What the post-pandemic recovery might look like
Countries such as Canada, the US, Israel and several European countries, including the UK, have achieved relatively high vaccination rates among adults and are seeing significant declines in coronavirus disease (COVID-19) infections. Their populations are now testing what a post-pandemic world might look like, though some mitigation measures are still in place and some risks remain.
Pandemics of the past often led to significant political, economic, social, religious and demographic changes. Some experts have suggested that there might be a new “Roaring 20s.” The 1920s, which followed the First World War and the Spanish flu pandemic, ushered in an era of urbanization in the US, along with increased freedoms for women and significant economic changes. It is unclear whether the current pandemic, which fortunately has not coincided with a world war, will lead to similar changes. However, the countries that appear to be emerging from the pandemic suggest that there will be demographic, economic, social and psychological impacts.
Initial data suggests that the pandemic has accelerated important demographic trends. In some countries that experienced declines in birth rates before the pandemic — such as France, Italy and the US — those rates have declined further. While there is the possibility of a post-pandemic baby boom, COVID-19 has likely deepened the trend of declining birth rates.
The pandemic is also likely to shift migration patterns. It has had a major impact on global migration, with many border closures and travel restrictions still in place, as well as some indications of growing anti-immigrant sentiment. It is also likely to have impacts on internal migration within countries. In the US, a pre-existing trend of people leaving core urban areas for the suburbs or smaller metropolitan areas has accelerated. While that shift might slow after the pandemic, it could also increase if the experience leads to a significant increase in telework.
A major unknown is the long-term impact on women. The pandemic worsened gender inequalities all around the world. Multiple factors put greater burdens on women, including a disproportionate impact on sectors that tend to employ women, and school and childcare closures. In the US, millions of women have not yet returned to the workforce. In-person school remains unreliable in many parts of the country and the pandemic exacerbated a lack of affordable childcare for younger children. Europe faces a similar problem. While more women are likely to return to work once school and childcare is more readily available, many will remain out of the workforce or look for part-time or more flexible jobs. Those who want to return to a career might struggle even more than before the pandemic, as they lost time out of their careers and as employers might assume that women will leave work whenever there is a crisis. Indeed, the pandemic made it clear that society relies on women when a crisis happens, but fails to value their contributions.
The pandemic is also likely to lead to changes in the workforce. Many businesses are considering more permanent forms of telework, with major potential implications for the economy, transportation and internal migration. In the US, some businesses are struggling to hire workers, particularly in the restaurant and hospitality sectors. While there are several reasons for this, some initial evidence suggests that many workers have used the pandemic to re-evaluate their careers and lifestyles. Some are choosing to retrain for new jobs or look for jobs with more stable or flexible schedules. In particular, many people — especially mothers — who worked in restaurants and other jobs that tend to have low pay, erratic schedules and frequent interaction with disrespectful customers felt unsafe and undervalued during the pandemic and are looking for jobs in other sectors.
Many people are coping with smaller changes in life near the end (hopefully) of the pandemic. Trends in travel suggest that some people want to take on big adventures, driven by an increased sense of mortality and limited time. On the other hand, some Europeans and Americans are traveling closer to home — limiting long flights and avoiding the potential complications of crossing borders while there are still COVID-19 restrictions.
Some initial evidence suggests that many workers have used the pandemic to re-evaluate their careers and lifestyles.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
In countries that still have COVID-19 but are seeing significant decreases due to vaccinations, people are responding in different ways. Some are ready to make up for lost time: Traveling, making big life decisions and socializing extensively. Others feel exhausted and anxious about returning to a pre-pandemic lifestyle. Vaccines are not yet approved for young children, so vaccinated parents must assess their family’s overall risk — adding to a sense that families have borne the brunt of the pandemic.
Psychologists have noted that it is natural to feel tired or stressed as people re-engage with the world. We are out of practice and there are still risks. Many people are grieving lost loved ones, lost jobs and lost opportunities. Many are tired of constantly assessing ever-changing risks. A post-pandemic transition will involve many challenges.
Furthermore, while some countries can start experiencing some normality, the pandemic is far from over globally. Countries such as India, Brazil and Argentina are still experiencing severe outbreaks. No country will have a fully recovered economy while key global trade partners are struggling. As long as COVID-19 continues to burn through populations, there will be a risk of variants that could defeat existing vaccines. Even as some countries gradually recover, they will need to provide assistance to others that are far behind in access to effective vaccines.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch