhyayBy Avik Chattopadhyay

 

When the editor asked me to write on the first anniversary of the “Lockdown” I found it a very daunting task. There has been a lot written about it already, covering aspects like socio economics, science & technology, business & employment, politics and even cricket. What could I possibly write about that could be useful to the reader, not to pontificate but just stimulate thought?

 

Then I came across two pieces of communication that provided the spark. One was a wonderful short video by my friend Gaurav Bhagat on the year gone by. Gaurav summed it up by saying, “Knocked down but not knocked out. Broke but not broken. Hurt but still fighting.” The other was a hilarious meme that I share here. Its in Hindi but I am sure you get the message.

 

The last 12 months have been about revelations. I shall make it a point to check if Nostradamus had anything to say about 2020 in any of his “centuries”. We have seen contradictions and opposites co-existing, even stronger than before.

 

The year has seen the good and the bad sides of human life in equal measure. There have been enough things to feel embarrassed about as well as pat ourselves on our backs. The pandemic and its world-wide disruption and devastation did not see any one side clearly winning. We have behaved, responded and pro-acted to the same situation and stimuli in different manners, driven by culture, belief, economic standing and provenance.

 

And that to me is unique learning for any brand as it teaches me to take a clear stand rather than sit on the fence, observe and listen more than always speak and, have the patience for the long-term rather than immediate numbers.

 

So, here are certain sets of opposites that have survived the pandemic together till now.

 

Heroes and Heroics

 

Across the world we got our new “avengers” in the form of scientists, doctors, healthcare workers, law enforcement forces, municipal teams and delivery people. They are the ones who have sustained in their selfless service.

 

And then we had heroics in the form of banging vessels, lighting lamps, going to the beaches, and signing songs across balconies. Public frenzy has been stirred up to bizarre levels. And we have had almost every product protecting us from the virus up to 99.99%. Waiting for an automobile brand to make a similar claim soon!

 

Democracy and Demagogy

 

The US elections was a stellar example of the power of the electorate still the most potent tool in preserving the freedom to choose as well as reject. Money and fear could not be the only factors that would decide results.

 

At the same time, we have seen unabated rise in demagogy. Selling fear and pandering to baser levels of entitlement and anxiety have worked quite well around us. Social divides have become deeper on lines of faith and class.

 

Religion and Rationalism

 

One of the world’s most profitable businesses has been used to the hilt across the world as a cure for the virus. None has held itself back from making claims on being superior to the others in protecting its faithful. Messengers of the almighty have continued to expose people to the virus, from churches to mosques, synagogues and temples, from congregations to holy dips.

 

Thankfully, the rational counterforce came out with guns blazing. The occasion, unfortunately, was tailor-made for the rationalists to once again impress upon the world at large that scientific temper and blind faith are not part of the same ‘venn diagram’.

 

Social and Hyper-personal

 

Being engaged on social media platforms is what kept us engaged through the year, from the serious to the ridiculous. Information evangelists have done a stellar job of sharing useful documents, updates, insights and all forms of help. While the urban middle-class benefited from online links to movies and comic books, the migrant workers got to know details about trains and buses leaving for their hometowns. Proliferation of information also saw a positive trend of people verifying messages and forwards before sharing them. Services like Snopes and Alt News are part of the daily routine now.

 

In tandem, going hyper-personal with solutions and services has become a near reality for many brands now that are primarily digital. Conversational AI has finally seen the light of day and the consumer has become a digital cocoon. We are actually comfortable allowing more people pry into our private lives and behaviour in the hope that it brings greater convenience and value.

 

 

Protectionism and Universalism

 

Nations have become more inward looking. Trade barriers have been built to protect one’s own turf. One is okay with foreign capital but not goods. There is a race to be self-sufficient, without much thought to how much of that is enough. In most cases, it is more of rhetoric than ground-level investments in education, health and research which form the foundation of a confident and credible nation. Somewhere, this and nationalism have been rolled into one dangerous form to create clones of the erstwhile Iron Curtain and current North Korea.

 

Thankfully, just like the rationalists, the universalists have created a counterbalance and demonstrated that there needs to be greater collaboration and openness across nations once the pandemic normalises like influenza. Most of the vaccines have been created by cross-national teams. Countries making vaccines are shipping them across the world in an act of diplomatic bonhomie. Medical teams from one country have gone to others to support. Know-how and designs for critical care equipment have been shared free of cost. It goes to prove that no one nation has the solution to all of her problems by herself.

 

Remotely Working and Remote Workers

 

The white collar has entered a new work ethic now. The concept of work-life balance has been redefined. A complete industry has evolved to create the WFH eco-system. Hopefully it will be sustainable as we are already experiencing mild backlashes with people wanting to delink workspace from home. New remote workspace models will become established for those who do not an office to return to. Needs to be seen how non-metro and smaller towns take to this change.

 

The blue and brown collars have become more vulnerable now. The ‘reformed’ labour laws and growing automation will impact them more adversely than we have calculated and provided for. The new jobs created will be qualitatively inferior to what most of them lost. This will be a people scarred for life for the administration shunned them when they were weakest. Their children will be a generation that will grow up with a grudge, just like when the jute and cotton mills of Bengal and Bombay [Mumbai] were shuttered.

 

Anxiety and Activism

 

According to Maria Cohut in Medical News Today, the average human being is fraught with increasing anxiety due to layoffs, job insecurity, imbalanced life, home-schooling and coping with a new way trying to make lives secure for oneself and the family. This will see new patterns of responses and behaviour. The same emotions will find different manifestations in consumption. The ever widening wealth gap and ever-growing clasp of big business are surely uncomfortable facts to grapple with.The mind is unsettled for most of us. We need release valves as well as calming corners.

 

Thankfully, activism has taken on the task of a huge release valve for the world in these trying times. Across the world, movements like BLM in the US, anti-CAA & Farmers in India, pro-democracy in Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and Myanmar, electric mobility & green tech across the world have kept us awake. Sustainability has become a key touchstone for business. Transparency is being demanded in all aspects of nation building, from governance to non-government social orders. At constant clash with demagogy, one would have imagined that such movements would have taken a back seat. Luckily no!

 

A couple of days back, in an interview with Alec Russell of FT Weekend, Yuval Noah Hahari commented that people will forget 2020 soon! Man does not like remembering ‘natural disasters’, though this one has had political overtones. There has been more written about World War 1 that took lesser lives than the Influenza Pandemic, though they were almost concurrent.

 

I started off this piece by wondering what could I possibly write and now I have rambled on for 1400 words already. Tells you about the year gone by.

 

I end with some stanzas from a beautiful Uriah Heep song called “Love in Silence”. Guess they sum up my feeling far better…

 

This is our world, our future

These are our times.

I believe we have to see

In silence there’s no mystery.

 

The world is so busy talking

What do they know?

They’re missing out on being alive.

Words are turning into lies.

 

Love is the only direction

That leads to truth.

Knowing in your heart what’s right

You’ll walk upon the sea of light.

 

There’s something

In love and silence,

That you can find

Know yourself and all around

Listen to the only sound

 

 

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