Geopolitics

The Pandemic Has Changed The Meaning Of Work And Free Time

Bill Gates is among those predicting that the shift toward remote work will last beyond the COVID-19 crisis. But what if, to compensate, people start making more of an effort to mix and mingle?

Working during the pandemic
Working during the pandemic
Beatriz Miranda Cortes

-OpEd-

In a marvelous reflection on the post-modern world and the individual, human condition, the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman cites the example of a young man who aspired to having 500 friends on Facebook.

Bauman observes that at 86, he still hasn't found that many friends, but suggests that the word friend likely means different things to him and to the young Facebook user. Bauman wants authentic human bonds, in a living community. The online community, he says, depends for its existence on two gestures: connecting and disconnecting. And both are just a matter of clicking the right button. Add friend? Click. Remove friend? Click.

The philosopher's reflections focused on the blessings and curses of human ties in the real world versus the virtual, online realm. But now there's an entirely new factor to consider: a painful pandemic that will reshape the world, and our relations.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates recently tackled the topic of COVID-19, and the lasting impact it may have on the world, in a conference organized by the New York Times. And one of his predictions is that 50% of business trips and 30% of office days will be eliminated.

Offices will never go back to how they were.

That's a very different scenario from the one that people envisioned just last year, when things were still "normal." In a piece published Jan. 24, 2019, Spain's El País called business travel a "rising asset" and cited Bogotá, along with London, New York, Sao Paulo and Mexico City, as one of the world's best cities for corporate events.

But then COVID-19 came along, and many executives made their homes an office. Remote work means it won't be easy to justify a business trip now, which will surely reduce the number of flights crossing the skies every day. Bad news for the airlines, but as far as climate change is concerned, it's actually a rather favorable development. Airports, long trips, jet lag, hotels and constant separation from loved ones will no longer be part of the routine of corporate directors.

Also during the pandemic, many people moved to places far removed from city centers. They were looking for quiet places, surrounded by nature and often cheaper. Moving forward, everything indicates that more people will return to the countryside and picturesque villages where the norm is to appreciate the small things in life. This will likely reduce the population density of big cities and in the long term, redistribute the population in many countries.

Sunday morning on Wall Street — Photo: Billie Grace Ward

Gates believes that the shift to remote working will be a lasting one, and that offices will never go back to how they were. He expects that as a result, people will feel more of a need to socialize. In the meantime, though, we're still having to deal with the virus. Vaccines will take time to distribute and apply, meaning that the disruptions to normal life will continue. We can also expect that most people will continue being cautious with elderly parents and relatives.

In 2020, most countries imposed social distancing. Borders were closed. People moved apart. And our houses, in addition to being homes, doubled as offices, classrooms and everything else. The silver lining was that the concept of home recovered its beauty, sense and essence. And yet, it's also clear people want to reach out and touch each other again. After staring at a screen for hours on end, people want to look each other in the eyes, the way they used to.

Gates said he hadn't anticipated facemasks would be so controversial, or that the Trump administration would take such an extremist attitude to the pandemic. He acknowledged that there is strong antipathy in the United States to using facemasks, but said he isn't sure if it's because of the government's political posturing, or due to a vigorous attachment, among American people, to personal freedoms.

Those kinds of unpredictable behaviors — in the name of freedom or under other pretexts — could occur elsewhere in the world too. Only time will tell. Either way, let's hope that whatever happens, whether in relation to Bauman's ideas about human bonds or Gates's post-pandemic predictions, we'll be ready to see and experience the changes — in person.


*Miranda is a lecturer at the private Externado university in Bogotá

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Green

In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat


CAUCHARI
— Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.


It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park

Xinhua/ZUMA

Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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