The COVID-19 pandemic has altered life as we know it, but how could it change society in the long term? We investigate
COVID-19 is like no crisis faced before by anyone under the age of 100. That’s how long ago the Spanish flu pandemic took place, killing tens of millions around the world – an estimated 228,000 in Britain alone.
In terms of a national crisis, not since the Blitz have so many UK citizens been called to respond, whether that means the work they do, the rules they follow, or the risks they take. But supposed experts got the Blitz wrong. Pug Ismay, Winston Churchill's chief military assistant during the Second World War, produced a paper estimating that a sustained German attack on London would lead to mass panic, civilians spontaneously evacuating and refusing to work, and a catastrophic decline in production. He concluded: “There is every chance that this could cost us the war.”
He was not alone in that view. Yet, as renowned psychiatrist Simon Wessely has written: “By 1944, 80 percent of the civilian population were actively engaged in the War effort. They knew why they were there, they knew what they were doing, they knew why they had been asked to accept the risk and adversity and hardship that they were, and not only did they know why and what the purpose was, they also were playing, in a small way, a part in overcoming that.”
The COVID spirit
Will COVID-19 be this generation’s Blitz? There have already been extraordinary displays of generosity and resourcefulness. In just a week, 750,000 people in England signed up to be part of the NHS Volunteer Responders initiative.
A 4,000-bed hospital has been built in a matter of days. Crowdfunding has been tapped to protect arts organisations, and to help with funeral costs. Scientific research has been fast-tracked. The internet has become a teaching tool and a virtual community hub. Smartphones have been employed as symptom trackers.
“An important feature of major crises like this one is that they can foster a sense of common fate, which reinforces a sense of collective identity,” says Olivier Klein, a professor at the school of psychological sciences and education of Sciences of the Université Libre de Bruxelles.
“The high emotional arousal associated with the fear of epidemics generates much socialising and social sharing of emotions, which are known to foster social relations and reinforce solidarity within the group. People compensate for the lack of physical contact by engaging in collective rituals that serve this function as well—such as applauding health workers, a behaviour seen all over Europe—as well as volunteering in hospitals.”
COVID-19 could be a prompt for grassroots change
Given the whirl of emotions, the government and other authorities have a vital role to play.
“The challenge for health and government is to reframe health messages, from individual ones to collective ones,” says Dr Klein.
“So, instead of telling us to engage in this or that behaviour because it will increase your lifespan or quality of life, the message has to be: ‘Take care of your health because it will help others, by extension the community as a whole and therefore you in return’.”
A motor for social change
Melissa Leach, social anthropologist and director of the Institute of Development Studies, thinks deeper social changes are taking place at a local level. “After the 2008 financial crash, there was talk of reform, but the banks were bailed out and it was soon ‘business as usual’ for governments,” she says.
“But COVID-19 could be a prompt for grassroots change. Physical distancing has led to social connectivity. Technology and the way we use it are shifting. People who would normally not use social media—people’s grandparents—are using it. People are perhaps making more effort to keep in touch now than they were before.”
The key question is: will all this communicating generate something more lasting and profound?
“We might well begin to see communities and individuals putting pressure on governments,” says Leach. “Look at how everyone now talks about the idea of a universal income. The radical has become mainstream.
“We are realising that development issues are not only in poorer countries in Africa and parts of Asia. COVID-19 has fundamentally overturned that. Globally, there has already been a rethinking about development. The virus knows no borders. The economic fallout will be as great for the UK in a way as it will be for African countries.”
Disasters knock us out of our routines and make us reconsider what is important. Psychologists call this post-traumatic growth (PTG).
“PTG does not mean that people don't suffer the negative effects of a disaster, it just means that as well as the negatives there can be positives,” explains Dr Sarita Jane Robinson, an expert in health and cognitive psychology at the University of Central Lancashire.
“For example, after COVID-19 people may reflect on how fulfilling their job actually was and seek out a new one. Or they might see the importance of family more clearly and spend more time with their children. Disasters bring home to us what matters and what is actually unimportant.”
But Dr Robinson also points to wider impacts in attitudes to consumption, leisure and the environment.
“After COVID-19 people may consider whether business travel is really needed or whether they need to shop as much as they have in the past. People could discover new hobbies and appreciate nature walks more.
“After the Second World War people demanded better health care—leading to the creation of the NHS in the UK—and I think we may see similar demands, as a spotlight has been shone on zero-hour contracts and the need for broadband in every home.”
There has been limited research on the psychological impacts of viral epidemics. The data available suggests they have severe social and psychological effects.
A study of 2,000 adults, carried out by an interdisciplinary team led by Richard Bentall, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Sheffield, found a spike in depression and anxiety after the announcement of the lockdown. However, on the whole, “a nation that is well-informed about COVID-19, taking appropriate health related actions, and largely psychologically resilient”.
“We know from previous studies that people who feel a strong sense of belonging and a trust in their local neighbourhood show less of a reaction to financial stress,” says Bentall.
“Some people will come out of this positively.”
Nations that face disasters more regularly are more likely to be resilient. Because of the scale of COVID-19, the UK, like other wealthy countries, was caught unprepared.
“A disaster should trigger reflection and adaptation,” says Sarita Jane Robinson. “We need to make sure that in future we are prepared – and I think this is now more likely.”
Melissa Leach, who was lead social scientist in the UK/World Health Organisation response to the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak, believes we should learn from the experience of developing nations.
“COVID-19 has reversed roles. Africa and Latin America are being infected by us. That turnaround could foster a new and better relationship, if we can translate that into a more globally solid world. Our experience of this should inform change in approaches to health and wellbeing, climate and environment, economic and social equity, and governance and politics
“We need to learn lessons from COVID-19. Why, for instance, is it perceived as an existential crisis while climate change is not? I am hopeful COVID-19 will influence attitudes positively. I think there are opportunities for transformation and action here.”