What is tomorrow going to look like? What are we to expect our economic and business prospects to look like after COVID-19? The Malta Chamber is actively interested in this, and its newly established Think Tank is briefed to propose a way forward. Chair of the Malta Chamber’s Think Thank, Joshua Zammit, discussed the ambitions of the Chamber’s new committee with Mario Xuereb on Ras imb’Ras.
How different will tomorrow be?
When asked how different times will be in the days to come, Mr Zammit said that “Tomorrow and yesterday would still have been different with or without COVID-19, due to technology and the ways of doing business. COVID-19 made us think about other things. There are currently too many unknown factors to determine how different times will be. As the Malta Chamber and Think Thank, we are creating scenarios that try to explain how these times will be. These will not necessarily be precise but might give us hints on addressing these changes.”
“The reality we are living is that we need to adapt and change to the times. Some scenarios and changes which we need to keep in mind include the possibilities of a 2nd wave, a working vaccine, and determining an instance when we can re-open our economy. This does not mean we need to take shortcuts – at some point you will pay for shortcuts, so whether the consequences would be drastic or not, you still need to be very cautious”
With regards to opening up the economy, Mr Zammit stated that “We need to look at reopening the economy from two different perspectives: health-wise and economically. Assuming that local transmission cases would decrease to a constant zero, one can start opening up businesses, go to work and socialise again, with a number of provisos to remain cautious on hygiene.”
He added that “For example, this would mean that restaurants would still need to adapt to certain changes like the space between one table and another, which would decrease their maximum amount of customers at a time. But, as we have seen already in this case, these establishments have already managed to adapt to the situation and most of which have been providing their services in other ways, such as takeaways and deliveries. This shows how much we are capable as a country to adapt to these changes.”
When asked whether having a central place of work could be a thing of the past, since businesses could potentially retain a system whereby the majority of the employees can work from home, Mr Zammit said that “This is true but we have to look at experiences in other countries. A central place of work is needed but the difference would involve how it will be used. The office environment may be different going forward as it might be used more for a social aspect, to discuss and meet with colleagues whenever needed.”
“A substantial amount of work is already being done successfully through teleworking. A lot of people and resilient businesses have managed to adapt to these situations. Whether things would remain this way is a different story,” he continued.
In fact, making reference to research he is currently conducting on this issue, to be published next week, Mr Zammit said that there are 2 main ways of thinking: the view that things will not change drastically but rather, go back to normality and the view that we will adapt to new scenarios because they appear to be working at the moment. “This might mean that we may need to decrease cost structures, because of rents, utilities and so on, or create timetables to fit in appropriate time for work from home, spending time with family, and free-time accordingly,” he said.
The Think Thank
In reality, these issues apply in a distinct manner to each different industry. Every sector needs to find its way to adapt. In his interview, Mr Zammit explained how “This is in fact, what the Think Tank is aiming to do. We have gathered a group of experienced people from the world of business and accademia, who are working hand in hand to determine how such scenarios will evolve.”
“Moreover, we have created about 10-11 sectoral round tables, to link with the different sectors of our economy. Some of which are well-known, like Manufacturing, Tourism, Retail etc. and others are relatively new, such as Research and Innovation, Technology and so on. These round tables will discuss how the different scenarios will apply to each sector and what things will need to be done to be able to adapt to such scenarios,” he said.
The Way Forward
In response to Mr Xuereb’s question on whether Malta should wait longer or examine other countries, especially in the EU, with regards to reopening economies, Mr Zammit said that “We have to look at what happened in Japan and Asia, which showed that if a country re-opens its systems too quickly, it might be faced with a second wave.”
He added that “The question on when to reopen is crucial but, even more important is the fact that we need to look at the starting point for the countries who are stating that they will soon start opening up, like Denmark, France, Italy, etc. They are not in the same phase that we are in at the moment. Most of them have experienced weeks in complete lockdowns. We were not as drastic in implementing control systems for COVID-19. We need to keep in mind that, apart from opening the economy, there are a number of other things we need to consider, such as when to re-open schools.”
“There are two levels we need to look at when considering how the economy around us will be affected: the local internal economy, in which once control is gained on the virus, you can start reopening slowly, and then look at what will be happening in other countries around us. What will happen around us will affect tremendously how things will develop locally,” he concluded.