Covid-19 and our unprecedented age of change

Raj Patel

The scale and depth of this crisis is unprecedented, its duration uncertain, and speculation rife about the possibilities of radical change

Covid-19 is a new disease, so there are genuine uncertainties about the medical science, but data collection and robust evidence grow by the day across a range of areas. The UK’s wealth of national and local long-term population-based studies will be central to understanding the short- and long-term impacts of Covid-19 and its aftermath.

My social media feeds have been bursting at the seams, not simply with health stories, current affairs and entertainment choices, but with ideas about how Covid-19 will change everything. So, it would be tempting to believe that all aspects of life will be reset, and that 2020 will become year zero.

In particular, stories about how Covid-19 will fundamentally change lifestyles and reset the relationships between people and with nature and the environment, have been common. Britain seems to have rediscovered social solidarity, with compassionate stories of volunteers and neighbours going out of their way to help others prompting the Prime Minister to announce that there is such a thing as society.

What will that society look like in years to come, and will a period of ‘new normal’ create longer term legacies? As social scientists, health researchers, historians and researchers from many other disciplines are well aware, Covid-19 will not be a ‘great leveller’ between rich and poor – or in its ‘balance’ between health, social, economic, spatial and environmental effects. A swift response by the government on some fronts – the Job Retention Scheme or the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, for example – have been widely welcomed, and will mitigate the worst of economic harms.

However, the reality on some fronts is turning out to be quite different. Calls to domestic violence helplines have increased, and there are growing concerns about the mental health impact of Covid-19 on frontline health and care workers, those looking after vulnerable family members, children and people experiencing economic hardship and those isolated for long periods. Early mortality data from the ONS for England and Wales show that older people, men, BAME groups, social care workers, security guards, chefs, drivers and chauffeurs, and sales and retail assistants have a higher probability of dying from the disease. One flash finding suggests that “nearly one-third of lower-paid employees have lost jobs or been furloughed, compared to less than one-in-ten top earners, with these experiences also more common among atypical employees”.

Rocky waters ahead

There is never a good time for crises, and this one comes alongside other formidable policy challenges: an ageing UK society which is consuming a larger proportion of public spending across health, pensions and social care; the need for accelerating action on climate change; and the creative destruction from galloping technology, and its effects on health, safety, employment and social life.

We can be fairly confident about some major macro changes: government, organisations and households will emerge highly indebted; with little public appetite for further austerity, taxes will need to rise; and with widescale adoption of new technologies, there will be an accelerated change to the world of work and consumption.

New possibilities

The crisis opens up new possibilities for transformational policy change, but this is not a given. A crucial factor will be public demand for change: who experiences the greatest losses, who meets the cost of the crisis, and in general, the interplay between economic, social and political forces. The crisis has certainly illuminated aspects of society, economy and policy that have not always been extensively scrutinised by the public.

Will our behaviours change in the aftermath, and which changes will stick? Which ones will be transitory? Although the Covid-19 shock has been experienced simultaneously by millions, people’s responses to shocks are influenced by many factors. Whether new defaults get hardwired into changes in behaviour will depend on what sort of institutional changes or ‘choice architecture’ starts to emerge.

In this uncertain environment, those keen to pursue identity and cultural conflicts between social groups or nations to achieve their beliefs will no doubt find easy pickings, given that crises can lead to unhealthy emotions which can easily be manipulated. Covid-19 already comes in the context of previously falling confidence in the political system in the UK, with people pessimistic about the country’s problems and their possible solutions, and sizeable numbers willing to entertain radical political changes.

Looking ahead

The coronavirus pandemic will have far reaching consequences and spill over effects, probably on multiple generations. It is difficult to be precise at this stage about how the effects will play out over time – across government and politics, healthcare, the economy, the lives of the most vulnerable, social cohesion and society in general. With its historical data stretching back to 2009 and plans in place for future data collection to 2025, including an additional monthly Covid-19 survey, Understanding Society (and other longitudinal studies) will be vital to understand precisely how future aspects of life, work and health are changing, for whom and with what consequences. 

It is possible that we will see significant social and political shifts, signalled by public demand for greater resilience in health and social care services, improvements to social security as many people experience the system for the first time, better appreciation of the importance of health and nature, and – given the unprecedented level of state intervention across economic life – a reset on what good governments can do.

The dilemmas for policymakers will only grow, and the leadership and capacity of our institutions to respond will be severely tested, given the level of uncertainty. Much depends on how the aftermath of the crisis is managed, on public consensus-building, and on how effectively researchers can work across disciplines to join up thinking and inform reasoned policy decisions.


Raj Patel

Raj Patel is Associate Director of Policy at Understanding Society, focusing on how data can be used to address the challenges society faces.