Contradictheory: Who will restart easily and who will be left by the wayside?

  • Living
  • Sunday, 07 Jun 2020

Some parents have to pull double duty, caring for the kids while trying to do work from home. — AFP

There is a harsh truth in this Covid-19 world that parents are beginning to realise: Teaching is hard.

Perhaps you are blessed with a child who diligently does his/her remotely-allocated schoolwork, but many parents are finding that without the constant, reassuring – and disciplinary – presence of an adult, their child’s fancy turns to thoughts of YouTube.

It isn’t a surprise then that there is concern that students may suffer. A study conducted by Pew Research in the United States of parents in states where schools have closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic has found that although parents as a whole are satisfied with how schools are handling the shutdown, 76% of lower-income parents have concerns that their children will be left behind. (This is compared with 57% of middle and upper-income parents.)

Compounded with this are parents who have to pull double duty, caring for the kids while trying to do work from home. And now, for those who have to physically go to the workplace under the conditional movement control order and leave the home, tough decisions need to be made.

Of course, in these unprecedented times there is the need to make some sacrifices. But it’s clear some have to sacrifice more than others.

Depending on who you talk to, unemployment this year could be as high as 9.2% (projection by the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research), which roughly equates to a million and a half people. Even the more conservative projection (by Bank Negara) of 4% is uncomfortable.

But what is important to note is that these losses won’t apply equally throughout the economy. Just as some parents have children who can do their schoolwork comfortably while others struggle, some companies will in fact power through this pandemic relatively fine.

In fact, the Economist magazine has coined the term “the 90% economy” because it believes that as lockdowns are eased, the economy will rise back up to 90% capacity, based on what experts have observed happening in China. However, discretionary consumer spending is down 40%, hotel stays are down two-thirds, and bankruptcies and unemployment are still rising.

Perhaps the question then is who will be able to restart with relative ease, and who will be left by the wayside?

A recent report published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) titled “Share Responsibility, Global Responsibility: Responding to the socioeconomic impacts of Covid-19” warns about some groups who are at risk during this pandemic, including SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and the informal sector. They also specifically identify vulnerable individuals such as women, youth, and low-wage workers.

So large, established companies with large pockets of reserves, who provide goods and services with relatively inelastic demand, should probably be OK. It’s great if you’re supplying products that are sold in supermarkets (what’s called FMCGs – fast moving consumer goods – like toothpaste and soap, for instance), or are part of basic industry (eg, energy and basic raw materials like oil). Their return to normalcy will be slow and steady. But in contrast, I also believe that the companies we should keep an eye on, the ones that will best emerge from this crisis, are innovative entrepreneurs within the SME sector who are impatient to prove themselves.

For example, take Yong Zhao. He is the owner of a chain of Chinese restaurants in New York City called Junzi and in an interview he was optimistic not only about survival but also growth. He used a metaphor, likening the restaurant business to a forest. “When there’s a fire – in this case, a pandemic – it clears out all the big older trees, which means the seeds – the little guys – have room to grow, ” he said.

“It’s time to grow because all the sunlight’s there. There are no big trees blocking it. Why wait?”

I talked with several owners of IT start-ups and companies, and I can see a streak of stubborn optimism in many of them. (Arguably, if you’re going to get into the IT business, you’re probably going to be stubbornly optimistic anyway.)

One is a digital marketeer, who is happy his staff are now working from home. He says they’re 30% more efficient right now.

Another runs an IoT (Internet of Things) firm that specialises in utility companies. They can’t do their normal day-to-day work right now, so instead he has his technology tracking the movement of Covid-19 infections.

The third is an e-commerce analytics company that, during the uncertain job market in this pandemic, decided to hire senior staff in Singapore – and pay them (probably discounted) Singaporean wages.

But what about those who are left behind? The advice that I am giving parents who are struggling to homeschool is that this is the opportunity to teach your child to be an independent worker. It is not easy, but I think it’s necessary if we want to move forward.

What is crucial is that schools need to support parents to do this. Instead of purely trying to teach the kids, perhaps the way forward is to teach the parents. If successful, it will lower the burden on both parents and schools alike, and as a bonus, create a generation of independent learners.

I think the same can be said about the need for government to support vulnerable industry and individuals. The UNDP report estimates that the worldwide cost of keeping these parties safe during this pandemic will amount to 10% of the world’s GDP. That’s just under US$10tril (RM42.65tril).

The question is, are we helping them just to survive, to maintain the status quo? Or should we be guiding them through that uncomfortable journey to the reality of a new tomorrow?

In a crisis, there is an understandable tendency to look after oneself before others. But we should always bear in mind, we are stronger as a society together than we are when some people are left behind.

In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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Dzof Azmi , Covid-19 , MCO , home schooling


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