Social costs of the pandemic will be felt for a decade, says the British Academy

23 Mar 2021

Society will continue to feel the impacts of COVID-19 for a decade or more without an urgent public policy overhaul, warns the British Academy in an independent research report on the anniversary of Britain’s first lockdown.

In its new multi-disciplinary evidence review, The COVID decade: understanding the long-term societal impacts of COVID-19, the Academy forecasts that significant intervention will be needed to avoid an acceleration towards poorer health, social and economic outcomes and a more extreme pattern of inequality. Some interconnected trends highlighted include:

  • Low and unstable levels of trust in the national government, undermining the ability to mobilise public behaviour;
  • Widening geographic inequalities on measures such as health and wellbeing, local economic risk and resilience, and poverty;
  • Worsening social development, relationships and mental health – impacts which will vary according to age, gender, race and ethnicity, and levels of social deprivation;
  • Severe strains on the capacity to support local community infrastructure, which has risen in importance during the pandemic;
  • Lost – and likely unrecoverable – access to education at all levels, exacerbating existing socio-economic inequality, limiting access to digital skills and technology and impeding progress towards a prosperous, high-skilled economy.

The extensive evidence report is accompanied by a wide-ranging and thorough policy analysis, Shaping the COVID decade, which argues that these societal impacts have exposed several gaps in public policy making that the government now has the opportunity to address. They include:

  • Resolving tensions between the roles of local and central governance to improve local-level resilience and the response to local needs across the country;
  • Strengthening and expanding the community-led social infrastructure that underpins services and support networks, particularly in deprived areas;
  • Improving the flow of knowledge, data and information between all levels of government, different government departments and between state and non-state decision-makers, making use of specific local and community knowledge;
  • Eliminating the digital divide by treating digital infrastructure as a critical, life-changing public service;
  • Empowering businesses and civic, educational and social institutions to act with a shared sense of social purpose.

The British Academy convened and engaged with over 200 academics, practitioners and policy specialists from across the humanities and social sciences and drew together insights from civil society, communities and policymakers.

Professor Dominic Abrams FBA, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kent and lead author of the reports, said:

“The evidence provides us with a vital insight into the immense social impact of COVID-19 and the substantial challenges we must address in the coming decade.

“There are multiple forms of inequality that create personal and societal obstacles to progress. Finding ways to create greater inclusiveness, tackle underlying mechanisms of inequality and create the resourcefulness to share a better future will be our biggest challenge during this ‘COVID decade’.

“The COVID decade will also be profoundly shaped by policy decisions and this offers us many opportunities. Government will need to establish a longer-term vision to tackle the impacts of COVID-19. This will involve working in partnership with places and people to address structural problems systematically, not just in a piecemeal way.”

Hetan Shah, Chief Executive of the British Academy, said:

“A year from the start of the first lockdown, we all want this to be over. However, in truth, we are at the beginning of a COVID decade. Policymakers must look beyond the immediate health crisis to repair the profound social damage wrought by the pandemic.

“This means looking across education, employment, welfare, urban planning, community support and digital policies. It will require investing in civil society and our social infrastructure to strengthen our local communities, especially in our most deprived areas. We also need a more joined-up policy approach across government departments focusing on supporting children and young people whose lives have been so blighted by the pandemic.

“Science has given us the vaccine to respond to the health crisis, but we will need social science and the humanities to meet the social, cultural and economic crises we face in the COVID decade.”

COVID-19 and Society: Shaping the COVID Decade

What are the long-term societal effects of COVID-19? This project considers the challenges and opportunities in different policy areas that COVID-19 has unearthed.

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