We’re not returning to normal

by Paul Holmes ([email protected]) 391 views 

Baseball’s greatest pundit, one Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra, observed, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over,” meaning a team or an individual should never consider the outcome of a game a foregone conclusion until the game ends.

Were Berra still around, we might ask him to apply either that Yogi-ism or create an entirely new one to a couple of questions that we simply can’t seem to answer.

Query 1 – When will this COVID pandemic be over?
Query 2 – When will this country (and the world, for that matter) return to pre-pandemic normal?

It seems obvious by now that Yogi could answer the first question merely by repeating “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” What many thought at first would be just another seasonal “bug” has proven not only deadly to millions of people worldwide but also more difficult to contain than a stand of kudzu.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson continues in his press briefings to urge Arkansans to get vaccinated. His mid-September briefing reported the lowest daily increase in new cases since mid-July and during his Sept. 21 briefing Hutchinson said the actual incidence of new cases was below the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences’ projections. Nevertheless, no one is ready to proclaim that “it’s over” nor can experts say when that red-letter day will occur.

On to the answer to the second question.

“No” is the most succinct answer to the question of whether we will return to life as we knew it before this virus began killing people and threatening the health of millions more while literally grabbing the world’s economy by the throat.

However, simply saying “no, we won’t return to pre-pandemic normal” doesn’t fully address the question. We all remember the dreaded essay form of test in school. The instructions told us not to merely answer yes or no, but to explain our answers.

We are all fatigued by the continuing nature of this pandemic and its effects on our daily lives, from shutdowns to quarantines to the suffering and death it has caused. Yet were COVID miraculously to end tomorrow, we can’t just put down the needle on the turntable and resume playing the record at the point where it was taken off.

For one, we can’t bring back those who perished nor can we restore the health of those whose health was permanently damaged.

Some of our locally owned businesses simply could not hold on and either reduced operating hours, cut employees or closed forever. Even national retailers and providers of services changed their approaches. While a number of people who have switched by necessity from working in offices to working at home say they feel just as productive, there were more who faced challenges trying to make that new work model a viable option. Doubtless, some jobs that couldn’t be done remotely were eliminated.

Teachers tried to be as effective, but it seems there is no substitute for hands-on, in-person instruction. One must wonder what lingering effects there may be on students who missed not only the personalized attention from teachers but the structure of school and daily interaction with friends.

When the economy began to open up, employers in many sectors faced employee shortages which persist. Despite a record number of job openings, employers say they can’t hire help and have offered increased pay, sign-on bonuses or other incentives to lure job applicants. National news reports have said that those seeking employment say despite there being many job openings, they’re having difficulty finding jobs that match their skills.

Supply chain and inventory problems are expected to persist into 2022. As reported recently in Talk Business & Politics, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said supply chain and inventory problems are as stark as he has seen them in his 30 years in retail. A backlog of cargo ships waiting to get into the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach is said to be a factor in the rising cost of goods and services during the pandemic. A record 70 cargo ships carrying everything from furniture and electronics to toys are facing delays at the two ports, which handle 40% of the nation’s imports.

Anyone shopping for a vehicle, whether new or used, has doubtless heard that a shortage of microprocessors – “chips” for new cars – has new-car production at a virtual standstill and as a result has increased demand for used vehicles. Chips are difficult and expensive to manufacture, so we began farming that out to a large degree to other countries. The U.S. once produced more than a third of the world’s chips but now produces less than 20%.

Cargo ships, containers, truck drivers, and warehouse space are all in short supply due in large measure to the pandemic-forced shutdown of the economy and then high demand when it began to reopen. Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart, however, one of the large retailers that invested heavily in developing its network, is starting to let other companies piggyback on their supply-chain investment.

The new business model is called Supply Chain as-a-Service, or “SCaaS.” Companies are looking at spare capacity as an alternative source of profit rather than cost centers. SCaaS services can include inventory management, reverse logistics, logistics consulting, sourcing and customer service. In August, Walmart announced a new line of business, Walmart GoLocal, which will provide last-mile deliveries to other merchants.

If there is a benefit from a worldwide pandemic, it is that crises forced change and nimble companies will devise new and better ways to do business.

Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.