Despite the promising development of several COVID-19 vaccines, the pandemic will not be over soon. How then should we deal with pandemic endurance that will likely last for many more months?
Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, there have been countless predictions about the world after COVID-19. Thinking about possible futures often helps shed light on recommendations for wise management of the present.
In this context, one key question arises: What do experts — scholars who study human behaviour and human societies — recommend for people right now?
Effects on societies
To answer this question, I started the World After Covid project as part of my work at the University of Waterloo. In this project, I invited leading experts from around the world to share their views about the effects the COVID-19 pandemic will have on our societies. The project is currently under review — the study design and results have not been fully vetted by other researchers, and can be found on GitHub, a code-hosting platform.
Scientists were nominated by an advisory board based on their expertise. Out of 150 nominees, 100 responded to the inquiry and 57 agreed to participate. The group includes past or present presidents of the Association for Psychological Science, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association, along with futurists and experts in disaster management. More than one-third of experts came from outside of North America.
Each expert answered five questions, concluding with advice about the type of wisdom people need now to make it through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Because all of the participants answered standardized questions, my team could compare the experts’ responses to each other. In an iterative fashion we identified unique themes across responses, revising categories until each theme was clearly matched to interviews.
The results showed that recommendations for the pandemic are cloaked by a great deal of uncertainty, demonstrated by the vast diversity in expert opinions. Nevertheless, in terms of frequency, four recommendations stood out.
Experts recommended developing an optimistic attitude. “We have experienced these types of pandemics multiple times, yet we have successfully overcome these pandemics,” as one interviewee said, pointing out that this, too, will pass.
Experts also recommended to concentrate on long-term goals. As one interviewee put it: “The future is more important than short-term gratifications.”
The most common psychological recommendation was to establish a sense of agency — to find a way to remain in charge of your day-to-day life, despite pandemic uncertainty. Research in psychology shows that such mental focus can help regulate emotions in the face of uncertainty. It includes finding ways to reframe the pandemic as a manageable challenge, to find “something that you want to get out of bed for,” as one interviewee mentioned, or to establish structure and habits to compensate for lack of external structure in a lockdown-imposed work from home.
Finally, the most frequent recommendation for coming through the pandemic concerned social connectedness. This theme includes “creating small little traditions within your closest family circle” and protecting “loved ones, friends, and neighbours.” Importance of social connectedness in the World After Covid project converges with results of empirical studies: social connectedness plays a protective role for mental health, including during times of disaster.
Curiously, when asked about the most significant positive change after the pandemic, experts once again mentioned social connectedness. When asked about negative changes, they highlighted themes antithetical to social connectedness: mistrust, alienation, prejudice.
Some of the latter themes fit pre-pandemic trends, such as weakening family ties and increasing individualism in many parts of the world. How can we make sense of this paradox?
One possibility is to view social connectedness as a window of opportunities that has been torn open by the disruptive forces of the pandemic. The uncertainty and socioeconomic challenges may motivate us to become our better social selves. But the same challenges can also lead to mistrust and alienation. To combat the latter trends, experts recommend social connectedness as the type of wisdom to act on now.
In contrast to the public discourse on the pandemic — often dominated by science-free generalizations — analysis of perspectives by behavioural and social scientists paints a complex picture with several concrete recommendations.
The present global crisis once again highlights the need to focus on one of the defining features of humanity — our sociality.