‘When you are dying you say we are dying.’ Literally translated, that is how this whole thing of inquiring of persons, institutions, businesses, countries, etc. how badly affected by the pandemic they have been, sounds to me like. I, myself, have written one survey to that effect—a business impact survey. ‘W’owu aa wose yewu’—I believe this is how our Ashanti brothers and sisters put it.
The pandemic has been true to its name. It has been cruel on all fronts—worldwide. I used to wonder about historic pandemics and epidemics, you know. Reading about them, one wonders how the people of old were able to handle such mass devastations. Countless deaths, mass panics, hysteria, hopelessness, and a general sense of helplessness seems the order of the day with these leviathans—these mysterious diseases. The ensuing economic and socioeconomic deteriorations—how were our ancestors able to handle this all?
Take the Spanish Flu…
The 1918 Influenza Pandemic incorrectly dubbed ‘the Spanish Flu’, was an H1NI influenza spanning a period of two years. It was a revenant who appeared in four consecutive waves; a pandemic that affected around a third of the world’s population. With a death toll of, best-case scenario, 20 million; and worst-case scenario, 100 million. How did these early-20th-century folks live through this hell? Under this tyrannical disease, how did they cope?
What of the Black Death of the 14th century? Incorrectly dubbed ‘Black’, a bubonic plague pandemic spanning a period of a whopping seven years. A pandemic which—if we be modest in our recollection—took at least 75 million lives; and—if we be thorough in our recollection—claimed close to 200 million lives. A pandemic whose ruthless devastations has rightfully earned it the tag ‘the most fatal pandemic in human history.’ How did the 14th-century-humans exist? How did they make it through this monstrous living? Did they deign have happy moments—smile, laugh—through this all?
Does it not strike you as particularly telling knowing that it is with this same level of wonder, and awe perhaps that future generations will regard you and me? They will picture us walking about with fear written all over us, wearing the garment of hopelessness and helplessness, never throughout the entire pandemic donning a smile, never deigning to share laughter. They will picture us hidden in our squalid homes, never—never daring to step out. They will picture bodies falling about on the street—camped in our individual squalid homes, yet our bodies strangely finding their way on the street, with flies having their way with us. They will picture our lives in slow motion, and ‘how are you doing?’ a redundant question whose accompanying ‘I am fine’ response was never asked and answered to. They will write movies with these imaginations guiding them—slow motion, close-ups, the Dutch tilt. Check.
I know all this to be true because that is the mental picture I have, for years, had regarding these past pandemics. But here we are, you and I, moving on, going to work, church, visiting family and friends, having weddings and funerals, naming ceremonies, birthday parties, holding and attending political rallies. Here we are having moments of happiness, laughing still, hoping still, with some, making millions, others, billions. We have been recording illnesses and deaths through this all.
The Matthew Effect
Somewhere in the books of Matthew and Mark, Jesus said something that would on its very surface appear mean-spirited—very contrary to the philosophy of the Saviour. “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” It has been repeated in the Bible a couple of times because it is true. At least, that is the very scenario the pandemic has presented us. The economics of ‘the rich get richer and the poor, poorer’ has prevailed for Gates, Bezos, Musk, Zuckerberg, and co. consequently for America, China, and some of the rest of the developed world.
In the developed world, pharmaceutical companies, technological industries, retailing and e-commerce giants like Amazon, etc. have experienced financial increase. As we each were forced to stay home, locked down, during the very heights of the pandemic, technological industries such as social media conglomerates, key among them, Facebook (owning Instagram and WhatsApp), China’s WeChat, Twitter, TikTok, etc. were mining money here and there. The gaming industry received its own fair share of boost. As we found ourselves home-bound, many found solace in the virtual world of gaming. “With all that’s happening around the world, it’s really unfortunate. But it’s made gaming the largest entertainment medium in the world.” CEO of Nvidia, Jensen Huang said. “These are times when the strong can get stronger.” Nike’s CEO John Donahoe, another winning entity during the pandemic, aptly put it. Indeed, the strong are only made stronger by the pandemic, and the weak, weaker.
In fact, it was recorded that during the period stretching from April and September 2020, 45 of USA’s 50 top publicly traded companies turned a profit. They did not record losses during the pandemic, they did not even breakeven—they turned a profit.
Yet some of these companies joined the suffering masses (businesses) by also laying off employees—despite their boosts in revenues. 21 large firms reported to have been profitable during the pandemic still laid off employees. Companies like Berkshire Hathaway recorded profits of $56billion during the first half, yet had its subsidiaries letting go of over 13,000 employees. Walmart undertook laying offs of its own, albeit recording profits. PayPal did same. Microsoft, Nike, Procter & Gamble, AT&T all laid off staff, although turning profits. IBM, PepsiCo, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer, saving the world through vaccines, let go of employees though making profits during the pandemic. But this portion is perhaps a topic for another day.
As people were home, quarantined, the entertainment industry and its related sectors experienced such profound boost. Netflix, Apple TV, Google (just imagine the number of people who googled the pandemic, searching for news and updates alone! The ads viewed on Google Ads and the consequent shopping thereof), Facebook (those who get their entertainment and news from Facebook lived virtually on the site), etc. have been mining gold during the pandemic. Each click—each ‘like’, ‘love’, ‘kisses’ or ‘sad face’ emoji clicked on, each picture updated, ‘stories’ updated, video updated, video streamed, friend request sent and received, the same done for the sister-sites, Instagram and WhatsApp, all meant more money for Zuckerberg and co.
One would think sectors such as the fast-food industry would face some sort of decline—that being home-bound meant people would make their own meals. Well, not for giants like McDonald’s whose takeout, drive-through services ensured full operations ergo full incomes for the company. Who is going to stay home and cook all day when they can watch Netflix and order away?
In these ‘winning’ countries, these market giants are gobbling up fledgling start-up competitors. If ever there were businesses most hit financially by the pandemic, it is start-ups; the industry giants are doing just fine. Some are even flourishing more than they have ever done before. Analogously, if ever there were countries most hit economically by the pandemic, it is developing countries. Developed countries, having myriad of large businesses within them performing marvelously, will in the end fare just fine. Small, developing countries like ours who are struggling to find our feet—if care is not taken—might become gobbled up, economically ruined by the pandemic, as these large, developed nations—much like these large corporations and businesses they are analogously paired with here—end up performing marvelously.
A Bite Out of The Apple
What are savings to a dying person? That seems to be the rhetoric experienced by Apple, looking at the unmatched increase the company has attained during the pandemic. Perhaps the company should have used that in its advertisements during this pandemic. Because it seems consumers really tapped into the philosophy of ‘just because we go die, we no go sleep?’ in their dealings with the corporation.
At the last quarter of 2020, when the pandemic was showing no particular signs of giving in, Apple Inc. recorded its most profitable quarter. The company during the course of the pandemic released new iPhones—iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini. Interestingly, earlier that same year (2020) Apple had released a statement noting it was pushing back the release date for its highly anticipated 5G iPhone 12 phones due to ‘uncertainties in consumer demand’ and ‘the global economic downturn’ caused by the pandemic; and inhouse, the disruptions in manufacturing caused by the close-down of its plants and offices in China, Europe, US, and even its headquarters in Silicon Valley, California. The company forced to close down its shops just like many companies worldwide at the very height of the pandemic, found on its hand, a very prepared, robust online sales systems already in place, to rival its physical stores.
But what are phones to a dying person? Who was going to bother upgrading their phones when they had their lives hanging by the thread—a Covid-19 thread?
It turns out the public—worldwide leaned more towards the first philosophy ‘what are savings to a dying person?’ than to the ‘what are phones to a dying person?’ philosophy because to Apple’s own shock, with the release of the iPhone 12 family, the company made a profit—almost 30% more—during the last quarter of 2020 than it had done in 2019. “We’re gratified by the enthusiastic customer response to the unmatched line of cutting-edge products that we delivered across a historic holiday season.” Apple’s CEO Tim Cook was philosophic in his shock.
Just like Apple, the social media giant faced enormous surge during the last quarter of the Covid-19-ridden 2020. The site became as much for work as it was for play. Many businesses had to mount their business from the physical, archaic confinements of their offices, shops, into these modern virtual marketing online platforms—social media. Facebook, being worldwide the most used social media site, boasting almost 2.8 billion users (a third of the world’s 7.7 billion population) with its sister-site Messenger (having 1.3 billion users on its own) was, unsurprisingly the most preferred sites for online business. And Facebook, WhatsApp (1.5 billion users) and Instagram (1 billion users) falling under one conglomerate became such a huge global platform for businesses to thrive, even through the physical restrictions forced by the pandemic. Facebook saw an increase in membership and revenue (more than $28 billion), and a profit of $11.2 billion.
“We had a strong end to the year as people and businesses continued to use our services during these changing times.” Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook said at the end of 2020 when the pandemic had, by then, claimed the lives of numerous persons and businesses worldwide.
I used to wonder about the pandemics of the past, you know. But looking at us now powering through, never declaring for ourselves worldwide fatalism, I am grateful for human resilience, knowing that our ancestors of the past most definitely had same during their pandemics. But human resilience in isolation, it seems, is not enough to save our country and continent from the position of tag-alongs, the most misfortunate, ‘Mr. never-taking-advantage-of-opportunities’. Opportunities—they come in various forms. Sometimes they are as oblique as they are delightful. Sometimes they are just morbid… as this pandemic was. But opportunities still.
[Published in Business & Financial Times B&FT - 14th April 2021]