When the Planet Reboots

Every crisis shows cracks in the current system and points a glaring spotlight on the issues that were overlooked before. Today, the crisis due to COVID-19 is making us realize the need for more ethics and responsibility in the functioning of world economy.

As Pankaj Mishra recently wrote: “It has taken a disaster for the state to assume its original responsibility to protect citizens.”

In the Chinese language, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity. John F. Kennedy talked about it in a speech in Indianapolis on 12 April in 1959. Few say that Kennedy’s interpretation was not exactly correct. But today many are talking about the opportunities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. See “The Bright Side of Covid-19: Seven Opportunities of The Current Pandemic”

Firstly, this is the time to reflect and reconsider: We seldom asked ourselves questions such as what we do, how we do it and why we do it. Things we took for granted are suddenly not possible anymore. This means that a lot of our “routines” will be  interrupted.

We will probably see our week with less social gatherings and entertainment such as going to the theatre, birthday parties, cinema, restaurant, bar, gym, music concerts and festivals. Many of us will start working from home. Suddenly, all of these activities will be  cancelled or forbidden or discouraged, giving us significant amount of extra time. But how would you use the “extra” time?

This extra time offers a great opportunity to rethink about our habits and routines and make changes. The lockout has forced us to make changes to our daily life that we may  actually want to follow even after the crisis is tamed.

Doing things differently with Innovation: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are entering the era of the non-contact world. Not being allowed to open their doors, restaurants, for example, are shifting to delivery mode. And schools will be run virtually with teaching and testing online. We have already seen upsurge in the virtual meetings and webinars, cutting down travel, time and of course the emissions.

Many technologies already present in the health-care sector are going to be modified and integrated to conduct quick health scans, remote health monitoring and patient care using IoT and artificial intelligence. Several starts up have already come up with such innovations and are in the process of testing.

From this perspective, the task today is not to fight the virus in order to return to business as usual, but because business as usual was been the reason for this crisis.  The goal, instead, should be to rethink and transform business and governance into something more responsible, humane, and secure.

Understanding the “Delta”: The lockdowns have given us an opportunity to understand the human impact on this planet to take corrective measures while reaching the new normal. The shutdown or dramatic decrease of industrial activities, virtually nil road and air traffic and eroded tourism have improved the quality of environment and noticeably so. We hear about the wildlife returning to the  fringe areas of cities and dolphins showing up to the coasts and peaks of Himalaya visible at a distance. Air quality in most Indian cities has significantly improved and the average noise levels have reduced. So, while are in the midst of a crisis, we are seeing a future we want and the future we need.

While the difference between “before” and “after” or the “delta factor” is going to be for a short term, we now an opportunity to revisit and take long-term preventive and corrective measures. This is an opportunity to reconsider our development paradigms, lifestyles, and economic pursuits to reorganize such that there is less adverse impact on our planet. From the constrained living during the lockdown we have to move to sustainable lifestyles and pay special attention to the large population of poor, migrants and vulnerable. We will need re-prioritization, rebalancing and set new timelines and targets of the 17 SDGs. See the visualization prepared by UN DESA on the impact of COVID-19 on the SDGs. 

Role of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA): The post-corona world will require global companies to be able to swiftly source vital inputs from around the world. It is likely that India may become a destination for global corporations that are looking to build more resilient supply chains and diversify away from being too China-centric. Many global players ranging from pharma to auto parts to apparel – are now actively scouting locations in India such as Ikea, Cisco, and Apple. From the US alone, there are reports of over 200 firms looking to move manufacturing operations from China to India.

This may require further relaxations and simplifications in doing business in India. We will need here a careful balance between environment and development. Our proposed EIA notification will need to be re-examined. Variants such as Programmatic and Regional EIA as well as elevated forms such as Strategic EIA will be very relevant instead of pushing only the Project EIA approach. Project EIAs may be best addressed through mandated best practices and ensuring addressing of site specific impacts. Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) must set up a Task Force on adapting the EIA Notification immediately.

Ramping up Circular Economy: Many discussions related COVID-19, have revealed the hardships faced by the poor, migrant and vulnerable population. Reduced manufacturing operations, recession in demand and weak cash flows are going to severely affect India’s informal sector. Informal sector is the backbone of Indian economy.

Here pushing the agenda of Circular Economy (CE) focusing on informal sector becomes very relevant. Two years ago, I was involved in preparation of Status Report and Recommendations on Resource Efficiency and CE for NITI Aayog. Skilling on green jobs, supporting innovations through hubs, providing micro-finance, and building Material Recycling Facilities (MRFs) could be considered as important immediate interventions. This will also help in increasing our Domestic Material Recycling (DMR) rate.  Formalization on the integration between informal sector and urban local bodies will help in reducing the vulnerability.

Comparing COVID-19 pandemic with Climate Crisis: Although COVID-19 is likely the biggest global crisis since the second world war, it is still dwarfed when compared to the long-term risks posed by climate change. Unfortunately, not so many see that climate change is a much bigger threat that is coming and is setting its stage. The irony is that we know it is coming but we seem to be still not convinced enough to act and be prepared for it.

Crisis such as COVID-19 and Climate Change require unusual levels of global cooperation. Both demand changes in behaviour, development paradigms and governance. But there is a big difference between the two. The impacts of climate change are more gradual than those of COVID-19. Most people do not realize that, they and their loved ones, could be significantly impacted due to the climate crisis this year, and so the emergent crisis is harder to comprehend. As Peter Baker writes about views of Margaret Klein Salamon, a former psychologist, that “if we truly accepted we were in a climate emergency, then every day the news would lead with updates about which countries were reducing their emissions the fastest, and people would be clamouring to make sure their leaders were adopting the policies that worked”. Of course we don’t see this to happen.

I presented my analyses on COVID-19 to my Professor Friend on a Zoom call. Professor heard me patiently without interruption. He lighted his cigar.

“I agree with you Dr Modak. The Planet is now rebooting”. He said

He then spoke slowly as he often does when making a major point

“Well Dr Modak, the COVID-19 pandemic has indeed been a real jolt to the world. But imagine that we had faced a computer virus of the COVID kind at the same time, shutting down the internet, infecting the data centres and paralyzing our communication systems? Do you think we could have ever handled such a crisis?”

I had never thought of such a calamity. I simply shuddered with this thought.

I looked at my computer screen. It had started flashing a message

“Your internet connection is unstable”

I decided to shut down my computer and reboot.


Cover image sourced from memegenerator.net

If you like this post then follow me or share with your colleagues



  1. A very good insight on the impacts of COVID-19, indeed. I agree with your opinion regarding the creation of new opportunities, it reminds of what Michael Maloney said about our financial systems, “on the opposite side of every crisis there is an opportunity.” I think airline industries, insurance companies and entertainment sectors will suffer the heaviest hits because of the pandemic and they will never be the same.

    Reading the last point of your post was truly enlightening if the internet suffered blackout even for a few minutes; the impacts would be catastrophic. It makes me wonder, are we really as intelligent as we thought we are?

  2. Very true. Up till now the elite world was busy with IT enabled revolution and had overlooked human suffering and nature conservation. Now I find homless in Califotnia are being cared instead of arrested and thrashed out of society, slums in mega cities have shown need of urgent attention. Kids have gained attention of parents.
    The end of blog gives real twist. I remeber the sci-fi story Black Piller which describes the conditions if electricity is gone. Really a best piece of introspective writeup.

  3. Typical Modak style, incisive and leaves a shuddering thought. Enjoyed reading it. I am in broad agreement with you but to think a bit differently, opportunity and crisis are not exactly the two sides of the same coin. The opportunity after a crisis must be a level above after realizing the root causes of the crises and evolving robust alternatives. Otherwise they will end up as escapist remedies with future crises. The role of EIA in post corona needs critical assessment. There is going to be a great rush to fast track the paused “development”. The reports of the qualities of urban air and aquatic systems in the lockdown period, show that natural systems can be restored, if the anthropocentric activities are controlled. This lock down environmental quality can be the new baseline for any revival of “development”. But a stringent enforcement is required. Finally, what if internet had failed? Well, it’ld have been a disaster for people like us who’re fortunate to enjoy its gifts. Probably we can’t imagine a life without internet. But, for a vast majority of people internet is not even a dream. Even with the digital revolution in recent times, a mobile is merely a communication need and it too failed since many people could not recharge their phones. I had once visited a village without electricity in my youth, and realized how the reality differs from what we take easily for granted.

Leave a Reply