COVID-19 lessons: What happens next? Image: Michael Marais/Unsplash
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- We have reached the end of the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic with more problems on the horizon.
- Covid-19 lessons can be drawn from the previous two years about how to handle future and long-standing challenges.
- Early assumptions about future trends should be made with caution as uncertainty and unpredictability are still present.
- Leadership has proven important across the board.
Whatever happens next in this unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, we have reached the “end of the beginning.” We paused to reflect on Ipsos’ experience over the last couple of years, with the thought that it might provide lessons for the future, addressing long-standing challenges like ageing populations, a fragile planet and growing inequalities.
So, what are these lessons?
COVID-19 Lesson #1: People proved adaptable
By the end of March 2020, more than 100 countries were in a full or partial lockdown. Two years on, life has continued, but often in an altered state. The resilience and optimistic economic performance seen in many countries come with limits, though, as many admitted to picking and choosing post-lockdown rules to follow. There were also hot takes on what the “new normal” would look like. Commentators predicted that some behaviour would stick, such as accelerated online shopping, even though there were more reports of increased difficulties making online purchases than a year ago, suggesting the path to the new normal is likely more incremental than suggested.
COVID-19 Lesson #2: Mental health is as important as physical health
Through one global public health crisis, another was revealed, as many say their personal health situation worsened, experiencing mental health challenges for the first time. Levels of reported anxiety are higher than ever, with women hit hardest and young people more likely to “languish.” Now, 79% of people worldwide say their mental health is as important as their physical health. As investment in mental health services is only a fraction of overall health spending, a more serious conversation to address this crisis is due.
COVID-19 Lesson #3: Consumer desires are unpredictable
After initial panic buying, observers noted that the void caused by social restrictions was being filled with premium brand experiences. Enduring consumer habits are yet to become clearer, but for now, there is still uncertainty and inequality: unemployment and inflation among people’s top priorities. If we are about to go through a period of restricted purchasing power, brands may need to adjust and consider that consumer behaviour changes during a crisis, with some of those changes only later becoming permanent.
COVID-19 Lesson #4: Inequalities are widening
The pandemic, rather than erasing old problems, added new ones and exacerbated existing inequalities across age, gender, ethnicities and geography. One survey indicated that people believe the pandemic has been worse for older people than for younger people and research shows that the burden of childcare is falling on women disproportionately, consequently widening other aspects of the gender gap. More positively, there has been a narrowing of the “digital divide,” with older people’s increasing technology adoption to keep in touch with friends and family. Such digital acceleration and increasing home working acceptance will likely have lasting implications, including a potential reorientation of how our cities, suburbs and surrounding areas all interact.
COVID-19 Lesson #5: The “empty planet” scenario is now more likely
The pandemic has modified birth rates but not with the tongue-in-cheek expectation of a boom. Instead, looming uncertainty caused many to delay having children, accelerating pre-existing population decline. The empty planet scenario, or 'population bust,' expected by 2050, may come sooner. Brands and governments will need more nuanced approaches to older generations who simultaneously have more spending power and rely more on public services. Companies may also need to restructure their workforce to plug gaps created by ageing and non-replenishing manpower.
COVID-19 Lesson #6: We're getting more insular
Previous surveys have continuously shown huge disparities in outlook by country, including close neighbours, pointing to cultural considerations, differing legal systems and government points of view combining and varying people’s experiences. There is also evidence of “de-globalisation,” with many retreating to familiar territories and less dependence on foreign countries sought for goods and materials. Borders have become less porous during the pandemic, and there is apparent reluctance for their reopening.
COVID-19 Lesson #7: Maintaining public trust is difficult
Doctors have become the world’s most trusted profession, while scientists took second place. Politicians and advertising executives, however, remain at the bottom of the league table in terms of public trust. “Behaving responsibly” is the key driver of such sentiment, with a greater tendency to challenge authority than before. During the pandemic, governments had a special challenge, as they've needed to quickly make decisions that impacted thousands of lives and livelihoods with limited, shifting data. The ability to set new rules and guidelines requires the trust of the public which can wear thin over the course of a multi-year crisis.
COVID-19 Lesson #8: Expectations of the state have changed
As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded, people turned to governments to protect the economy and society and mobilise a healthcare response, including vaccine rollout. While they demonstrated their power, their limitations also became apparent, needing the help of international pharmaceutical companies, which have since enjoyed a boost to their image. There is some evidence for support of further strengthening of state intervention but whether that will continue once the pandemic ends or will carry to other crises like climate change is yet to be seen.
COVID-19 Lesson #9: Fear and risk are being redefined
Concerns about personal health and safety and financial and health worries created a crisis where people felt a loss of control with perceptions that governing institutions also did not have a good grasp on the pandemic. Fear and inconvenience still present serious hurdles in different areas of life, international travel being a prime example. This feeling extends across borders with more than two in three people in the US, Russia, Brazil and Germany stating: “I feel things in my country are out of control right now.” As the pandemic has moved and changed, people around the world have needed to adapt to constantly shifting contexts and weigh what risks they are and are not comfortable taking on.
COVID-19 Lesson #10: A sustainable future requires leadership
Despite initial lower emissions at the start of the pandemic, climate concern has not diminished and there is near-consensus an environmental disaster is likely without drastic changes. The same leadership sought from the pandemic is sought in the fight against climate change, giving governments and businesses a clear mandate to act. However, according to the research, people are far from aware of how their lifestyles should adapt to save the planet, which could mean this environmental feat is the biggest leadership challenge to come.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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