Italy has just launched an unprecedented quarantine of their entire country intended to limit the rapid proliferation of the novel coronavirus covid-19. The silent nature of this new disease makes it likely that other western democracies will do the same. While stock markets plunge and major events get cancelled, the impact on the world economy is starting to come into the light. Flybe, a low-cost British airline, has already gone bust. If the limitations on travel get more strict, it’s likely that they will not be the only victims of the pandemic. Small businesses with little cash reserves will have a hard time riding out the storm where revenue drops while costs don’t. Everyone is hoping for a swift recovery.
But in the digital space, is this coronavirus negative? Could it actually be a net positive over the longerm? The answer depends on how you look at it.
eCommerce: to deliver or not to deliver?
In the very short term it is clear that people in afflicted areas are avoiding public spaces. This means a steep decline in footfall in retail stores. Retail was already caught flat-footed when it came to digital disruption. Now that there is an invisible threat lurking around seemingly every corner, fewer and fewer brave souls are strolling down high streets looking to spend time touching clothes and trying them on in small enclosed spaces. The only place that you can find masses of people is apparently in the toilet paper aisle at big box retailers who are looking to stock up for the coming shitstorm.
The alternative is digital commerce and ordering what you need online. For people hesitant to enter their credit card information or who never considered shopping online for certain products this could be the tipping point. For people who are already in self-quarantine, it might be their only option.
It would make sense then to shift media investment from offline channels to digital. People will be spending more time at home and less time out and about. This will most likely translate into increased time spent on digital platforms like social media, news sites, and Netflix. Now would be a golden opportunity to use this increasingly captive audience to deliver Drive-to-eRetail messaging or pushing eCommerce.
That is, of course, if delivery services work (and can get their people to deliver to the infected). Italy’s shut down means that the post office will stop delivering, and it is unclear how easily other delivery services like Amazon’s contractors can move around. While people might have more time to browse your online catalogue of products it might not equate to more sales. If people don’t know when they will be able to receive a product, they might hold off on ordering. If entire countries get locked down then, digital commerce will probably suffer as well.
Remote working is taking off
The digital platforms themselves will see huge increases in use if covid-19 spreads across Europe. I’m already personally awaiting the arrival of Disney+ in France if I have to spend weeks or a month at home with my kids. But it’s not just entertainment, people have to work remotely too. Companies like Zoom and Slack have seen huge increases in market capitalization since the outbreak, and players like Microsoft will benefit from more and more businesses trying out their Teams app.
In France we already had a major movement that caused a lot of people to work at home when the public transportation systems shut down for a few months last year. Employees that were hesitant to spend weeks working from home often had no choice. Managers who feared that employees would never come back were pleased to see people walking hours a day to come to the office where it was a better environment to work. Conference calls and screen sharing assuaged worries that real work wasn’t being done.
Covid-19 promises to push this even further, particularly in more traditional places like Italy where remote working is still only a fraction of the economy. If everyone has to work from home for a month and the world doesn’t fall apart, it could usher in the start of a new era where businesses stop shelling out for ridiculously huge buildings and instead create localized hubs that are much cheaper to maintain and make sense for hybrid workforces.
Misinformation is thriving
Weaponizing the new coronavirus is surprisingly simple. Make a few memes about how the disease was born from Bernie Sanders’ visit to the USSR in the ’80s, get thousands of Russian bots and American idiots to share it, and all of sudden it becomes a conspiracy theory. Tell people that you can’t go outside for fear of getting it when it rains and you can immobilize parts of society. From sinister cures to false lockdown notifications, the coronavirus situation is a prime opportunity to seed discord.
We are in the uncertainty phase where we don’t yet have enough information for people to feel confident or comfortable about the situation. It’s easy to panic when you find yourself in darkness. People are attracted to information like a moth to a light, and when that information is purposely false, not many people dig to learn the truth. And when there is no real truth, efforts are futile.
People are not good at being patient, and the only thing we can do is follow official advice and see how this plays out. Yet we need to feel comforted and the search for information helps us in that quest. When we find something that matches our personal worldview, we latch on. Vigilance against misinformation is about as important as washing your hands right now.
Online doctor visits will boom
Doctolib, one of Europe’s tech unicorns that lets people book doctors appointments, just launched video consultations with doctors via the app. It could not have come at a better time. Online consultations are already established practice in places like the US and China but they are starting to take off everywhere because it responds to a very pressing problem: how do you get all the sick people to see a doctor without infecting everyone else?
Even in times without global pandemics this is a great idea. Sick people need help and often they need help getting to doctors. Calling in on video calls makes it easy to see how a problem should be treated. For many people who have common symptoms it can mean getting a prescription and medicine easily. For serious cases it can mean a recommendation to see a specialist, which would be covered by insurance.
Coronavirus is the pretext for this practice to go from niche to mainstream which will probably prove permanent. If this helps people nip problems in the bud before they become insurmountable, that will help drive down the cost of care that has ballooned so greatly in places with privatized medecine like the US.
Stay calm and carry on
The reality of covid-19 is that most people don’t even know that they have it. Many politicians have already contracted the disease, which could be for two reasons: first, they have come in contact with people who have it because they are helping to work out the response. The other reason is that they know that they have it because they have been tested, whereas most people have not been tested.
If we can have well-known people start to come out and say “yeah, I have coronavirus, I have a bit of a headache but took some medicine and now I’m fine,” then people will start to calm down a little bit. The focus needs to be on protecting the vulnerable and not moving the entire society into a state of panic by coordinating strong communication efforts with measured responses. Personally I applaud Italy in sacrificing their economy in the short term to try and stem the tide of the spread. The economy will be fine eventually, our grandparents might not be.
The faster we get this under control, the faster we can get back to normal. But there will be lingering effects. People will hopefully keep washing their hands more. Remote working will proliferate. Digital commerce will keep growing on top of the accelerated gains it will see during this crisis. And you’ll be FaceTiming with your doctor before you know it.