Two Years On: Lessons From Covid Times
Two years into the unprecedented upheavals instigated by a global pandemic, it feels like a good moment to take stock and think about what we have learned during this dramatic period.
Just what can we say about what the whole experience tells us about individuals, economies and societies? This report presents our thoughts on some of the big themes that have come to the fore in our research for businesses and governments around the world. In drawing out these ten themes, we have tried to bring out both what the pandemic has revealed and what it has concealed.
Right now, life, society and business all continue, albeit often in an altered or adaptive state. Many economies have been performing better than initial predictions suggested, and we’ve seen, first-hand, human beings’ sheer capacity for resilience. However, we must be cautious about going too far too quickly with hot takes describing apparently permanent changes. The path to the “new normal” will be more incremental and less dramatic than we may expect.
The pandemic not only threatened our physical health but also had a profound effect on our mental wellness. Many people say their personal health situation has worsened, and that they are experiencing mental health challenges for the first time. The full extent and long-term implications of this will take some time to become apparent, yet investment in mental health services is still only a small fraction of overall health spend. This balance may have to shift if societies are to adequately respond to emerging health needs.
There are a few things we can predict with confidence about the years ahead: our “known knowns”. But there are many things we do not know, and we would be foolish to try and make too many predictions. The economy is one realm in which we are often unsure; initial suggestions that it will make a strong recovery have been tempered in early 2022 by concerns about inflation and geopolitical uncertainties.
The pandemic has left us with all our old problems — and added some new ones. It has exacerbated existing inequalities and disparities across age, gender, ethnicity, and geography. These have perhaps never been as visible as they are today.
The pandemic has modified birth rates, but not in the way commentators speculated or people joked at the start of lockdowns. Uncertainty has caused many to delay having children, accelerating the pre-existing phenomenon of population decline.
Countries, cultures and communities
Time and time again, our surveys show huge disparities in outlook by country, even between apparently similar close neighbours. We need to factor in prevailing cultures, legal systems and the decisions of governments: these all collide, making a real difference to what people experience and how they feel. It’s important to remember that not all countries were affected by the pandemic to the same extent and at the same time, and their populations did not share the same concerns or expectations either before or after the COVID-19 outbreak.
The most unexpected effect of the pandemic on public trust regards governments. Infringements on personal freedom in the name of collective national action seemed to have increased, instead of deteriorated, individuals’ trust in governments. Interestingly, private businesses have also witnessed a similar trend of rising levels of trust during the pandemic, with the notable exception of technology companies, which were increasingly under scrutiny precisely because of serious doubts about their accountability, transparency and likeliness to always behave responsibly.
Expectations of the state
When the World Health Organization officially declared the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak a global pandemic, the expectations of governments around the world quickly shifted. For the first time ever, all citizens and all governments in all countries had a common and singular issue to focus on. Most governments acted quickly, taking measures to slow the spread of the Coronavirus. People turned to governments to protect the economy and society, and to mobilise the healthcare response to the crisis, including — in richer countries — the vaccine rollout.
Fear and risk
One of the things that has defined society since the beginning of 2020 has been the stop-start nature of our lives as we moved from lockdowns, to opening up, and then back to new restrictions. The advent of COVID made people think more about their own personal health and safety, and fear and inconvenience are still presenting serious hurdles in many areas of life.
COVID-19 has disrupted the way that we live and offered us a key opportunity for change — to take a more sustainable approach that could protect the long-term viability of business and pay more attention to environmental and social outcomes. Nearly half of the global population are recognising that their everyday actions have a direct impact on the environment. However, the evidence shows that people are far from aware of just how their lifestyles may need to adapt to save the planet.
Whatever happens next in this unique, multidimensional, planetary crisis, it feels like we are now at an inflection point when it comes to the pandemic.