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No Free Lunch

Dancing with the virus

/ 04:04 AM September 08, 2020

At a time of great uncertainty on when the pandemic crisis will blow over and what further threats lie ahead, I’ve seen heartening examples of how firms and households are coping with and adjusting to the severe disruption COVID-19 has brought. These would ultimately define the nature of the changed economy shaping up in the midst of all the adjustments transpiring and yet to transpire around us. There’s a great deal of resilience out there, and I witnessed it recently in conversations with various firms with whom I sought to obtain a feel of the pulse in their respective lines of business.

A company that deploys thousands of seafarers all over the world told me of hundreds of our compatriots coming home since the pandemic began. These are the people whose journey home, difficult as it already was, has been made even more painful as they suddenly found themselves unwelcome and shunned by the authorities in their very own hometowns. I asked how they have been coping. Many, I’m told, have taken to tapping their culinary skills by selling prepared food of various kinds in their surrounding communities, thus managing to earn badly needed money to tide their families over. Hearing this made me better appreciate the motorcycle-riding couple who come to our neighborhood daily, peddling delicious lumpia, turon, and pilipit — which have become regular merienda fare for members of our household.

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From a company that provides training to various types of workers being prepared for jobs overseas, including in the languages of their prospective host countries, I learned of quick adjustments they made to be able to shift to online delivery of training. Under eased quarantines, their trainees in certain skills still need to come in for a minimum of hands-on experience, but shifting much of instruction online has helped avoid complete stoppage of activities so vital for hopeful aspirants for overseas jobs awaiting them. Just like regular schools and colleges, the company was led to adopt distance education methods much sooner than it had earlier contemplated. The fact that it did demonstrates the kind of nimbleness our fast-changing environment demands if firms are to be resilient.

Now limited to take-out orders, a small restaurant that had catered to the large market of college students in the university town of Los Baños now finds itself with only about one-fifth of the business it had been accustomed to before COVID-19. The students are gone, now studying from home. The owners decided to extend into creative cakes and pastries, which have helped boost the business, at least enough to keep most of their staff gainfully employed. Another small restaurant has closed its doors, and now operates out of its owners’ home, taking catering orders. Still another has turned its space into a mini-grocery and deli, selling condiments and frozen packs of its most popular signature dishes. But the local franchise of a popular fast-food chain, not having the same flexibility, is folding up—one in many around the country and around the world, for which COVID-19 has dealt a fatal blow.

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Beyond businesses, many households (ours included) have turned to growing their own vegetables in their backyards, or even in makeshift pots from cut-out plastic bottles, both to save on their food bill and to minimize the risk of getting contaminated food. A budding industry in urban-based vertical agriculture is getting a boost from the crisis, and is likely to be a more prominent feature of Philippine agriculture in the years ahead.

In our ubiquitous shopping malls, analysts foresee much space being repurposed into offices and storage spaces. In manufacturing, the demise of global cross-border value chains is forcing industries to reconfigure to either have complete value chains within the same borders, or where not viable, close down and move where they can best do it all.

Many now say that it’s time we considered COVID-19 a fact of life that’s here to stay, rather than keep things on hold as if expecting it to go away. Maybe it won’t. Many are already coping, and as our economic managers recommend, it’s time we learned to dance with the virus.

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, COVID-19, No Free Lunch, pandemic entrepreneurs, returning OFWs
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