Imagining a new normal


RJ Nieto RJ Nieto

The entire country came to a standstill last year. Businesses, schools, government offices, and pretty much every else had to stop, not because of the lockdown, but because we had to lockdown. We did nothing for a little while, but we know that that is in no way sustainable. People have to go to work, kids have to go to school, and everybody needs one kind of government service or another.

The business community was the first to adapt, as it offered workers the option to telecommute. I find it odd that COVID-19 had to happen before local businesses explored this option, especially since it was available way before the pandemic.

Many jobs can’t be done remotely, but I think that the experience many businesses gained in the past year will encourage them to make telecommuting a permanent feature for most job types. I can imagine a typical employee physically going to work maybe once or twice a week and work from home the rest of the time.

The same goes for education, as private schools will likely realize that operating costs are much lower if most of their students study from home. Yes, I agree that zoom and other currently available teleconferencing platforms can be clunky. Still, the experience educators have gained and are gaining in remote teaching will eventually lead them to find the most suitable IT infrastructure for their needs.

Who knows? Some startups can just pop out of nowhere with one that’s best suited for the Filipino audience. Of course, some subjects, like those that require lots of hands-on training (e.g., medical, engineering, physical education, and vocational courses), will still require face-to-face classes. However, I believe that a vast majority of college courses can do without any.

As we enter the new normal, a large chunk of the population may choose to work or study at home. Hence, the requirement for mass transportation may not be as much as it was before the pandemic. The country still has an extensive infrastructure backlog, but the decreased demand due to fewer daily commuters can mitigate it.

Workers and students historically flocked urban centers so they can be near work or school, but that isn’t as necessary post-pandemic. Hence, an urban exodus may follow. City dwellers may move to suburban communities or even more remote locations after realizing that a three- or four-hour trip isn’t much of a hassle if they must do it only once or twice a week.

Concomitant to the diaspora will be a paradigm shift in the real estate sector. High-density housing may not be as attractive as before. After all, who would choose a typical R5 million condominium unit in Metro Manila when a R2 million single detached house in the countryside more than suffices? Outside the metro, the air is cleaner, the food is better, the cost of living is lower, add the overall quality of life is higher.

The pandemic made science and technology sexier than ever, as we all marveled at the scientific advancements of our more advanced economies, the same advancements that made possible the invention of vaccines in record time. Coupled with the perks of working from home, I bet that more and more Filipinos will prefer a career in the knowledge economy.

The older ones may choose to reskill, while the younger ones will more likely pursue a career in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Who knows? Tech billionaires may even come from one of the Philippines’ backwaters.

With that said, the telecommunications sector must be able to meet the shift in demand. Historically, most internet service providers focus their operations in population centers. But as people disperse, ISPs will have to adapt. They will have to follow the market. I bet people won’t mind paying a premium for internet service if the lower cost of countryside living will make up for it.

But IT infrastructure isn’t cheap, so I think the government should develop policies to overhaul the country’s IT infrastructure. No, DICT’s pathetic free wifi project doesn’t count.

Somebody give Secretary Honasan a shot of espresso, please: He seriously needs to wake up from 1999.

When I say overhaul, it means having something akin to Australia’s National Broadband Network, which will make the internet faster and more accessible not just to cities but also to rural areas.

In every crisis lies an opportunity. I think many of us are grieving because we now live an world that is so much different from the one we’re used to, but as soon as we get the hang of it, things will get better: it’s just a matter of figuring out how to adapt.

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