Our uncommon future

There will be a new normal for Nepal, but we have to make it a better normal

After every global crisis in history, human society has been able to come up with big breakthroughs that improve lives, and turn the world into a better place.

This could be another such time, but only if we think outside the box.

The crisis has telescoped time, and brought forward the adoption of innovations and trends that would otherwise have taken decades. It is a watershed moment to address other global challenges like the climate crisis, North-South inequity, over-exploitation of natural resources, air pollution, etc.

At more local levels, drones are being used to deliver medicines during the lockdown, and they fly into the hospital wards to disinfect beds using ultra violet light. Restaurants have brought forward plans to use robotic are waiters.

It is all about our willingness to re-imagine the world we want to live in and the world we want to leave behind for the future. Here in Nepal some still believe that the solution to the country’s woes is to launch a pop song for any crisis. Others still try to convince us that importing more chocolate is good for the economy, and electric cars are bad.

Nepal’s health workers lack personal protective gear, but policemen seem to have access to plenty of gowns and masks. For governments, nurses are clearly less important than policemen. While states have no problem spending on ‘law and order’, public health usually takes a back seat. The Army has been deployed for medical imports and quarantine services, not the Department of Health. This could also explain why health sector needs foreign assistance while Home Ministry does not.

Some local governments like Minneapolis in the US now want to disband their police departments altogether, and create a whole new system for safety and security. The idea is to end the kind of policing the world is used to. Defunding the police is another idea that is being taken up seriously and could change the way protection of people will look like in future. We simply cannot rely on the police for everything from crowd control to solving crimes and enforcing physical separation. Even more radical: go the Costa Rica way and cut the military as well.

The challenge has always been to get people to open their minds, explore their own creativity and capabilities, and above all launch their new big idea. World history has shown us again and again that there is nothing more powerful than the will of a free person.

Recent demonstrations, all over the world against racism have seen the power of the camera in our phones and the ability to upload images of police brutality on a real-time basis. Nepal’s youth, driven by outrage over government incompetence, have taken to the streets. These are really big ideas.

Last week, inventors unveiled a new battery that could operate for 16 years and power vehicles for over 1million km. The cost is only 10% over batteries currently available in the market. Electric cars and mass transit are the future of mobility, and between utility level solar stations like Nepal’s biggest in Nuwakot, better battery, COVID-19 and Zoom, the world is changing for many.

The good thing about big new ideas is that they can come from anywhere in the world, no place has a monopoly on them. During the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale is credited with starting a whole new profession called nursing. She did not go to nursing school, but saw the need and came up with a new big idea. During the COVID-19 pandemic peak in London, the UK government built a new temporary hospital and named it after Florence Nightingale.

Pasteurisation is another great idea that came from the need to protect and increase the shelf life of food for soldiers during war. We take many of these big ideas for granted today without realising that each was the result of human creativity when faced with a global crisis. Necessity is the mother of inventions, after all.

The demand for electric power has gone down significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. USA oil at one point last month was being sold at minus $37 a barrel. The UK has stopped using coal for over two months. This monsoon, Nepal will have surplus hydropower. These are all signs of things to come that may become big idea to change our common future for the better.

Photocopiers replaced carbon paper, 4G replaced 3G, the fax machine was replaced by digital attachments. During times of crisis many people are in a state of denial and sit back hoping everything will become ‘normal’ again. There will be a new normal, but will it be a better normal?  Will it include the products and services you use? How many will become obsolete like a Kodak film roll.

Barbers have to worry about their jobs, now that we have learnt how to trim our own hair. Kitchen gardens and roof top vegetables are here to stay. All these changes also mean that the Ministry of Finance will have to think new and think big to get over this crisis by expanding the economic pie with incentives to invest in renewable energy, sustainable growth, and stop relying on taxing the destruction of nature.

With tax revenue plummeting, how is the government going to pay civil service salaries, more expensive vehicles for itself, new carpets for the president? It must learn that taxing people to please political masters is no longer a viable option.

 Anil Chitrakar is President of Siddharthinc

Anil Chitrakar