Three Paradoxes Revealed by The Pandemic

Geoff Mulgan

Two years on from the start of the pandemic, our team at IPPO have been working to make sense of the patterns.

In reviewing the social and political aspects of the pandemic, there appear to be three major paradoxes.

Connectedness can lead to separation

The first paradox is that connectedness sometimes makes us shrink away from connectedness.

This year has certainly made our social and economic connectedness even more apparent than usual. In 2022, the continuing spread of pandemic infections, particularly in Asia, the dynamics of war in Ukraine, and then the widespread effects of the energy and cost of living crises, have demanded that we notice how deeply connected we are in every aspect of our daily lives.

Yet, it’s clear that the momentum to retreat behind boundaries and identities is as strong as ever: Brexit, Modi’s Hindutva, Putinism, the strong support for Marine Le Pen and the reelection of Viktor Orban all confirm that across the world pride in being different and separate remains a compelling force. Almost as if the reality of our interdependence is too much to bear.

Perhaps before long we may also see the knock-on effects on political stability as new waves of migration and refugees re-energise the populist right in Europe.

Transformation can be needed but also ignored

The second paradox is that there is both awareness of the need for transformation and a lack of capacity to do it. In the first months of the pandemic there was evidence of a strong desire for transformational change in many countries.

People wanted to use the crisis to deal with the big unresolved problems of climate change inequality and much more, encouraged, for example, by the very obvious truth that the most essential jobs were often amongst the lowest paid and lowest status. That everyone was affected by the pandemic seemed likely to fuel a more collective spirit, a recognition of how much our lives are intertwined with those of millions of strangers.

Now much of that energy has gone. People are exhausted, expectations have fallen and a return to normality looks acceptable, however inadequate that normality might have been. War in Ukraine has reminded us just how easily the world can go into retreat and that basic values remain under threat. And the energy crisis may make it even harder to move rapidly ahead with climate action. As a result the momentum for transformation appears to have dissipated for now.

A physical health crisis may lead to lasting changes in mental health

The third paradox is that a crisis that has been all about physical health may in the long run be seen as a turning point in mental health. A recent survey confirmed that a large majority globally see mental health as just as important as physical health – a huge shift in perceptions. But within governments the status of mental health is far lower than physical health. It is not measured, talking about, organized for or funded to anything like the same extent. It was simply ignored in the many models which guided decisions. Yet there are plenty of signs now that the mental health side of the crisis was almost as serious as the physical health side (though of course they are hard to compare precisely) – and population mental health is now a topic for an IPPO systematic review.

Trust comes from relationships

Finally, the last two years have shown, again and again, the importance of trust. Interpersonal trust turns out to have strongly influenced outcomes and trust in governments seems to affect trust in other things, including science. Social capital – the topic of another IPPO systematic review – has turned out to matter a lot at the local level.

Now the many battles over misinformation that have been present throughout the pandemic are being mirrored on a much larger scale in the war between Ukraine and Russia, a relatively open democracy and a tightly closed autocracy. It’s reminding us that healthy democracies rest on shared facts, evidence and truths, and that if that world fractures, and if leaders treat truth as optional, much else falls apart too.

On Friday June 17, the International Public Policy Observatory, is holding an online event to discuss the team’s review of the financial cost of poor staff wellbeing to the NHS. For more details of this free event, please click here.