The COVID Decade: understanding the long-term societal impacts of COVID-19

2021
The British Academy
172

Summary

The British Academy was asked by the Government Office for Science to produce an independent review on the long-term societal impacts of COVID-19. This report outlines the evidence across a range of areas, building upon a series of expert reviews, engagement, synthesis and analysis across the research community in the Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts (SHAPE). It is accompanied by a separate report, Shaping the COVID decade, which considers how policymakers might respond. History shows that pandemics and other crises can be catalysts to rebuild society in new ways, but that this requires vision and interconnectivity between policymakers at local, regional and national levels.

With the advent of vaccines and the imminent ending of lockdowns, we might think that the impact of COVID-19 is coming to an end. This would be wrong. We are in a COVID decade: the social, economic and cultural effects of the pandemic will cast a long shadow into the future – perhaps longer than a decade – and the sooner we begin to understand, the better placed we will be to address them.

There are of course many impacts which flowed from lockdowns, including not being able to see family and friends, travel or take part in leisure activities. These should ease quickly as lockdown comes to an end. But there are a set of deeper impacts on health and wellbeing, communities and cohesion, and skills, employment and the economy which will have profound effects upon the UK for many years to come. In sum, the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities and differences and created new ones, as well as exposing critical societal needs and strengths. These can emerge differently across places, and along different time courses, for individuals, communities, regions, nations and the UK as a whole.

We organised the evidence into three areas of societal effect. As we gathered evidence in these three areas, we continually assessed it according to five cross-cutting themes – governance, inequalities, cohesion, trust and sustainability – which the reader will find reflected across the chapters. Throughout the process of collating and assessing the evidence, the dimensions of place (physical and social context, locality), scale (individual, community, regional, national) and time (past, present, future; short, medium and longer term) played a significant role in assessing the nature of the societal impacts and how they might play out, altering their long-term effects. The three societal areas we chose to help structure our evidence collection and, ultimately, this report were:

  • Health and wellbeing – covering physical and mental health (including young people and work), wellbeing, and the environment we live in
  • Communities, culture and belonging – covering communities and civil society, cities and towns, family and kinship, and arts, media, culture, heritage and sport
  • Knowledge, employment and skills – covering education (compulsory and tertiary), skills, knowledge and research, and work and employment

Below we provide a high-level summary across the three areas, but we encourage readers to dip into the detailed sections of the report, which contain a vast array of data not reproduced here.

Health and wellbeing

The impacts of COVID-19 on health and wellbeing have not been felt uniformly across society. COVID-19 has exacerbated existing structural and social inequalities, with particularly negative health outcomes for those already disadvantaged in society. In this chapter we identify seven areas where we expect there to be continuing challenges and opportunities: pre-existing health inequalities; mental health; social care; pandemic duration and ‘long COVID’; information and communication; data gathering and new health technologies; and environmental conditions, health and wellbeing.

Communities, culture and belonging

A central theme across the evidence is the vital importance of community-led responses that draw upon local knowledge and resources, and build capacity and channels of interconnectedness between government, community organisations and the public. The evidence clearly shows that those communities that entered the pandemic with such infrastructure have been best placed to respond. In this chapter we examine six areas where we expect there to be continued challenges and opportunities: community-level responses, volunteering and mutual aid; cohesion and solidarity; trust in government and media; place, cities and housing; race, ethnicity, immigration and prejudice; and arts, culture and sport.

Knowledge, employment and skills

COVID-19 has had significant and unequal effects depending on where in the UK people live, their level of education, socioeconomic and health status. Wider issues around the national economy, educational infrastructure and the social security system have compounded these impacts. In this chapter we examine five areas where we consider the challenges and opportunities of the pandemic on the experience of education and training; the sustainability of further and higher education; the stability of the economy; employment; and incomes.

Nine areas of long-term societal impact

Throughout this review, we have tried to retain a strict focus on the impacts caused by COVID-19 – but as we discovered, many impacts of the pandemic are an acceleration of existing trends. The evidence of impact pointed strongly to factors that preceded and will outlast the pandemic. This is to be expected, as it is also the pattern that pandemics and major crises throughout history have exhibited: pandemics are as much social and economic problems as medical and health ones. We conclude this review with a set of nine areas of long-term societal impact, which result from a synthesis and analysis of the effects, risks, challenges and opportunities outlined above. These nine areas of long-term impact are not exhaustive, but they will be significant, and we hope they provide a useful starting point for further engagement and understanding of how we will work together to address them.

1. Increased importance of local communities

Local communities have become more important than ever during the pandemic. Local and hyper-local charitable and voluntary organisations have been crucial to the response to COVID-19, but there are inequalities between communities based on the strength of community infrastructures. National capacity to respond to changing circumstances and challenges requires effort to sustain a strong web of communities and community engagement at local levels.

2. Low and unstable levels of trust in governance

Following a brief initial increase, trust in the UK Government and feelings of national unity are in decline. Trust in local government and feelings of local unity have been higher and steadier. Declining trust is a major challenge that needs to be addressed because it undermines the ability to mobilise public behaviour for wider social and health benefits.

3. Widening geographic inequalities

Geographic and spatial inequalities have widened. Health and wellbeing, local economic risk and resilience, poverty and deprivation, and response planning all have an important place dimension that has shaped the impact of the crisis. Attending to these inequalities is important because they expose ways in which the combination of geographical location, physical infrastructure and social conditions implies that different priorities may be needed in different places.

4. Exacerbated structural inequalities

COVID-19 and the government response to it have impacted different people in different ways, often amplifying existing structural inequalities in income and poverty, socioeconomic inequalities in education and skills, and intergenerational inequalities – with particular effects on children (including vulnerable children), families with children and young people. There are differential effects within these along dimensions of gender, race and ethnicity and social deprivation which have been both exposed and exacerbated, as well as effects related to social development, relationships and mental health which are all variably affected and interlinked. The evidence highlights that addressing the underlying interconnected propellants of inequality is a key challenge ahead.

5. Worsened health outcomes and growing health inequalities

Like structural inequalities, health outcomes for COVID-19 have followed patterns of existing health inequalities. There are ongoing health impacts from ‘long COVID’ as well as from delays in care seeking and reprioritisation of resources. Deficiencies in home and community care infection prevention and control measures, and  inequalities in the structure and funding of social care provision, have been laid bare. These are all areas that need significant attention to avoid critical gaps in the health system going forward.

6. Greater awareness of the importance of mental health

The pandemic and various measures taken to address it have resulted in differential mental health outcomes. Access to support for new cases and for those with pre-existing conditions has also been disrupted, in addition to services for children and young people. Both have the potential to result in long-term mental health impacts for particular groups if there is not a renewed focus on the causes and solutions for sustaining mental health across society, including by tackling the structural and root causes of inequality.

7. Pressure on revenue streams across the economy

Although detailed economic analyses were outside the scope of the report, there are likely to be additional pressures on government spending in the medium to long term, as a result of increasing levels of debt and possible falling tax revenues due to risks around unemployment, failing businesses, decreased consumption and significant shifts in the structure of the economy. It will be increasingly important to address the balance of revenue generation and weigh up expenditure against non-economic impacts, considering a diversity of mechanisms and actors to meet societal goals.

8. Rising unemployment and changing labour markets

Employment and household income levels have fallen and will likely worsen for the foreseeable future. This will lead to an increased dependency on social security, which the current system may be ill equipped to deal with effectively. This will matter not only for those who are (or will become) dependent on state social security support, but also because it may require significant adjustments to the social security system in order for it to keep pace with demand.

9. Renewed awareness of education and skills

The consequences of lost access to education at all levels, coupled with changes to assessments, will be felt for years to come, and wholly recovering lost education is unfeasible. This has exacerbated existing socioeconomic inequalities in attainment and highlighted digital inequality. Because a high-skill economy will be essential for future prosperity and for society to thrive, it will be vital to consider whether lifelong educational opportunities are sufficiently comprehensive, diverse and flexible.

Conclusion

This report draws together evidence across a wide range of areas on the societal impact of the pandemic. It shows that COVID-19 has generated a series of social, economic and cultural effects which will have long-term impacts. In particular, the pandemic has exposed, exacerbated and solidified existing inequalities in society. It has also made some individuals and groups living in particular places and communities even more vulnerable than before.

However, it is not just a case of the pandemic making existing problems worse. It has also exposed areas of strength, resilience, creativity and innovation. We hope this rich evidence base will prove a useful resource for policymakers, civil society, media and others who are trying to make sense of the changing landscape.

This evidence review is accompanied by a separate report, Shaping the COVID decade, outlining some potential options for policymakers to respond to the trends outlined in this review. History indicates that times of upheaval – such as the pandemic – can be opportunities to reshape society, but that this requires vision and for key decisionmakers to work together in concert.

The British Academy has begun the substantial task of exploring the long-term societal effects of COVID-19. Of course, the situation continues to evolve, and new evidence will help us to build a richer picture of the pandemic’s effects and how we might respond. What we offer here is a conceptual framework, a methodology and some core evidence that will allow both the British Academy and others to make progress on this urgent challenge. We look forward to opportunities to develop this programme in partnership with actors across all levels of government, with civil society and business sector leaders, and within communities.

Read more

Shaping the COVID decade: addressing the long-term societal impacts of COVID-19

Policy report

The British Academy has undertaken the substantial task of beginning to answer the longer-term question about what the societal impacts of COVID-19 will be and how we address them. This report sets out an interrelated set of nine areas of long-term impact, seven strategic policy goals and five key principles of a facilitative policy environment for 2030. We aim here to provide decision-makers with a sense of how to start to respond to these longer-term impacts based on the current evidence, and how to shape the COVID decade.

Evidence submissions

See all of the rapid response submissions to the British Academy’s call for evidence on the long-term societal effects and impacts of COVID-19.

‘Shaping the COVID Decade’, explained in two minutes

Blog

The key points from our reports on understanding and addressing the COVID decade, summarised by Professor Dominic Abrams FBA in just two minutes.

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