How will people change and grow in the wake of the pandemic?
We don’t yet know the answer – and, in some respects, we don’t even know the right questions to ask. That’s why we’ve been surveying dozens of global thought leaders, doers and thinkers for our special Unknown Questions series, in which we’re unearthing the biggest questions we should be asking as we move toward a post-pandemic society.
In this edition, we look at how the virus will continue to test our mental strength and relationships, aggravate existing inequalities in society, push for greater sustainability and demand new ways for us to thrive in 2021 and beyond.
READ UNKNOWN QUESTIONS, PART ONE:
- Melinda Gates, Zoom CEO Eric S Yuan and more answer: How could the world of work change forever?
- Readers’ thoughts: The biggest unknowns in a post-pandemic work world
READ UNKNOWN QUESTIONS, PART TWO:
- Unesco director-general Audrey Azoulay, Lonely Planet co-founder Tony Wheeler and more tackle how we’ll live, travel, move and mobilise post-virus
The Dalai Lama
How can humanity pull together in these times?
As human beings, we all share the same sorrows, the same hopes, the same potential. The Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us how interdependent we are: what happens to one person can soon affect many others, even on the far side of our planet.
Therefore, it is up to all of us to try to cultivate peace of mind and to think about what we can do for others, including those that we never see. It is natural to feel worry and fear at a time when so many are suffering. But only by developing calmness and clear-sightedness can we help others and, in so doing, even help ourselves. In my own life, I have often found that it is the most difficult challenges that have helped me gain strength.
The current global health crisis also reminds us that what affects the human family has to be addressed by all of us. The solution to this, as to many other problems, especially concerning the environment, depends on international co-operation. Ultimately, if humanity is to thrive, we must remember that we are one.
Lucia Fry: Director, Research and Policy, Malala Fund
What will happen to education equality?
It’s no exaggeration to say that Covid-19 has been a seismic event for education. As the pandemic unfolded, 192 governments closed their schools in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus. By April, 1.5 billion learners had been sent home.
For girls in poorer countries, the closures could signal the end of their school careers altogether. During the Ebola crisis, girls were exposed to sexual exploitation, teen pregnancy and early/forced marriage as well as child labour and a greater burden of chores and care work at home. All this led to an increase in drop-outs from school in the three countries most affected. Malala Fund’s analysis suggests that if similar patterns are repeated [with Covid], 20 million girls will never return to school, adding to 129 million who were already deprived of education.
The prospect that Covid-19 will worsen existing education inequalities is a grim one, but it isn’t inevitable. Indeed, the pandemic could be a critical juncture. Parents everywhere have realised the value of schools and appreciated the hard work of teachers. Governments have understood that economy and society depends on education in the here and now as well as the long term. I can’t say I’m optimistic, exactly, but I look to the future with determination to turn crisis into opportunity. What we need is for those in power to do the same.
Steven Taylor: Professor of Psychiatry, University of British Columbia and author of The Psychology of Pandemics
What mental health effects could linger?
At the height of lockdown in early 2020, storefronts were boarded up, people were hunkered down and the streets were empty. Many people doubted that life would return to normal, and some speculated about a grimly Dickensian post-pandemic world. Few seemed to believe that life would ever be the same.
Yet psychological research on catastrophic events shows that most people do bounce back. Post-lockdown Wuhan is a case in point. In August, Wuhan staged a massive waterpark music festival in which thousands of people crowded, shoulder to shoulder, at an outdoor pool party. There were no protective masks, and certainly no social distancing. Similar events will likely occur elsewhere in the world when the pandemic is over. Most people are resilient to stress.
However, for an unfortunate minority of people, perhaps 10 to 15%, life will not return to normal. Research shows that obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) arises from an interaction between genes and environmental stressors. For people with a genetic predisposition toward some forms of OCD (ie contamination obsessions and cleaning compulsions) the stress of Covid-19 is likely to trigger or worsen OCD. Some of these people will become chronic germophobes unless they receive appropriate mental health treatment.
Matshidiso Moeti: Regional Director for Africa, World Health Organization
Will low-income nations get left behind in the race to procure a vaccine?
Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, as countries jostled for test kits and protective equipment, global supply chains imploded, and low-income countries found themselves at the back of the queue. The World Health Organization (WHO), working with United Nations partners, developed a procurement platform. The region now has more than 750 laboratories able to test for the virus.
However, many low-income African countries are still struggling with a distorted market and less than optimal testing rates.
Ensuring access to a Covid-19 vaccine is potentially an even greater challenge. The speed of vaccine development has been extraordinary and it’s likely that we will have a viable vaccine in record time.
Unlike procurement of Covid-19-related medical supplies, the world and WHO have anticipated a vaccine rollout. A total of 186 countries have signed on to the ground-breaking Covax facility, committing to fair vaccine distribution. However, wealthy countries, having signed bilateral agreements with vaccine manufactures, are once again at the forefront.
Will global solidarity triumph over vaccine nationalism?
The groundswell of support for Covax gives me great hope. I believe that when an effective Covid-19 vaccine is developed it will be available to the most vulnerable, not only those who can pay. I predict that in the end, the world will walk the talk on equity in health.
Era Dabla-Norris: Division Chief, International Monetary Fund
How will we bridge inequality gaps at work?
Social distancing policies implemented to contain the Covid-19 pandemic have transformed the world of work. Video conferencing and other digital technologies have powered remote work seemingly overnight, a trend that will likely endure when lockdowns are lifted. This could confer greater flexibility in work and incentivise wider adoption of telework practices, raising worker well-being and productivity, and lowering firms’ costs. Women stand to benefit, as telework could help foster more gender-balanced career paths and reduce earnings inequalities.
Connectivity is a requisite for telework, but not everyone can work from home. Around 60% of the global population still haves no computers or access to the internet. The crisis has shown also that workers in occupations requiring physical presence at the workplace have limited scope to work remotely, and are commensurately more vulnerable to job and income losses. Our research shows that these workers tend to be young, without a college education, in part-time work and at the bottom of the earnings distribution, suggesting that differential access to telework could exacerbate income inequality.
Policies are urgently needed to bridge digital divides and avoid widening cleavages in societies. This will require adapting and reforming education and training systems for a technology-enabled workplace and closing social protection deficits for workers that cannot work from home.
This is an opportunity for a cultural clean slate – John Amaechi
Sandro Galea: Professor of Epidemiology, Boston University
How do we address the social problems that contributed to Covid-19?
The Covid-19 pandemic was a momentous global failure, highlighting above all else the limitations of the social forces that produce our health. Far more people died than needed to because our weak social and economic systems had predisposed us to poor health to begin with.
So, what does this mean for us in the aftermath of Covid-19? It means that we need to take a long, hard look at the social and economic systems that underlie how we live, work and play. It means that we need to question why there are deep asset gaps between haves and have nots, and to ask why we continue to have long entrenched marginalisation of minority racial and ethnic groups.
Importantly, these are social problems, not biological ones. And social problems are harder to address and deal with. But Covid-19 should give us the reasons – finally – not to rest until we have restructured our world so that there are no health haves and health have nots, and that we are investing in the forces – like safe housing, good schools, liveable wages, gender equity, clean air, drinkable water, a fair economy – that create a healthier world.
Mark Rowland: Chief Executive, the Mental Health Foundation
How can we prioritise mental health through policy and in our communities?
During the pandemic, we have glimpsed at a kinder society that understood how much we are connected and how deeply we depend on each other. Even before it, poor mental health was the leading cause of ill health globally.
We know we can’t treat our way out of the mental-health crisis, and the pandemic shows that the context of our personal and social lives, our finances and our surroundings have very powerful effects on our mental health. However, we also know, from our evidence-based practice in communities, that you can create the conditions for good mental health and prevent mental ill health, by tackling inequality, trauma, isolation and stress. It's clear our future depends on re-imaging what our society could and should be.
So, my question is this: given the centrality of mental health to a successful recovery in 2021, what should our governments, regional authorities, companies and communities do differently to create and sustain the conditions for good mental health?
Man-yee Kan: Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Oxford
How does has the pandemic worsened divisions of labour between men and women?
I have directed my research team to investigate the impacts of the lockdown measures on the wellbeing and time use of women and men in the UK. We have found that the gender gap in domestic work persists, even though both women and men have increased their housework and care work time just after the lockdown.
However, women, especially mothers, suffer a more dramatic decline in their wellbeing. Why? One main reason is that women are used to having a heavier workload than men even before the lockdown. Across North America, Europe and East Asian countries, women do more unpaid domestic work, and have longer total work hours (paid and unpaid work) than men. These are both causes and consequences of other forms of gender inequalities, such as inequalities in pay, in occupational ranking and so on.
Although housework time increased just after the lockdown for both men and women, it had been decreasing as the lockdown progressed and after the lockdown measures were eased. Even people spent more time at home during the lockdown, this is unlikely to bring more gender equality to the domestic division of labour in the long term. In other words, women will still do far more housework than men when the pandemic is over.
Women and parents experienced a faster and larger decline in psychological wellbeing just after the lockdown. The decline in subjective wellbeing was not recovered after the lockdown measures were eased in June. This implies that the pandemic will have long-lasting negative impacts on people’s mental health.
Noreena Hertz: Author, The Lonely Century: Coming Together in a World That’s Pulling Apart
How can we fight Covid-era loneliness?
Even before Covid-19 struck, 40% of office workers globally felt lonely. In the US, almost one in five adults said they didn’t have a single friend at work.
The pandemic risks making this significantly worse. The initial euphoria of remote working has already worn off: almost half of UK workers currently working from home feel lonely. This corresponds with prior research on remote working which suggests that nine months in is when feelings of intense isolation kick in. Meanwhile, the asymmetric impact of Covid on low-paid workers in terms of their potential exposure to the virus and their financial predicaments, means that increasing numbers of people are likely to feel abandoned and marginalised.
This matters because loneliness takes a huge toll on society, politically as well as physically – the link between populism and loneliness is one I have established in my research. It also comes at a significant business cost. Lonely workers are less motivated, committed, engaged and productive than those who are not.
For the sake of our health, wealth and also our democracy, mitigating worker loneliness therefore needs to take centre stage.
José Mustre de León: Director-General, Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute (Cinvestav), Mexico
Could the pandemic boost international co-operation?
In the last two decades, digital access to new knowledge has increased significantly. This has allowed an important increase in the scientific capacity in the world, incorporating new scientists from less developed countries. This phenomenon was also fostered by an increase in globalisation. In some sense, this has helped to start decreasing a world gap in the creation of new knowledge. However, most of the scientific co-operation was performed in isolated cases with a small involvement of less developed countries in large multilateral projects with a limited impact on the wellness of society.
Since the beginning of 2020, in Cinvestav, we have seen a more structured co-operation process, in which large international teams assembled quickly, defining concrete tasks for different participants with a much faster time to respond. This was done even with very limited in-person interaction. Among the positive results observed were rapid evaluation of therapies and drugs to treat Covid-19, evaluation of social distancing strategies, better design of working spaces and the search of vaccines against Sars-CoV-2. During this global problem, findings at the local level and their comparison have allowed general strategies to advance in a quicker and more reliable manner.
The change in the co-operation process has enabled a better integration of locally produced knowledge and examination thereof. It has also resulted in a better acceptance and quicker adoption of scientific-based policies in less developed countries, as a larger fraction of their population feel included in the process of knowledge generation and the design of policies. If this trend is maintained in the future, it would allow the world to better cope with other global problems such as new emerging diseases or climate change.
David Blustein: Professor of Counseling Psychology, Boston College
How can we better protect workers all around?
The pandemic has ruptured work for millions of people across the globe, leading to a painful period of uncertainty and anxiety. Being able to work is central to many aspects of life: survival, capacity to contribute and achieve, social connections and self-determination.
I believe that this crisis is exposing the impact of the lack of protections and support for working people, which is now painfully clear. Because of the porous safety net that has allowed so many people across the globe to experience food, housing and health insecurity, I believe that this moment offers an inflection point.
My hopeful expectation is that the pandemic will encourage a serious assessment of how work has evolved as a social, psychological and economic institution. At the core of this transformation is the need for systemic changes that will ensure accessible work that pays living wages, provides health care and offers humane conditions. To get to this goal, leaders and citizens will need to make fundamental changes in how organisations are regulated and how workers are protected. I hope that people across the globe develop a movement that foregrounds the needs of people as they manage the complex web of making a living and living a meaningful life.
Pip Penfold: CEO and Co-Founder, People Collider
Should the right to disconnect be a human right?
The pandemic drew the spotlight toward socioeconomic differences; we were in the same storm, but not in the same boat. Although it’s easy to assume people in developing countries had challenges accessing the hardware, software and connectivity to work (and school) from home, evidence suggests people in developed economies struggled too bringing into stark reality the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. It brought the Right to Internet Access back into view. This view is counter-balanced with an issue at the other end of the spectrum; should those who have constant internet access have the right to disconnect? Health issues such as stress, sleeplessness and addiction have been linked to the ‘always-on’ culture.
Ashley Bloomfield: Director-General of Health of New Zealand
How can countries adapt priorities to a post-Covid world?
Covid-19 is currently very much a part of our normal lives and will likely continue to be a significant shaper and influencer of the immediate future. People have an amazing capacity to adapt and thrive. The development of a safe and effective vaccine will be a fundamental turning point in determining what the global medium- and long-term future looks like. But for now, we all need to maintain a high degree of vigilance.
Anxiety and worry are normal reactions to this sort of disruption and uncertainty. One of the keys to being resilient is being able to take the measures people need to rest, recover and look after themselves. In New Zealand, we’ve had a focus on making it easier for people to get the help they need. For example, the ability to call our 1737 phone number, and talk with a trained counsellor for free.
From a public health perspective, we must also look broadly at other global challenges, such as the impact of global warming on disease spread. Public health will have to be an increasingly important part of the discussions about our future wellbeing as a global community.
The Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us how interdependent we are: what happens to one person can soon affect many others - The Dalai Lama
Miriam Kirmayer: Clinical psychologist and friendship expert
How will the pandemic affect friendships?
How can we stay connected when we are being encouraged to distance from one another? Many of us are missing small, meaningful moments of connection and our friends’ absence is understandably felt at life-cycle events and memorials. Above and beyond physical distance, friendships are being strained over conflicting views or values. Grateful as we may be to have the technology that allows us to keep in touch, many of us are struggling with feelings of disconnection and loneliness.
Feeling connected to our friends is one of the single most important predictors of our physical health and emotional wellbeing, and loneliness is quite literally toxic for our health. My hope is that as painful as the current distance is, it’s also a reminder of how precious our friendships are and a not so subtle nudge to reflect on how we can cultivate more meaningful connections.
We will eventually resume our shared activities, playdates and events. But we can also benefit from shifting our narrative about the importance of our friendships as adults and recognising the steps we can take to cultivate closer, more fulfilling relationships.
Truthfully, loneliness has less to do with the number of friends we have or how often we see or speak to each other, and much more to do with our subjective experience of feeling connected and seen for who we really are. The more we can embrace vulnerability by sharing our struggles and successes, hold space for our friend’s feelings without imposing our own, and make an effort to prioritise our friendships the same way we do our other relationships and responsibilities, the closer we will feel and the more able we will be to tease apart the difference between being alone and feeling lonely.
Ruth Sutherland: CEO, Samaritans, London
How can societies respond to the pandemic's impact on mental health?
Humans are social animals and we thrive on connection with others – it’s often the driving force behind everything we do. The pandemic has significantly curtailed the way we interact, leaving more people increasingly isolated and vulnerable. While the pandemic has impacted all of us in some way or another, it has magnified inequalities within society, and as a result the most vulnerable groups in society have been disproportionately affected.
Throughout the pandemic, while a quarter of calls [to the Samaritans helpline] for help have focused on coronavirus, almost every interaction mentions its effects, namely on mental health, loneliness, isolation, family, finance and unemployment. We also know that lack of access to crisis teams, appointments and other support services has been a major theme, which has left people feeling increasingly distressed, disappointed and hopeless.
Many people were already struggling to access the support needed to stay well, before the pandemic. But with an estimated half-million more people likely to experience mental health problems as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic, we urgently need to change the status quo and reshape society’s priorities to put wellbeing at the heart of everything we do – promoting mental health, rather than treating mental illness, must be at the forefront.
We know that support services and charities are going to play a more vital role than ever. I am hugely proud of the way Samaritans and fellow organisations have responded to the crisis, providing emotional support for those on the frontline and across the country. We must continue to collaborate and find further innovative ideas if we want a mentally healthier society.
Karen Cassiday: Managing Director, Anxiety Treatment Center of Greater Chicago
Just how crucial will face-to-face interaction become?
The big mental health message from the pandemic is: how important is it for our mental health to have face-to-face interaction, being able to touch others and being in close proximity to others without barriers?
We all used to fantasise about how much ease easier working from home and living in our comfiest clothes all day might feel. If we felt overwhelmed, we might have fantasised about being alone on a lovely retreat in nature. But we didn’t realise how cut off we’d actually feel once we could not see someone’s full facial expression because it is covered by a mask, or how alienating it might feel to walk through a crowd of masked people and be unable to tell are reacting with pleasure to our presence.
The pandemic’s extended remote work and detachment from others have highlighted our need for frequent face-to-face interaction with all human beings as a necessary component of good mental health. We flourish when we have our face-to-face rituals, our small talk with neighbours or the casual hug when we greet a friend. If we become psychologically wise from the pandemic experience, we will build more opportunities for daily face-to-face interactions and forego to idea of a largely virtual life, because our physical interactions with other people affirm our existence, our humanity and our interdependence on one another.
Gunn Elisabeth Birkelund: Professor of Sociology, University of Oslo
How do certain attitudes and beliefs make pandemics even worse?
Citizens across the world experience daily multi-dimensional risks in a globalised world. One example is increased global mobility due to unsustainable living conditions, political crises and climatic changes. Another example is the recent coronavirus pandemic, which affects people across the world differently depending on their resources, their power and their countries’ policy response. Interestingly, we have for many years lived in the belief that global pandemics could not hit us again, at least not as hard as previous pandemics did, since we have succeeded in establishing vaccination programs for many other diseases, such as the annual influenza.
Presently, however, the pandemic is undisputable, causing suffering and deaths across the world. The question then arises as to how this could happen, and various forms of fake news and unrealistic narratives have flourished, in social and other media. Some argue in favour of increased nationalism, blaming globalisation for the pandemic. Other arguments are also seen, such as ‘nature fights back’, providing ‘nature’ with social agency.
My view is clear: rather than adhere to conspiracy theories, nationalism, mysticism or other kinds of anti-intellectual attitudes, we need to return to the core ideas of the Enlightenment, questioning all kinds of orthodoxies, political and religious, and emphasise the scientific method (to develop vaccines) and international collaboration (to disseminate the vaccination programs) as the only way out of the crisis.
Philip Jonzon Jarl: CEO and Co-Founder, Relate
How is Covid shifting how we approach our romantic relationships?
All that time spent living and working from home with limited social outlets has put our romantic relationships to the test. Many people have spent more time than ever with their partners who have also been the main point of social interaction and contact. For some it has been a blessing to go deeper into the relationship, but for many it has been a brutal awakening to the lack of understanding of each other or poor communication skills in the relationship.
In Sweden alone, joint divorce filings increased by 15% between June and July this year versus last year, and reported cases of domestic violence have seen a 20% increase globally.
On a more positive note, the pandemic has helped us appreciate and value our loved ones. Getting all that quality time together has been a boost for many and people are discovering the positive impact that a higher level of emotional intimacy in close relationships can have on our wellbeing, with an increased willingness to invest more in our private relationships.
We urgently need to change the status quo and reshape society’s priorities to put wellbeing at the heart of everything we do – Ruth Sutherland
John Amaechi: Psychologist, Fellow of the Royal Society for Public Health, former National Basketball Association player
How can we create a ‘new normal’ that considers all people’s needs?
The events of 2020 have altered what most organisations thought was true about how we work. The effects of Covid and indeed the Black Lives Matter movement supercharged what many believed was a five-to-10-year runway for adapting to a new and future world of work, reducing that timeline, in some cases, down to a matter of weeks.
We’ve eviscerated the concept of presenteeism, proving that even through a global health crisis, people are capable of tremendous productivity and dedication to their jobs when working from their dining room table. And, based on the response to George Floyd’s murder and the BLM movement, it was employees who demanded that years of leaders’ flowery rhetoric on inclusion be matched by substantive action plans.
Despite these crisis-induced evolutions, we keep hearing about ‘the new normal’ as if what was considered normal in the before times was working for everyone. Much of the ‘old normal’ was rooted in dysfunctional traditions and outdated notions about what gets people to perform at their best and we are unequivocally better off without them.
The ‘new normal’ has no integrity or ambition. We’ve been telling our clients for months now that the genie is out of the bottle. You can either create a tactical, new normal that is defined by “what we can no longer do because of a virus” which will dissatisfy just about everyone, or look at this moment as a strategic opportunity to create a pragmatic, but people-centred way of working that will attract and retain the best talent and innovate and be resilient rather than disassemble in the face of the inevitable future crises.
This is an opportunity for a cultural clean slate – and I’m hoping that organisations will see the benefits of looking forward to new opportunities, not pining for a past that the research tells us, few colleagues want anymore.
Joshua Morganstein: Assistant Director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress, Uniformed Services University
How can we lead people through grief and stress, and instil a sense of hope?
Public health emergencies, like Covid-19, strike at society's fault lines, exposing unaddressed issues, such as disparities across race, gender and income. Leaders play a critical role in acknowledging community divisions, addressing concerns, seeking collaborative solutions, and promoting unity and healing.
Historically, the adverse mental health effects of disasters impact more people and last much longer than the health effects. If history is any predictor, we should expect a significant ‘tail’ of mental-health needs continuing long after the outbreak resolves.
The magnitude and duration of Covid-19 creates profound loss. A loss of a sense of safety, certainty about the future, jobs and lives means grief has become a universal phenomenon in Covid-19. Grief leadership is critical for communities, and involves acknowledging grief, honouring losses, and helping communities look hopefully to the future.
Stress is like a toxin, such as lead or radon. In order to understand its impact, we need to know who is exposed, when, how much, and the impact over time, as well as factors buffering against the stress. Many people are at risk for adverse mental health effects of COVID-19. Health surveillance is critical to better understand risk and protective factors, deliver effective and targeted interventions, and plan for future pandemic waves.
Libby Sander: Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour, Bond University
How can the way we design our spaces help us thrive?
Humans have an innate desire to connect. However, post-Covid, we will seek experiences that are more personalised. Experience design will play a central role in attracting users, and trust as a currency will be critical. We need to have conversations at all levels about how we work and live that challenge our assumptions, and not just repeat what we have always done. We are facing a future in the workplace of precarious employment confronted by the triple threat of automation, outsourcing and AI. We need to rethink our approaches to actively plan for different scenarios, and this has been accelerated by Covid-19.
Cities will have smaller head offices. People will seek home environments as a retreat, designed to be restorative and peaceful. Homes will have work areas that are better equipped and have sound insulation. Our homes are likely to become bigger, have greater automation, have more than one workspace. People won’t go to the office every day. The purpose of the office will change, the focus will be on team interaction and collaboration, not focused individual work. The design of offices will be centred around creating experiences and spaces that support employees to feel physically and psychologically safe, to connect and to be creative.
Penny Pritzker: Former US Secretary of Commerce and Founder, PSP Partners
How can we better train and set up workers to thrive post-pandemic?
The United States can’t fully bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic without a strategy to support its workers and equip them to compete in the rapidly changing global economy.
Rapidly Emerging technologies in robotics, automation and artificial intelligence have changed workplaces across the US. Now, the coronavirus is accelerating these economic disruptions. While the evolution of technology can’t be stopped, more can and must be done to help US workers evolve and succeed alongside it. That effort will be a central challenge during the post-pandemic recovery and beyond. Meeting the challenge requires creating an economy that leads to more inclusive growth and gives workers a chance to learn the skills they need to adapt, adjust and thrive in the 21st Century workplace.
The United States must also fortify and modernise its safety net to ensure more inclusive and equitable growth. These are some critical starting points: guarantee basic universal healthcare. Give workers new benefits, such as training vouchers, to help them transition to new careers. Connect everyone to broadband internet access, which many families cannot currently afford. Expand access to childcare, sick leave and family medical leave. Strengthen food assistance. Support teachers, first responders and healthcare workers by better funding state and local governments.
Last, the nation needs a forward-looking strategy for economic competitiveness and the jobs and industries of the future. This requires investments in workers, innovation and early stage research and development as well as an immigration policy that welcomes talent rather than turning it away.
A strong middle class is the backbone of the United States’ success. But emerging technologies are transforming the global economy, and it’s time for our policymakers to give workers the tools and support they need to thrive. In the post-pandemic world, the nations that make this shift will be best poised to recover and prosper.
Richard Sennett: Professor of Sociology, University of Oxford
Which workers will be hit hardest?
How is this pandemic actually going to increase inequality? You can’t pick up garbage on the internet. So, almost every manual service labour job is off the table, in terms of exposure to the virus: service workers, healthcare workers, people who are paid to pick up the trash, clean apartments, all of that.
A lot of the [media coverage has been] that people are going to be liberated, the centres of cities are going to collapse. The real effects of the pandemic are going to speed up the pressures. It’s going to separate within the white-collar world the ‘drones’ – I hate that expression – from the managers. That’s going to be a horrible, long-lasting effect of the virus. Working class people are going to be at risk in a way that middle-class people aren’t.
Jingbo Cui: Associate Professor of Applied Economics, Duke Kunshan University, China
Will people accept giving up data privacy for Covid-19 safety?
In the midst of pandemic, China’s international trade and services are stagnant, disproportionately affecting people with different occupations; in particular, those in export-oriented sectors and at small enterprises.
In response, China has introduced a new economic development mode that advocates a domestic economic cycle, with the expectation that domestic consumption will play a major role in boosting economic growth. To this end, the country initiated a stimulus package that provides loans and other financial support to small and medium-sized firms. In addition, it’s hoped that household subsidies will increase demand in sluggish retail sectors.
This economic recovery comes at the expense of public information sharing. Everyone has to obtain a health access QR code – smartphone software that indicates in real-time whether someone poses a contagion risk.
The QR code system is a cost-effective way to allow people without contagion risk to return to work. However, it raises concern about releasing private location information to gigantic tech companies and local authorities as well as potential discrimination based on the colour of your QR code (green or red). Data privacy and security should be a priority for every government when designing public health policy.
For the sake of our health, wealth and also our democracy, mitigating worker loneliness therefore needs to take centre stage – Noreena Hertz
Swati Janu: Researcher, University of Oxford and Senior Designer at mHS City Labs, Delhi
What lessons could be learned from India?
While everyone has been coping with the pandemic in their own way, what it has also revealed are the various networks of support for individuals and communities. In India, government schemes, such as the Public Distribution System (PDS) for distribution of essential supplies, Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) which provides midday meals to children up to six years old and frontline workers such as (Accredited Social Health Activist) ASHA workers, among others, have helped support marginalised communities through these difficult times.
At the same time, several gaps in these networks have been brought to light, with civil society organisations stepping in to bridge them and ensure last mile connectivity to families. The pandemic has also made visible those who have had no safety nets to fall back on, with mass exodus of migrant workers from cities to their respective villages, left without livelihoods and in many cases, even without a roof over their heads. How we can strengthen the existing networks of support and bridge the gaps is what we urgently need to focus on at macro levels of policy and governance.
Thomas Campanella: Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Architecture Art and Planning, Cornell University
How are pandemic inequalities being made worse in cities?
Disasters tend to sharpen a society's prevailing fault lines and divisions, and the current pandemic is no exception. Covid-19 mortality has disproportionately affected low-wealth communities of colour, where obesity and related illnesses are prevalent. White collar professionals work from home while service sector stiffs are forced to labour on the front lines of the pandemic. The wealthy have retreated to the Hamptons or Hudson Valley, leaving low-income New Yorkers to endure crowded apartments, often with children and elders sharing a handful of rooms.
Hidden behind face masks, distanced six feet apart, we are quite literally losing touch with one another – starved of the social connectivity and engagement that is the very marrow of urban civic life. We turn instead to the echo chambers of social media, immersing ourselves in a sad simulacrum of the city – a kind of subdivision in the ether where we encircle ourselves with only those who look and act and think the way we do.
Itai Palti: Director, The Centre for Conscious Design
How can city design improve our mental health post-Covid?
To understand the mental health effects of the pandemic we need to look at the city as a medium for connection. One that connects between people, but also one that enables each of us to connect to aspects of ourselves that emerge in different contexts. In this manner, the pandemic limits our ability to enact parts of our own identity; grandmother, mentor, friend.
Healthy interpersonal interactions, many of which preserve or develop parts of our identity are crucial for social wellbeing, for child development and even for the slowing down of cognitive decline in older adults. The city is a player in these interactions through the different settings it provides, enriching shared experiences and grounding their memory in place.
Covid-19 exasperates existing underlying issues in many sectors, and in cities it is doing the same. Before the pandemic; social isolation, loneliness and lack of social cohesion were big issues, and now even more so. These issues will persist because they're at the core of our universal need to connect and belong, and the pandemic is making this more apparent than ever.
The post-pandemic city can become a healthier place only if we reshuffle its priorities. If we keep the position of places for consumption as the primary location for social gathering, therefore making social connectedness subordinate to economic growth, we will have learnt very little from the lockdown. We need to rebuild the city to become a better medium for connection at all times including a pandemic, and that means repurposing public places around genuine, meaningful and safe interactions.
Psychological research on catastrophic events shows that most people do bounce back – Steven Taylor
Heather Boushey: President and CEO, Washington Center for Equitable Growth
How will inequalities and the economy continue to be connected?
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting recession is best understood in the context of what has happened to the US economy over the past 40 years. The last four decades marked a period of increased inequality and slower growth that left the economy and workers and families more vulnerable to economic shocks.
Now the pandemic has revealed in stark relief what those of us who have studied economic inequality already knew: Covid-19 laid bare the vast network of underlying fragilities that continues to threaten the health and well-being of the United States. The latest economic research shows the many ways that high inequality – in incomes, wealth, and across firms – serves to obstruct, subvert, and distort the processes that lead to widespread improved economic well-being.
The current crises have also presented us with a moment to reset. Policymakers should be keenly focused on reducing economic inequality and boosting growth. We must limit inequality’s ability to constrict our economy and tackle the ways that the concentration of economic resources translates into political and social power. And we must ensure that as we do, we address long-standing inequities across our society, including by gender and structural racism.
Now is the time for us to act collectively to create an economy characterised by growth that is strong, stable, and broadly shared, one that measures its success by the degree to which individuals and families have a chance at a prosperous life.
Daron Acemoglu: Professor of Economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
How can institutions better serve us in a post-pandemic world?
The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare that our institutions, both national and global, are not up to the challenges facing us. The most major problems confronting us have not been created by Covid-19: they had been in the making for the last several decades, if not for longer.
They come in two flavours. The first are clearly global challenges, such as preventing climate change and nuclear war (and containing global pandemics). But we lack global institutions capable of helping us deal with these problems.
The second set of problems, centred on creating prosperity in our age of automation and globalisation, appears national, but these problems require global co-operation as well. We need new institutions to help us navigate this tumultuous period, but because we have so far failed to recognise and deal with these challenges, trust in both national and global institutions has eroded.
The world will be different in many ways when the pandemic is finally under control: more work from home, less travel, more reliance on digital technologies, perhaps less than cities. My concern is that it won’t be sufficiently different. There is a danger that we will go back to business as usual and fail to remake our institutions again. Or we could listen to one of many siren calls inviting us to tear down institutions — in favour of empowering some autocrat or emulating some nebulous version of the Chinese model of less democracy and more authoritarianism. What we need is radical gradualism: build on our existing institutions but at the same time gradually remake them so that we can create a better safety net, redirect technological change to help workers and forge shared prosperity, reconstruct better globalisation, and start tackling the urgent global challenges.
Beatriz Colomina: Professor, History of Architecture, Princeton University
How could urban inequalities be solved after the pandemic?
When people speculate about the city of the future, as everyone seems to do during a crisis, they think of the visible city – its shape, materials, organisation, streets, parks and buildings. But what the pandemic has dramatically, even shockingly, made visible is the invisible city – not just the invisible urbanism of hyper-social micro-organisms but the invisible urbanism of inequities, hidden workers, and uneven access to care or empathy.
Cities are produced by medical emergencies that leave layers upon layers over the centuries. We tend to forget very quickly what produced those layers. We act as if each pandemic is the first. Yet the history of cities is the history of disease. Cities accelerate contagion but they also incubate ideas and relationships. We relish the contaminations they offer. The future city may not look so different but all its hidden rhythms will have changed. Think of working at home, in bed even, as millions have been forced to do. It was once a fantasised future and now a reality we are unlikely to give up. This turn indoors, which was already well underway in the last decade, is not a turn away from the city or from density. Far from an anti-urban force, the virus will inspire new forms of urban density, new forms of cross-contamination. The key will not be the shape of the city but affordable housing, education and access to healthcare.
Urvashi Aneja: Associate Fellow, Chatham House
How can we safeguard worker welfare and wellbeing?
The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted just how precarious gig work is, with most platforms failing to take on responsibility for the health, safety and financial security of workers on their platform. The few piecemeal measures that have been put in place have tended to prioritise customer safety over worker wellbeing. New intrusive monitoring and surveillance mechanisms have also been introduced – location data, for example, is now continuously being collected.
These problems are particularly acute in developing countries because of weak labour laws, the absence of data protection frameworks and low levels of regulatory capacity. High levels of unemployment in many developing countries leave workers with little choice but to accept these conditions of work.
Gig work is also likely to increase. The financial crisis of 2008, and the economic downturn that followed, lead to the growth of the gig economy. This is likely to be the case once again, with a decrease in the number of jobs. But, if the past 10 odd years of the gig economy is anything to go by, this will not be good for most workers. Workers have little income security, no social protection and limited opportunities for collective action and bargaining.
This series is produced by: Philippa Fogarty, Simon Frantz, Javier Hirschfeld, Anna Jones, Sarah Keating, Emmanuel Lafont, Bryan Lufkin, Rachel Mishael, Visvak Ponnavolu, Maddy Savage and Meredith Turits.