|Regulations and policy decisions come thick and fast these days. So fast you forget what came the previous day, or the day before, was rather incomplete, inadequate or plain illogical.|
On 10 May, the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, a political and cultural organisation and an affiliate of the Rashtra Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), said the Centre’s contact tracing app Aarogya Setu was promoting four venture-funded e-pharmacies. It asked for a level playing field for other pharmacies, online and offline. The RSS is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideological parent.
On 9 May, Karnataka released its SOP for interstate travel of migrant workers. They require workers to download three apps—Aarogya Setu and two others.
On 8 May, advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation approached the Standing Committee on IT against mandatory use of Aarogya Setu over privacy concerns.
On 8 May, a division bench of the Kerala High Court asked the Centre to respond to a writ petition challenging its directive to make the Aarogya Setu mandatory for employees, including those in the private sector.
Amid all this, an ethical hacker highlighted potential security issues in the app, to which Team Aarogya Setu issued a clarification. When a hacker and a nationalist organisation both object to a tool, then something really has gone awry in its making. Meanwhile, a bridge-to-healthcare app became the “world’s most downloaded healthcare app”. (Note the change in nomenclature.)
Decision making in uncertain times is not easy. But the kind of decision making we see today has a pattern. It’s best described in the words of Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, as an example of ‘affect heuristic’ in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow:
| Where judgements and decisions are guided directly by feelings of liking and disliking, with little deliberation or reasoning.|
… When confronted with a problem—choosing a chess move or deciding whether to invest in a stock—the machinery of intuitive thought does the best it can. If the individual has relevant expertise, she will recognize the situation, and the intuitive solution that comes to her mind is likely to be correct. This is what happens when a chess master looks at a complex position: the few moves that immediately occur to him are all strong. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
|But the spontaneous search for an intuitive solution sometimes fails—neither an expert solution nor a heuristic answer suffices.|
|In such cases we often find ourselves switching to a slower, more deliberate and effortful form of thinking. This is the slow thinking of the title.” Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow|
|Kahneman describes decision making under uncertainty using a metaphor of two systems: System 1 and System 2. |
Generally speaking, System 1 uses association and intuition to produce a quick, rough draft of reality; System 2 then draws on it to arrive at reasoned choices. System 2, while being rational and deliberate, is lazy and doesn’t monitor System 1. Hence, System 1 prevails; it’s the “hero”, both in the book as well as in actual decision making.
Here’s a question: Is the figure on the right larger than the figure on the left?
|The 3-D Heuristic|
|The obvious answer comes quickly to mind: the figure on the right is larger. If you take a ruler to the two figures, you’ll discover that the figures are exactly the same size. Your impression of their relative size is dominated by a powerful illusion.|
|Clash of the two Systems Much of pandemic decision-making continues to be System 1 thinking—fast and furious. Even when, 100 days after the first case of Covid-19 and 47 days into a total and sudden lockdown, what is required is a deliberate, well-thought-out plan to not just bring the economy and public health back on track but to also fill pre-Covid cracks. The country is waiting for System 2 thinking. Even Rajnish Kumar, the chairman of State Bank of India, the largest public sector bank, wished for it on Friday: “A comprehensive and concrete plan should come now. A certainty on regulatory stance, and support that may be coming from the government, is required as we are now in the exit phase of the lockdown.” Everyone is looking for a strategic vision. On fiscal, monetary, industrial, trade and current account policies. On a comprehensive public health roadmap, now that we’ve all seen what institutional infrastructure can achieve—public institutions were the first responders in this pandemic. Economist Rathin Roy put it succinctly:|
|It is widely recognised that the major obstacle to India securing its full economic potential is its weak administrative capability and poor institutional quality. Reform must commence with foundational development of institutional and administrative capacity which will increase the confidence of producers, consumers, and investors that the resumption of business as usual will happen in a vastly improved economic and institutional environment than that which existed prior to this crisis. Covid-19 lockdown: Forget administrative strategy, shift to an economic one; Business Standard|
|The same evening, 8 May, India’s routine Press Information Bureau release had a note on the amendments carried out in the two-year-old Prime Minister’s Research Fellowship Scheme. It’s meant to “boost research” (read sci-tech-engineering) in the country. |
In that one-pager, something stood out. There was a sentence announcing the creation of a new “dedicated Division” in the Ministry of Human Resource Development with the name of “Research and Innovation Division”.
Couldn’t be more cryptic.
Taking Roy’s point forward, a new institution is welcome. But there are warning signs: 1) Since it came within the PMRF release, it’s fair to assume once again policy makers are leaning on STEM (science, tech, engineering, math), giving social sciences research a wide berth. When the staggering humanitarian crisis unleashed by the pandemic should have jolted us. There’s no fancy research fellowship in this country for social and economic sciences research. 2) With zero detail about this new Division, it’s once again “fast” thinking.
Why do policy makers do this? Kahneman, whose work forms the basis of behavioural economics, has an explanation:
|“The availability heuristics helps explain why some issues are highly salient in the public’s mind while others are neglected. People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory—and this is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media. Frequently mentioned topics populate the mind even as others slip away from awareness…It is no accident that authoritarian regimes exert substantial pressure on independent media. Because public interest is most easily aroused by dramatic events and by celebrities…” Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow|
|Rushing into quick announcements without ‘slow thinking’ will mean our own germs carry on, pandemic is only the wind.|
|Doctors, please. But no engineers|
Immigrant healthcare professionals are crucial to the fight against Covid-19 in the US.
And some of them could now be rewarded with something really valuable: permanent resident status.
US lawmakers are calling for unused green cards from past years to be issued to 15,000 doctors and 25,000 nurses. This incentive, which could benefit Indians living there, is hardly surprising, since the US is home to a third of all Covid-19 cases around the world and more than a quarter of all deaths.
The concessions made to foreign medical staff run counter to US President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. Physicians, nurses, and Covid-19 researchers were among those exempted from Trump’s 22 April order stopping the issuance of green cards to those applying from outside the US for 60 days.
Trump, who often resorts to anti-immigrant rhetoric, justified his decision by saying:
|“By pausing immigration, we’ll help put unemployed Americans first in line for jobs as America reopens. So important. It would be wrong and unjust for Americans laid off by the virus to be replaced with new immigrant labor flown in from abroad.” President Donald J. Trump Is Honoring His Commitment…, White House|
|The US faces its worst unemployment crisis since the Great Depression. And if Trump’s order stays, it could affect nearly a third of the 1.1 million green cards the US issues annually, dashing the hopes of many, including some in India, looking to join their spouses or children in the US. |
The US is also reportedly considering putting some temporary work visas on hold, making matters worse for Indian IT companies. Between October and December 2019, Infosys and Wipro saw 59% and 38% of their H-1B visa applications being denied, respectively.
While it may be an awful time for Indian engineers dreaming of a future in the US, their compatriots in the medical community may have a sliver of hope.
|Silicon Valley’s nomadic moment|
Jon Domestic travel is tipped to be the first green shoot for tourism in Southeast Asia, but it may be accompanied by a more unlikely source: professional tech workers.
Google and Facebook this week significantly extended remote work options for their employees. Google staff are permitted to work away from the office until October or even the end of December should they wish. Facebook has told employees they need not report to an office until 2021. These policies may trickle down to other tech firms and startups in Silicon Valley.
As the impact of tech companies grew global, remote work was often touted as ‘the future’ of Silicon Valley. The biggest firms have regional offices across the world, but the concept of a distributed global staff remained limited—until now, perhaps.
Money talks and tech employees could save significantly by migrating to cheaper locations. With median monthly rent prices of $4,200 in Mountain View and $4,500 in San Francesco, nearly any place in the US is cheaper. But there is a strong case for destinations further afield that are more advanced in their recovery from the pandemic.
Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam and Thailand—which have fared relatively well on Covid-19, from the reported infection numbers, at least—could potentially net ‘working tourists’ as they reopen borders for international travel. Some are already popular spots for so-called digital nomads, who work on international projects and with clients across the world all while enjoying a significantly lower cost of living. (A well-located one-bedroom apartment in Bangkok, for example, can cost as little as US$500 per month.)
Thailand—which has recorded just 56 Covid-19 fatalities—plans to pitch future vacations as “virus-free” experiences for “quality tourists” who want longer holidays. That’s the opposite of package tour travellers who come in volume but spend little. For one thing, Thailand’s visa system—which has never been favourable to remote workers—will require reform, but that seems inevitable as the profile of travellers evolves post-Covid. Other countries reliant on tourism will be thinking and planning along similar lines.
|What you can’t kill, only makes it stronger|
The force is strong with cash. It is taunting India’s digital ambitions. Not just by surviving all assassination attempts, but coming back stronger. This, for a country that is winning international acclaim for its digital payments infrastructure.
Between January and May, currency in circulation surged by Rs 2.66 trillion ($35.23 billion), easily outpacing the Rs 2.40 trillion ($31.78 billion)increase over the whole of calendar 2019, Reserve Bank of India data shows. This at a time when economic activities are at an all time low.
Event after event is bringing back cash. So, the positive feedback loops that surround cash are only strengthening.
Some of this began happening right after demonetisation, when 86% of the country’s currency was stubbed out. It resulted in RBI printing higher denomination notes of Rs 2,000 ($26.49). But this only got people to hold on more to cash.
|The purchasing power of currency has come down as rate of inflation persists. Therefore, the authorities have printed higher denomination notes. For an example, 37.3 per cent of the bank notes in circulation are of the denomination of ₹2,000 and 42.9 percent are of ₹500 denomination. This encourages hoarding. The currency circulation conundrum, The Hindu BusinessLine|
|Cut to the pandemic now and three things are leading to the strengthening of cash. Subsidies Migrants and access to ATMs Kirana stores’ revulsion to digital payments|
About Rs 32,300 crore ($4.28 billion) has been transferred to 340 million beneficiary accounts under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package announced by the finance minister on March 26. And, as migrants are coming back to their villages, with little access to ATMs, they are using digital payment mechanisms like Aadhaar-enabled Payment System (AePS) to cash-out. AePS transactions peaked during the lockdown, surging to 403 million transactions in April 2020 compared to 172 million in March.
Finally, even the final frontier of digital payments—mom and pop stores—who were endlessly wooed by the government and payments companies to accept digital payments are now insisting on cash. So much so that digital payments means like UPI (Unified Payments Interface) are now used as ATMs, encouraged by the country’s central bank. The RBI has allowed stores to accept digital payments and give the equivalent amount in cash to users.
All this, despite the best efforts from those in the payments industry and the government to encourage the use of digital payments. Digital payments executives and government officials like Amitabh Kant, chief executive of government think tank Niti Aayog, took to social media to “Pay Safe, Stay Safe”.
|Kant, the head of the government-run policy institute, would especially want people to adopt digital because of his earlier 2020 prediction at the World Economic Forum in 2017.|
Back then, Kant said India could eliminate credit cards, debit cards and ATMs in the next three years by switching to biometric payments. He even said electronic payment methods could be “totally redundant” by 2020, with Indians transacting using their thumbs or eyes.
Cash has now stuck its thumb into digital payments’ eye.
|Welcome, robot wardens|
Jon & Nadine
Singapore’s National Parks Board and other government agencies are trialing a remote-controlled robot dog called Spot—developed by SoftBank-owned Boston Dynamics—to enforce social distancing in public parks on the island.
On the surface, it looks like a gimmick. But it’s also quite the dystopian scene. Imagine one of them creeping up behind you on a park bench.
|Source: Boston Dynamics|
|Could it be that the extraordinary circumstances caused by the pandemic soften us up to the idea of robot wardens? Perception has already shifted on other, previously taboo topics such as location tracking, which is now seen more acceptable if it helps curb the spread of Covid-19. The pilot is a rare money-making opportunity for Boston Dynamics. The business began as a Google moonshot, one of the alternative innovation projects built within the search giant. Catchy videos of its robots running or doing chores got lots of attention, but the hype didn’t convert to revenue and SoftBank snapped it up in 2017 as part of its robotics push. With Uber, OYO, Grab and others struggling, Boston Dynamics might just be one of the Japanese firm’s few startup ventures that’s well placed to profit from Covid-19. That seemed unlikely in 2017|