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The Lasting Impact of Covid-19

The pandemic accelerates adoption of health technologies and seeds lasting change on issues such as privacy and trust, and the nature of how we work.

The world was aware of the possibility of global pandemics and their impact. What was uncertain was how governments would act, and particularly cooperate, to prevent an epidemic from becoming a pandemic. The UN, WHO, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and many government medical experts have been warning about a viral pandemic, and many have been running detailed simulations and scenarios. While several governments, notably many in SE Asia, have learned from previous cases and introduced policy and approaches to mitigate impact, elsewhere things have not gone as well.

In 2019, the US and the UK were considered by John Hopkins University to be the most prepared for a future pandemic – but not fully ready. The reality currently being played out shows a different picture. A report by the OECD suggest that it is the UK economy that will be likely to suffer the worst damage from the Covid-19 crisis of any country in the developed world.

China’s challenge to US hegemony was already strengthening on many fronts before the Covid-19 crisis erupted. The pandemic may accelerate this shift. For US-allied democracies that value open governance, civil rights, and free speech, this is a worrying prospect. Covid-19 has affected all aspects of UK society, but the accompanying economic shock is likely to hurt the vulnerable and socially insecure the most. Unprecedented government aid packages for businesses and workers, intended to mitigate the disease’s economic and financial impact, have led some analysts to suggest “the State is back” – and that the limits of the post-war neoliberal, free market model have finally been reached.

At the beginning of the pandemic in the UK, the Armed Forces kept a relatively low profile through the crisis, deploying troops in supporting roles and largely operating away from the public eye. This lack of public visibility was not universally applauded by those we interviewed. Although there was no expectation that soldiers could be deployed to protect public order, there was often a sense of frustration that “perhaps the government, in hindsight, will be criticised for not using the Armed Forces – a ‘useful asset’ – enough.” Some also felt that the widespread description of front- line workers as heroes might have the unintended consequence of a decline in public sympathy for the Armed Forces. “That word (sic ‘heroes’) has now been borrowed. Or is it permanently lent? The word becomes more muddied, and so the likes of Help for Heroes have a harder time raising attention”.

As the pressures on civilian services increased and the need for greater assistance became clear, the Armed Forces involvement has become more visible. At its peak, about 6,000 military personnel drawn from the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force were helping the NHS – the largest number of medics the Armed Forces have deployed since the Iraq war in 2003. As such, it is clear that the military’s contribution, from building the Nightingale hospitals to assisting with testing and providing vaccinations, has helped to raise the standing of the Armed Forces, as the general public has first-hand experience of their adaptability, innovation and planning ability.

While society deals with the challenge of controlling the pandemic, several lasting changes are emerging. For example:

  • There is renewed public confidence in people and organisations who really know what they are talking about. Accredited, independent, expert bodies that clearly explain complex issues and coordinate connected responses are prized.
  • Global supply chains evolve to be more flexible shared regional supply webs. Manufacturing shifts from centralised production to a smaller and distributed approach. Competitors access shared, not proprietary, networks and systems.
  • Health and personal identity data are integrated, as platforms emerge that allow or require us to be validated in order to access key locations and services. Proof of immunity and proof of identity are digitally unified for all.
  • Recognition of the benefits of real-time surveillance and individual behaviour monitoring during a crisis supports widespread acquiescence to perpetual, national, digital surveillance infrastructures.
  • A shift in how and where we work, with less time in the office, less time commuting, and more time working from home.
  • A reduction in international travel, most notably from business travellers, but also potentially from consumers re-appraising their own lifestyle with respect to the climate change and biodiversity crises.

While these will impact variously, many see that without greater cooperation between nations, as occurred a decade ago with the G20 response to the Western financial crisis, the possible mitigation of future pandemics will be a growing threat.

Example Implication: The military’s contribution to fighting the pandemic has helped to raise the standing of the Armed Forces in the eyes of the public, and demonstrated its ability to operate effectively under pressure in a civilian environment.

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