Why our social future is changing and how Covid-19 will accelerate the pace of change

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  • J.Bughin

Why our social future is changing and how Covid-19 will accelerate the pace of change

May 7th. Our lives have always been closely linked to a social structure, enforced by law, or informally by norms and habits that evolve through times. This blog is the follow up blog to the previous one written for Ubiverse, -a community around key matters for our society, which I encourage you to look at and join (Why our social future is changing and how covid-19 will accelerate the pace of change), and it tries to make the case that Covid-19 might be the catalyst to accelerate towards our new social future.

Changing social structures

In the previous blog (Why our social future is changing and how Covid-19 will accelerate the pace of change), we have shown that the social norms of the past which led to a long period of enlightenment and happiness growth, have become challenged, due to the combination of three forces: digitization, globalisation, and sustainability. While we are at the point of crisis leading to large social divide, we believe that the Covid-19 crisis may well be the case in point for an acceleration of changes, and for a new solution space.Here is why.

Covid-19 interaction with forces at work

Not only the emergence, but the consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic is linked to our social model, and the forces at work that are reshaping it.

Regarding the emergence of Covid-19, more than 75% of the new communicable diseases have been zoonoses in the recent past. If we recognize that zoonoses are complex and dynamic diseases, part of their outbreak are clearly linked to human-related factors, such as ecotourism, or culinary habits (see how the Covid-19 patient zero originated most likely from the Wuhan food and animal market). But it may well be that the virus is the long term result of human intrusion into life ecosystems as well our new social way of leaving, that is, increased urbanization.1

Urbanization on the other hand, is not only a cause of epidemic occurrence. Covid-19 becomes more of a problem in cities, as close contacts increase with inhabitants density and because urban areas employ more workers in customer facing occupations, that will be affected by more or less social distancing measures put forward by many governments to flatten the curve of the coronavirus pandemics.2 Covid-19 also brings some advantage to cities. Because of the business model, the sharing economy is more developed in high density of population, helping to find a solution to the logistics of retail trade and food services, two sectors most affected by the containment measures of social distancing. Finally, cities concentrate more on the new skill set in demand, which are now using digital platforms as new models of social interactions.

We all know that globalisation directly affected the spread of the Covid-19 to become a pandemic, affecting more than 200 hundred countries by now. We also know how pollution and sustainability also interact with Covid-19. It has been recently claimed that pollution increases the morbidity risk of Covid-19. In Italy, for example, it has been reported that cities that exceed twice more often the limit set for PM10 than others have also registered twice more cases of Covid-19 infections.3

We have seen how digital technologies are a blessing to trace contaminants timely and put those infected in appropriate quarantines, like done in most Asian countries.4 We have witnessed how digital technologies can be used to resolve supply chain issues (eg 3D print of swabs for Covid-19 testing), and how AI has quickly helped identify the genome of the Covid-19 (with the hope) to accelerate the effective race for antivirals and vaccines.5

Finally, the social norms leading to more individualism have been tested heavily as being moral enough in the case of deciding whether to comply with quarantine rules. One case study illustrates the point. When Italy decided for a full containment measure in the hope of curbing the Covid-19 disease, a few individuals decided to move from a high-risk zone such as Milan to southern regions of Italy. 40 of those individuals were enough to cause the sudden spread of the virus observed afterwards in the South.6

Of course “cheating” has been part of life, and can be tolerated. But exceptions may have to prevail, especially in situations such as Covid-19, creating major externality risks. This is especially so, as the fatality rate associated to contagion of the Covid-19 disproportionately affects the old population (about 12% more than average, after controlling for other factors such as comorbidities), while the largest contributor to close contacts is the young generation, also the one less inclined to obey to the rules of social distancing.7

Covid-19: a catalyst for a new social future

This being said, the episode of the Covid-19 crisis is likely to be more than just another force at work. It may be the catalyst to a new social model of interactions for multiple reasons:

  • Covid-19 is only at the start of its pandemic status, with a first outbreak wave slowly ending in a few countries, but with more and more evidence that likely less than 10% of the population got infected currently by the virus. This level is proof of the effectiveness of the lockdowns, but in the meantime, is also a level, far away from the implied immunity threshold of between 35–55% that will ensure a control on the disease spread, and the insurance of no new outbreak like we have just witnessed. In passing, this level of immunity is based on initial reproduction rates of \(R_0=2.2\), and accounting for behavioral changes, as well as asymmetric distribution of contagion8; infections however do not stop at this stage, but the flow is slowly declining to stop at possibly 65% to 85% of the population.

  • Given the above, the risk of multiple waves for Covid-19 is non nil, so that, if we phase down lockdown, we are not going back to the same social interaction model as before, at least in the foreseeable future. The new normal would likely entail a model with lower physical interactions at work, for education, and for economic exchange. The new normal may also make lurking and cheating less acceptable to many, supporting the idea of more coercitive measures (eg Taiwan put fines on those who were noncompliant of containment, at level in the thousands of USD). Likewise, while there has been a large movement towards keeping our strict privacy, tracing to prevent the large outbreak of Covid-19 might be accepted under certain conditions , eg more US citizens accept it than refusing it, for example.9

  • Another consequence of Covid-19 is the boost towards further enterprise digitization, which has been largely lagging the one on the consumer side. Many more companies are likely to adopt remote working, and digital interfacing for work, replacing physical contacts but recognizing that progress in enterprise platforms has made the digital remote experience as good—if not better—than physical encounters.

  • Large pandemics in general affect social capital for a long time. For example, the Spanish flu of 1918 led to a significant burden of deaths that affected a decrease in social trust and in turn led to lower growth and prosperity. Of importance, the descendants of people who face the pandemic did reveal this social behavioral change.10 There is thus a risk that after Covid-19, our social capital will be in part depleted, leading to lower economic welfare. As social trust has been damaged recently with multiple crises (bombing, migration, financial crisis of 2018), Covid-19 will only add to the fire, and must require active actions to rebuild the role of our institutions as trusted partners. In particular, a major recovery plan will have to address all the leftovers, with a notion of prioritization towards the most fragile segments of the population. The home care crisis, as well as the lack of equipment support to hospital workers will have to be turned around soon, and vocational careers built up, as well as stock equipment buffers made up, to face the ongoing waves to come of Covid-19.

  • Last but not least, Covid-19 is likely a catalyst for how our model of interactions will evolve towards a more global model, one which will embrace—rather than be afraid of—machines. Covid-19 has proven that automation may easily complement our work (eg, video conferencing), and health (eg, AI-based genomics).

  • The new model of interactions will also be more respectful of our earth resources, as Covid-19 has shown how pollution can be dramatically reduced under economic shutdown and how pollution may be an important driver of Covid-19 infection. The fact that the EU commission is likely to rebuild the economy after the Covid-19 shutdown, through a major green infrastructure plan, is proof that people can learn to turn a crisis into a necessary green opportunity to come by 2030.

  1. Cascio, A., Bosilkovski, M., Rodriguez-Morales, A. J., & Pappas, G. (2011). The socio-ecology of zoonotic infections. Clinical microbiology and infection, 17(3), 336-342. 

  2. Koren, M, and R. Pito, 2020, Business disruptions from social distancing, Covid Economics, Issue 2. 

  3.  Coccia, M. (2020). Two mechanisms for accelerated diffusion of COVID-19 outbreaks in regions with high intensity of population and polluting industrialization: the air pollution-to-human and human-to-human transmission dynamics. medRxiv 

  4. The western world should urgently play the asian smart route to control the Covid-19 

  5. Koyama, T., Platt, D., & Parida, L. (2020). Variant analysis of COVID-19 genomes. Bull World Health Organ. http://dx.doi.org/10.2471/BLT, 20. 

  6. Donnarumma, F. and G. Pezzulo, (2020), Morla decisions in the age of covid 19 : your choices really matter, Vox. 

  7. Olsen, Asmus Leth, and Frederik Hjorth (2020), “Willingness to Distance in the COVID-19 Pandemic.” And Ivchenko, A., J. Jachimowicz, G. King, G. Kraft-Todd, A. Ledda, M. MacLennan, L. Mutoi, C. Pagani, E. Reutskaja, C. Roth, et al. (2020). Evaluating covid-19 public health messaging in italy: Self-reported compliance and growing mental health concern. 

  8. Three key Covid-19 indicators to curb a potential of 20 million human fatality 

  9. Yougov Survey: Would you support or oppose the US government using a GPS tracking app to ensure Americans diagnosed with coronavirus remain quarantined? 

  10. Aassve A., Alfani, G., F. Gadolfi, M. Lemoglie (2020), pandemics and social capital,- from the Spanish flu to covid, Vox. 

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