- Saturday, 31st Oct, 2020
In three areas in particular—digital commerce, telemedicine, and automation—the COVID-19 pandemic could prove to be a decisive turning point.
E-commerce was already meaningfully and visibly eating into the sales of brick-and-mortar stores. What the coronavirus has done is to accelerate a change in shopping habits that was already well established. Early indications from China, for example, are that new customers and markets specifically individuals aged 36 and over and residents of smaller, less prosperous cities have begun to shop online in greater numbers. In Europe, 13 percent of consumers said in early April that they were planning to browse online e-tailers for the first time. In Italy alone, e-commerce transactions have risen 81 percent since the end of February.
The figures for telemedicine and virtual health are just as striking. Teladoc Health, the largest US stand-alone telemedicine service, reported a 50 percent increase in service in the week ending March 20, and is adding thousands of doctors to its network. The Federal Communications Commission is spending $200 million to improve connectivity between patients and virtual-healthcare providers, and the US Department of Health and Human Services has increased reimbursements for telemedicine and enabled cross-state provision of virtual care. Sweden’s KRY International, one of Europe’s biggest telehealth providers, reported that registrations were up more than 200 percent. France and Korea have both changed regulations to ease access to telemedicine. With a vaccine or treatment at least months away, patients and healthcare providers both have reason to expand virtual interactions.
Greater automation was already occurring before COVID-19. In late 2017, the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that 60 percent of all jobs could see more than 30 percent of their key tasks automated, affecting 400 million to 800 million jobs around the world by 2030. According to the Brookings Institution, over the three recessions that have occurred over the past 30 years, the pace of automation increased during each.
In effect, it is becoming possible to imagine a world of business from the factory floor to the individual consumer in which human contact is minimized. But not eliminated: for many people, getting back to normal will include popping into stores again, and the roadside kiosks typical of much of the developing world are not about to be replaced by cashless hyperstores. Patients with complex needs will still want to see their doctors in person, and many kinds of jobs are not automatable. But the trends are unmistakable and probably irreversible.