Will it be Nostradamus or Gates?

As we approach the second anniversary of the start of the COVID pandemic, it is only natural to wonder whether 2022 will usher in a return to normalcy and a full healing of the economic wounds caused by the health crisis.

Let’s talk economics first. Marko Kolanovic, J.P. Morgan’s chief global markets analyst, has just written that “2022 will be the year of a full global recovery, an end of the global pandemic and a return to normal conditions we had prior to the COVID-19 outbreak”.  

America’s biggest bank expects that vaccination levels, greater immunity, and human ingenuity such as new therapeutics expected to be broadly available in 2022, will spark a “strong” recovery in the economy, marked by a return of global mobility and robust spending by consumers and businesses.

Of course, predictions have been known to fail, and quite spectacularly on occasion. Although in 2021, economies around the globe started recovering and reopening, the recovery was uneven, incomplete and often interrupted by new virus outbreaks and scares.

Despite vaccines, natural immunity and health restrictions, there are still obstacles ahead, including the unwinding of easy money policies from central banks.

As financial markets begin adjusting to tighter monetary conditions, the process of unwinding from one of the biggest monetary loosenings of all time will likely inject volatility. Other risks such as geopolitical tensions in Europe and Asia, uncertainties around high inflation, and a looming energy crisis could complicate matters.

But hope springs eternal. According to IPSOS, the global market research and public opinion specialist, over three quarters of respondents in 33 countries to its 2022 outlook survey expect a better year in 2022, ranging from 79% of Danes saying they are optimistic that 2022 will be a better year for them than it was in 2021 to 58% of Belgians. 

Over three quarters of respondents in 33 countries expect a better year in 2022.

The Chinese, at 94%, were the most optimistic ─ not surprising, given that 2022 is the Year of the Tiger. This optimism builds on what people feel about 2021. Only 56% say 2021 was bad for them and their families – down from 90% last year.

If you do not trust what the toiling millions say, you could listen to Bill Gates, famous for being one of the few public figures to warn about the danger of a global pandemic — and just how unprepared the world was to cope with one — years before the coronavirus emerged. Since he foresaw the start of the pandemic, does that mean we should also trust him to tell us when it’s going to end? 

Gates acknowledges that he was overly optimistic about how much progress we would have made against the pandemic by now. For one, he did not foresee that the highly transmissible Omicron variant would come along. Neither did he expect how tough it would be to convince people to take the vaccine and continue to use masks. 

I am sure that he never heard that a certain Jason Azzopardi in Malta would be determined to stare the COVID in the eyes and insist that we celebrate New Year’s Eve in St George’s Square.

But despite his less-than-perfect track record, the American billionaire insists that the end is finally in sight and that COVID-19 will become an endemic disease in most places. Though he expects to see occasional outbreaks, he is convinced that new drugs will be available that could take care of most cases and hospitals will be able to handle the rest.  

Most scientists will probably agree with him. The new science is helping us reduce the toll taken by the coronavirus and other global challenges. It is full of dedicated researchers, amazing breakthroughs, and reasons for optimism. But I am not equally sanguine about the ability of governments to get big things done. Usually, they screw up, particularly when they become inebriated with their own importance. I mean, when the biggest achievement of the year is judged by one’s ability to consume a cannabis chocolate, one really begins to wonder.

We, lesser mortals have to grapple with all the complex health issues that COVID has visited on us. For an unfortunate minority of people, perhaps 10 to 15 percent according to researchers, life will not return to normal. These are people with a genetic predisposition toward some forms of OCD, which have likely been triggered or could worsen because of the stress of COVID-19.

Then, there are those who have fallen through the education net as a result of the education shambles and will never be recovered. They will join the ranks of NEETs (not in education, training, and employment) who are the vulnerable people of tomorrow and whose children will likely be NEETs like them. They will be destined to earn low incomes and be challenged in many aspects of their lives.

As if two years of COVID weren’t enough, some people will be wondering which of Nostradamus’s prophecies will occur in 2022. The French astrologer’s fare for the new year include:

Starvation and inflation 

“No abbots, monks, no novices to learn; / Honey shall cost far more than candle-wax / So high the price of wheat, / That man is stirred / His fellow man to eat in his despair”. Well, after two years of pandemic and political instability all around the world, it’s not that surprising that 2022 will be marked by (another) economic crisis. 

Climate change 

This isn’t news for any of us, but let’s break it down: “Like the sun the head shall seal the shining sea: / The Black Sea’s living fish shall all but boil. / When Rhodes and Genoa / Half-starved shall be / The local folk to cut them up shall toil.”

Rise of Artificial Intelligence 

So, Nostradamus predicted Elon Musk and his inventions? Many people interpret this passage as a sign of  AI: “The Moon in the full night over the high mountain, / The new sage with a lone brain sees it: / By his disciples invited to be immortal, / Eyes to the south. Hands in bosoms, bodies in the fire.” Lone brain? Disciples? Sounds like people failing in the trap of social media algorithms, maybe. What do you think?

Whether the Prophet of Doom or the optimistic Bill Gates will win the day is still early days. Though the smart billionaire expects that political gridlock and insane conspiracy theories are likely to continue to trouble us in 2022 and beyond, he closes his yearly look back on a positive note: “I think 2022 will be a year when many of us finally settle into a post-pandemic new normal.”

I personally really, really hope he’s right. 

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