The Bubble

As we enter the long, chronic phase of the COVID-19 pandemic Australians and New Zealanders find themselves confronted by the paradox of success: we succeeded in flattening the curve, keeping the infection under control, saving thousands of lives, our health care system, and much else besides.

But now what?

From mid-March, as the lockdowns began, we found ourselves within tight and increasingly sterile ‘bubbles’, contracting down to encompass a family, at home, all the time. These family bubbles contained the spread – but at the cost of nearly perfect isolation. It’s given us a sense of safety we badly needed – with an unexpected twist: we have become very cautious about venturing beyond our bubbles.

That’s true for families, and equally true for businesses, each of which faces a growing tension between keeping the business safely sterile and keeping the business operating. That’s a fatal tension for many hospitality-based businesses, but all of the rest face difficult choices: how do we grow our bubbles safely?

The NRL faced a similar question when they first proposed resuming their season – an idea that seemed ridiculous at the start, yet grew into a powerful example of how businesses can transform the challenges of the bubble into opportunities. To begin with, the NRL hired a ‘biosecurity officer’, charged with designing a ‘sterile field’ around the entire game – players, coaches and venues – that could keep vectors of infection well away. That first step set the NRL up for all the others: negotiating with the venues, the players, the states and the broadcasters. Without some assurance that the season wouldn’t simply be cancelled for good because of an outbreak, none of those stakeholders could have accepted the risks associated with the NRL plan.

Where the NFL led, Australian and New Zealand businesses must follow. Every medium and large business will now be looking to appoint their own ‘biosecurity officers’ to ensure the health of their staffs, their customers, their vendors, and their supply chains. It’s a tall order, a brand-new and considerable cost of doing business – and it will all need to happen very quickly if we expect businesses to help lead the way into an economic recovery following the very bumpy ride of ‘Great Unplugging’.

Many questions need to be answered, including getting employees to the office safely, getting them to their desks, then keeping them safe at their desks, in meetings and when working with clients. Basics like this – points that never really required any consideration – will now be carefully thought through and redesigned with biosecurity practices in mind.

Every business process will be touched in some way, making the biosecurity officer hugely influential – and answerable at the highest levels of the organisation. Soon, that role will be re-named as ‘Chief Health Officer’ (in Millennial organisations, ‘Chief Wellness Officer’), becoming a member of the C-suite, with bottom-line responsibility for keeping both health and the costs associated with it under tight control.

The business bubble can be addressed with business practices, but the bubbles beyond the business – at state and national levels – operate through political consensus. As of the start of June, hard borders exist between all the states and territories except Victoria, New South Wales and the ACT. These state bubbles provide a sense of security but at tremendous cost; at some point the costs outweigh the benefits, and the states will then work toward biosecurity practices that balance safety with economic viability – just as businesses do. That can’t be far away, but it also won’t be a return to the way things were. Interstate travel and commerce will be framed by the ‘new normal’, with additional costs and red tape and rigor, together with all that implies for airlines, tourism operators, and much more besides.

The biggest bubble of all lies just beyond our shores. Because we have been so good at flattening the curve, our bubble has become a prison of sorts, keeping us in, and keeping the world out. Australia will soon join its bubble to New Zealand’s, then both will expand to encompass the rest of Oceania. There things will remain for some time to come. That’s not even forty million people – smaller than California, and not nearly big enough to keep trade going at anywhere near the rate before the pandemic.

We will continue to trade goods and services internationally – subject to a growing set of biosecurity regulations, as clusters of infections break out because of poor trade practices. Both the Ruby Princess and Al-Kuwaiti show how easy it is to let trade practices transmit infection within the bubble; nations that have gotten closer to eradication have more to lose, and generally will be stricter at policing their bubbles than nations tolerating higher levels of infection.

So how do we avoid becoming even more isolated? Cheap jet travel and telecommunications largely tamed the ‘tyranny of distance’, but our new ‘tyranny of the bubble’ can only be overcome by a viable and globally distributed vaccine – something still at least a year away. We need work out how to live within our bubble while remaining engaged with the rest of the world. That won’t be easy, as we continuously balance our health against our livelihoods, costs against risks, and the memory of what we had versus this unexpected and unpredicted new world.

The pandemic has defined the 21st century, continuing to shape nearly aspect of our social lives, our businesses, our politics, and our planet. We have flattened the curve, only to see that other, greater challenges now await us.

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