Covid-19 and the world: It’s “death” versus “new life”

Professor Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank

In the view of Nobel Peace Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, the coronavirus pandemic has presented humanity with an opportunity to build a new world.

“It’s a world without global warming, without wealth concentration, without massive unemployment,” Yunus said in a recent special interview with ThaiPBS World.

Yunus compared the world we are living in right now to a “bullet train rushing to our death.”

The Covid-19 is giving us an opportunity to build a new train that would take the world to a new destination, he said.

“It is possible if we act right now. This is the time for action,” he said.

Following are excerpts from the interview with Yunus, who is also chairman of the Yunus Center, and Dr Faiz Shah, president of Yunus Thailand Foundation and director of Yunus Center at the Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok.   The interview was conducted by Nattha Komolvadhin and Thepchai Yong, co-anchors of ThaiPBS World Tonight news programme.


Nattha: Covid-19 is causing a crisis but at the same time it is presenting us with an opportunity as well. And right now there is an attempt to lead a global dialogue of reconstruction of the world in the post-Covid-19 age. ThaiPBS World Tonight will follow up on the discussion we had three months ago with our guests tonight.

Thepchai:  Before we look to the future, Professor Yunus, do you think the world has learned anything from the pandemic, judging from the ways that governments and societies are handling the pandemic and trying to cope with the new normal.


Prof Yunus: Considering that the pandemic has taught us many things, if you are not taking any notice of it, if you’re not learning from it, we must be blind, must be hard of hearing because it reveals all the weaknesses in our society, in our politics, in our international relations, and so on. If you look at the international aspect of it, the multilateralism kind of came out as an empty word. When the big common enemy came to the world, the world was not united, the world became really divided, even attacking the very global institution which is at the forefront of fighting the common enemy.

So we reduce its capacity and challenge its financial power by withdrawing money from it, by withdrawing recognition from it, by initiating investigation against it and so on. So we have shown how nationalism has become the main focus, trying to protect our own tribes, becoming more tribal.

The second one is about how poor people live.  Suddenly, it changes the economic system. The first one to drop out from the system are millions of people or billions of people who live on their daily income, not being part of the glory and prosperity of the economic growth. They are just hanging on, and with a little disruption, they just fall down.

So you see migrant workers going home, walking hundreds of miles in India and other places. So we have seen how poverty suddenly jumps up in every single country because they don’t have any income, don’t have any savings, don’t have any way to survive. So this is another one that we have seen how meaningless the whole system is.

The third one, it brings us an opportunity that we don’t have to go back to the world that we are coming from. The world that we are coming from before the pandemic is not a pretty good world. It’s a terrible world. It’s the world which is waiting for a major disaster to finish us all on the planet.

It’s like we are riding in a fast train, in a bullet train rushing to our death, rushing to disaster and that’s where we were before the pandemic began. Global warming is going to finish us in a few years if you don’t stop it because it’s coming in a big way and the global wealth concentration is making impossible for the economy to function.  And then there is this massive unemployment because of artificial intelligence.  So the world has a terrible future. We are moving in a bullet train to reach that goal of ending our life abruptly. So I say, stop the train and get off the train. And now the question I’m raising is should we go back to the fast train again to our disaster, death?  Or will we look for a new life? This is an opportunity for us. We can go in a different direction with a different train, which will take us to a beautiful world, beautiful life for us. A world without global warming, without wealth concentration, without massive unemployment. It is possible if we act right now. This is the time for action.


Thepchai: Dr. Faiz Shah, closer to home in Thailand. As far as you can see, do you think we in Thailand are learning something from the pandemic?

Dr. Faiz Shah: Absolutely, as Professor Yunus has pointed out, we have also learnt similar lessons. We see lots of people fall through the cracks.  We see that a lot of our mainstay businesses in Thailand — tourism, hospitality, transportation, healthcare and fresh produce exports — all have suffered because the people that manage these businesses now no longer have the kind of economic stability that Professor Yunus talks about.

So we have a long distance to cover. So in a way, the train has stopped. We need to find quickly the destination we need to get off. So I think in Thailand the situation resonates strongly with what Professor Yunus has pointed out. But we’ve also seen the good side of humanity as well, as we see people helping each other and so on. So there is where I see as Professor Yunus does —  the hope in humanity that we need to quickly build on.

Nattha: Professor Yunus, you try to encourage people to do social business during this Covid-19 pandemic, but in reality people must find it difficult to do any kind of business at the moment.

Prof Yunus:  Whenever you start a business, you have a choice whether you want to do business to make money for yourself as you did in the past or you want to do business to make a new world. And if you want to make a new world, then you’ll be looking for another option — the social business. It’s business to solve problems rather than to make money for yourself. Another big question during the pandemic is how much money is being allocated for bailout packages so that you can restart the engine,  restart the train to go back to their old destination? So there is a lot of money available already. Some countries have billions of dollars. Some countries have trillions of dollars already reserved, waiting to be spent.  Would you spend this money to take this train to the old destination or would you like to use this money to build a new train to go to a new destination?

So the money is not an issue. The issue is where to put the money. We don’t want to put the money into the fossil fuel industry. For example, we don’t want to revive it. Why should we revive it when we know it’s the one that is killing this country, killing the world?

You remember the young people marching on the streets before the pandemic came. They call themselves “Fridays for the Future” and they were blaming their parents, their grandparents for being such irresponsible people by creating a world where young people don’t have a future. So that now we cannot be blamed for that. We say we are building the future for you. So the money is here and we want to spend the money. So the issue I am raising is not about money, but how the money should be used.  So there you need social businesses. You need to redesign the whole financial structure because the financial structure is responsible for wealth concentration.  Financial structure is responsible for supporting the artificial intelligence and support and the artificial intelligence responsible for financing the fossil fuel industry, financing the plastic industry. So why don’t you redesign the structure? And do it in the social business way which is the right direction we should take.

Thepchai: Since we are on this topic of social business, I would like to go to Dr. Faiz Shah. You have been here in Thailand for a long time. How successful you have been in promoting social business here, especially in the middle of this pandemic?

Dr. Faiz Shah:  Last year, we had the Social Business Day that had a very strong outreach impact and we had a lot of very interesting queries on this. So we are now working with a number of Thai partners, including some very famous and large Thai businesses to identify social business opportunities in Thailand. But more than, that Covid-19 also helps in somehow focus attention on the social business way of things. Since Covid-19, we’ve had more inquiries than before, from the southern provinces, particularly from NGOs and also from international NGOs where they sought advice from the Yunus Centre in Dhaka.

This morning, we found that there are 10 major investment opportunities in Thailand that the government is promoting. If you look at it, it’s in rubber or medical gloves, pharmaceuticals, light engineering, courier services, and etc. Now if you look at these 10 employment opportunities other than the ones that require industrial backbones or strong industrial competencies, courier, cleaning and transportation, these are the areas where social business models can very easily be implemented without too much investment.

So I think there is this opportunity.  The government has identified labor-intensive industries as targets for directing possibly the 12 billion dollars that the Royal Thai government has allocated for recovery. So this is a good sign.  If the government meets up in these people-intensive businesses and social businesses, there is a higher chance of sustainability. These jobs will stay because these services will stay and these people control that resource which is their own labor and manpower and ideas. I think this whole idea that Professor Yunus has presented is actually practicable in Thailand.  Use social business philosophies to include people in their own livelihoods. And this is also in line with late His Majesty King Rama 9’s philosophy of sufficiency.


Nattha: Prof Yunus, you have mentioned many times that you would like people to abandon the old train. So far are people ready to do that?

Prof Yunus: People now have questions in their minds because they have to restart whatever life they have.  Should we go back to what we have been doing before or do we have to readjust ourselves doing things in different ways?  Young people are also asking the same question.  Should we follow the path of disaster or we build a path to life?  Building a new path is hard work. It’s not easy. Going back to the old life, old world, is easy.

So you have to decide whether you go back to your comfort zone, personal comfort zone, but sure enough to end in disaster, end in death, and the clear death ultimately.

So it’s “death” versus “new life”.

So we have to redesign the thinking process and this is all about personal thinking. What do I do? How do I select it? And there are many issues in the thinking of economic issues. Like we all these people, the migrant workers, the daily income earners, the people who sell foods on the streets, people who pick up things on the streets. They are known as an informal sector in economics.

I think that’s a terrible name. The economists just carelessly put their names on the book as informal sector, meaning we have nothing to do with them. We are only for the formal sector, formal labor for my business, and so on. Informal sector doesn’t come into our consideration. That’s a very wrong idea.  This is not an informal sector. This is micro-entrepreneurial sector. All these people are taking care of themselves.  They were just doing their things on the streets, cooking foods, selling fruits, selling vegetables, and catching fish. They never complained but suddenly the pandemic took it all away.   We should rename this sector.  Informal sector should be renamed micro-entrepreneurial sector and then it will become an important sector.  This sector covers about 70% of the population in countries like Bangladesh, India may be in Thailand.  But we ignore them.  Every country has ministry of labor. But where is the ministry for micro-entrepreneurs?  They need all the financial, policy and institutional support they can get.

So the moment you recognize them, then you have the responsibility of doing policies and creating agencies and financial institution to support them in a big way. Most of these people are dependent on loan sharks.    Banks would not give them any money.   That’s why we created this micro-entrepreneur banking system. So every micro-entrepreneur, no matter how small you are, you are entitled to do social business with the bank.

Thepchai: Dr. Yunus, I’m sure that one question that people certainly would want to ask is where is this nice, new shining train that we are talking about. Is it already there? Or does someone need to design it, build it or drive it?

Prof Yunus: Yes, somebody has to do that. You have to do it, I have to do it.  And it’s not somebody in some engineering university doing it. It’s us. We don’t want to see people just waiting for the train to come and to get on.  We the people have to build the train by changing our mind, by making sure that this is the kind of life we want.

Look at the vaccine itself. How selfish rich countries are claiming all the vaccines even before they are designed? Forget about marketing, it’s not even produced yet.  It’s just in the thinking process in the research process and they are paying billions of dollars to buy up all the future production of the vaccine for the coronavirus. I have been pleading with the world to make coronavirus vaccine a common good so that no business will be owning its patents and it can be produced anywhere. It could be produced in Bangkok. It could be produced in Dhaka. It could be produced in Kuala Lumpur or wherever we have the facility and without having to beg for permission and pay an enormous amount of money for it.

So you don’t want to make money out of giving protection to the life of people.  Coronavirus vaccine has to become a global common good and patent-free. No business interests or profit-making body should be owning these vaccines.

Thepchai: I understand that you are proposing a draft to be raised with the UN General Assembly on this issue of making coronavirus vaccine a common global good. How close are you to doing that?

Prof Yunus: We have sent out an appeal. And I’m very happy that 153 very top people of the world — 27 Nobel laureates and about 20 ex-presidents, former prime ministers, film actors, celebrities, singers and musicians — have signed the document saying that we all want coronavirus vaccine to a common global good.  So we are taking the basis of that appeal to draft a UN resolution, and taking it to all the member countries, including Thailand, to appeal to them to sponsor it.  If we have enough sponsors it will go to the UN General Assembly.   And if we have more countries supporting it, coronavirus vaccine will be approved as a common good.  So we are appealing to every single country for support.

The media can write editorials pleading with their respective governments to support this. Then it becomes a real issue. Otherwise, it will become a multi-billion-dollar business for rich companies.  Only six companies in the world produce all the medicines or the vaccines of the world. It’s something unbelievable how only a few multinational companies can own this whole medical support for the people. So why don’t we create social business for pharmaceutical companies? This is an issue that we are raising also. After the coronavirus vaccine, we will head for creating social business pharmaceutical companies so that we can produce medicines that will be available to people at the cost.


Nattha: What’s the contribution by Thailand to support this UN resolution to have a common global vaccine to fight COVID-19?

Dr. Faiz Shah: We’re reaching out to the Royal Thai government. We are reaching out to ASEAN community in Thailand. So hopefully we’ll start receiving some positive feedbacks from that. We do understand that even though we are talking to ASEAN in Thailand, they will still have to go through their own capitals for consultations. So we’re trying to make two-pronged approach with Dhaka writing directly to governments and we are also writing through our ASEAN representatives. So that there is a momentum that we can build. But I’m also quite certain that Professor Yunus’ appeal has reached the right ears. It’s gotten across and we are looking to a very favorable response from the Royal Thai government hopefully.

Thepchai: Professor Yunus, I agree with you that building a new world certainly requires a collective effort and everyone has to be involved. But at the end of the day, some kind of leadership will be necessary.  Are you looking at any particular countries or groups of countries that may be in a position to take the lead in that direction?

Prof Yunus: Only bits and pieces. It’s not  yet a very strong leadership in the global way.  France has been a very active supporter of social businesses. They have taken the lead in making Paris Olympics 2024  a social business Olympics. They made a big decision. The president of the country is involved, the mayor of Paris is involved and all the top people in Paris are involved in making this sports event in 2024 a social business Olympics.  So this is a big step.  And there are many business organizations that have created social businesses in France along with conventional businesses. And many universities have created social business centers. Of course, AIT (Asian Institute of Technology) Bangkok and several other universities in Thailand also have social business centers.

So this is the way you transform young people’s minds. So it’s the young people who will provide the leadership.  Conscious business leaders will provide the leadership.

When we had the Social Business Day in Bangkok (in 2019),  many important business leaders participated not just to make speeches and walk away, they continue to work with us not because they had anything to gain from us but because they believe this is important for the future of their nations, for the young people.

In India and Brazil, major business leaders have also signed up to support social business.  So I think it’s gaining momentum.  But the pandemic has given us an opportunity to take a bigger step because it has become the central focus to save the planet from the disaster that we are heading for.  So we have to shift the entire direction of the train and go in a different direction.  So we need a concerted effort and I hope we’ll get it. And I am very happy that Thailand is taking a leadership role in that.

Thepchai: Dr. Faiz Shah, in Thailand the power of young people has become more and more significant as you might have seen. But how can we harness this power so that young people can be a contributing force in helping us reach this brave new world that we’re talking about?

Dr. Faiz Shah: Young people, as you’ve often heard Professor Yunus says,  are our future. So our biggest investment needs to be in young people. So now we have 86 universities that have social business centers. The message of social business at educational institutions is moving at a much faster pace now. Thanks to the social media, the information revolution, and the instant connectivity, there is awareness among young people that the old ways do not really benefit them. Now they ask what are the alternatives. So we like to show to them that social business is one of them. It might not be the only one, of course, but it’s a very powerful one that has been demonstrated in more than 30 countries, in dozens of businesses. If you had asked this question maybe 10 years before when we had just one or two social business centers, we might not have examples to show.  But now in the last decade we are actually able to demonstrate to young people that there is another world that is available and ready for you.

Just a couple of days ago, at Chulalongkorn University I happened to be part of a group of teachers talking to young people with ideas for social businesses and they were connecting it to the sustainable development goals of the UN. So I think that’s already a step forward from a few years ago.

And for the first time, a number of our university partners are getting together to create courses and programs that students can actually take in colleges and learn about social business.  AIT is now working on the first social business master’s degree which we hope to roll out very soon. So that allows students the avenue to acquire the skills and the overview of what they want to learn to create this new social business of alternative.



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