Mental health, inequality, and trust: What we learned from the COVID-19 pandemic

Two years into unprecedented upheavals brought about by the pandemic, polling company Ipsos outlines some key things we’ve learned.

Mental health has come to the fore, now seen on a more equal footing with physical health. The pandemic exacerbated existing inequalities and disparities across age, gender, ethnicity, and geography. The pandemic modified birth rates – causing many to delay having children and potentially accelerating population decline. Public trust in governments seems to have increased.

What can we learn from the disruption that spread around the globe in 2020 and is still throwing up challenges and effects?

Just over two years ago, the World Health Organization decreed that COVID-19 was a pandemic and called on countries to take urgent and aggressive action. The upheaval that followed had some immediate and some longer-lasting consequences, with research from Ipsos highlighting ways our lives have likely changed forever.

“It feels like we are now at an inflection point when it comes to the pandemic,” writes Ben Page, Chief Executive of Ipsos, in the report. “Today feels like a good moment to take stock and think about what we have learned during this period. Just what can we say about what the whole experience tells us about individuals, economies, and societies?”

Mental health, inequality, and family planning are just a few of the themes explored in the report. Here are four key areas:

1. Spotlight on mental health

COVID-19 created many challenges, such as extreme isolation as workplaces and schools around the globe were shuttered, or confinement with in-person access to few people. Many found stress, anxiety, and feelings of loneliness increased. On average, 79% of people surveyed across 30 countries say that their mental and physical health are now equally important.

“The pandemic not only threatened our physical health but also had a profound effect on our mental wellness,” the report says. “Many people say their personal health situation has worsened, and that they are experiencing mental health challenges for the first time.”

Even so, just one-third said the healthcare systems in their country treated mental and physical health with equal importance, suggesting there’s a way to go before systems catch up.

“The full extent and long-term implications of this will take some time to become apparent, yet investment in mental health services is still only a small fraction of overall health spend,” according to the report. “This balance may have to shift if societies are to adequately respond to emerging health needs.”

2. Widening inequalities

While inequality was widely cited as a concern before the onset of the pandemic, many feel that COVID-19 has exacerbated rifts along with gender, age, and income lines.

Ipso’s research shows that in July 2020, 37% of British millennials (age 25- 40 years) said their generation would have a worse life than that of their parents. At the same time, just 37% of younger Americans said there will be money left in the system by the time they retire.

The affluent were able to carry on spending during the pandemic, the Ipsos research shows, and in many cases, they were spending more, with luxury purchases increasing in 2021 compared with a year earlier.

The pandemic “has exacerbated existing inequalities and disparities across age, gender, ethnicity, and geography.” the report says. “These have perhaps never been as visible as they are today.”

3. Population decline

The population is now declining at a faster rate, Ipsos says.

“Uncertainty has caused many to delay having children, accelerating the pre-existing phenomenon of population decline,” the report says. “We expected this ‘empty planet’ scenario to take hold by 2050. It may now become even sooner.”

The birth rate in the world’s most populous countries has dropped by more than half since 1960, according to United Nations’ birth rate figures. In 8 of those 10 countries, it is already at or below the natural replacement rate of 2.1.

4. Public trust

Perhaps one of the more unexpected effects of the pandemic has been an increase in public trust with regard to governments.

Even so, they were still low in the ranking of trustworthy professions. Doctors, scientists, and teachers topped that list of trust, while politicians, ministers, business leaders, and bankers were at the bottom.

While these four themes show some of the changes we’ve seen over the last two years, Ipsos was keen to point out that much is still uncertain about the future, with geopolitical tensions at a high and the economic outlook uncertain.“There are many things we do not know,” Ipsos says. “And we would be foolish to try and make too many predictions.”

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