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How will we know we’ve recovered from the pandemic?

Members of the audience at a Rolling Stones concert near Paris in 2017
The before-times, with not a mask in sight.
  • Samanth Subramanian
By Samanth Subramanian

Looking into the Future of Capitalism

Published Last updated on

Last year, Covid-19 had barely engulfed the world when people began anticipating the recovery: preparing for it, imagining it, willing it into being.

At the end of March 2020, for instance, António Guterres, the United Nation’s secretary general, called for a recovery that would lead to “a different economy.” It had been just three weeks since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a global pandemic and the US suspended flights from Europe, and just a week after India announced a lockdown. Around 36,000 people had died worldwide, no one knew for sure if second or third waves were in the offing, and there were no vaccines. Any sort of recovery, we know now, was a long way away.

It’s tempting to think that at this moment—June 2021—we’re much closer to recovery, particularly if you live in the US or the UK, where vaccinations have made a resumption of near-normal life possible for many people, and where policymakers are now intent on rebuilding the economy rather than stanching its wounds. The US unemployment rate fell below 6% in May, down from its peak of 14.8% in April 2020, and a Federal Reserve official said the central bank was nearing the moment when it would ease up on its bond-purchase stimulus.

But a full and final recovery certainly isn’t around the corner—as indicated by worries about the Delta variant, failures to reach herd immunity, or shortages of vaccines for developing countries. Given what we know now about how Covid-19 has ravaged economies and lives, in fact, the idea of “recovery” has to go beyond simple case counts and death statistics. We asked professionals in a number of areas, from economics to philosophy, to see what markers they’d use to judge that we’ve recovered. And we found that, given the circumstances, perhaps the very notion of a recovery is up for dispute.

💉 Global vaccinations

The differential state of vaccination drives across the world is perhaps the strongest indicator that we’re nowhere near a full recovery.  European and North American nations have locked up multiple rounds of vaccines for themselves until 2023; meanwhile, dozens of poor countries will give hundreds of millions of their citizens their first shots only by 2022 or 2023.

For these people, the pandemic will continue. Waves of disease will ebb and flow, and as India’s ongoing second wave shows, variants might emerge to re-infect even those who have recovered. Economies will stutter from lockdown to lockdown. But the uncertainties suffered by these countries will have knock-on effects on wealthier, vaccinated countries as well, in the form of persistent travel restrictions, disrupted supply chains, and constant caution against the arrival of variants from overseas.

One example: As of March, around 200,000 seafarers, unable to go home, had to stay on their cargo ships beyond the expiry of their contracts, according to the International Maritime Organization. Crews are stretched thin, particularly after Indian seafarers faced staffing restrictions in the light of their country’s second wave, and sailors are in high demand. If the pandemic in India doesn’t subside, the shipping industry will face a crunch of manpower into the foreseeable future.

These effects of the two-track recovery reveal the truth in an adage that has become shop-worn in just the past year: In a globalized world, no one is safe until everyone is safe.

📈 The macroeconomy

For most recessions, “recovery” is an imprecise term, said Ricardo Reis, an economics professor at the London School of Economics. “In that sense, it’s not all that different from when astronomers decide whether Pluto is a planet or not,” Reis said. “It’s not airtight.” Economists tend to look at business cycle data to arrive at some answers, though.

One obvious metric is GDP. “GDP-wise, the question of ‘Have we recovered?’ has to be answered with an absolute ‘No,'” Reis said. “We haven’t even reached the level of GDP circa the end of 2019.” The US might reach its pre-pandemic levels of GDP growth, hovering between 2-3%, by the end of 2021, but Reis argues that even that wouldn’t constitute recovery. A more complete recovery, he said, would involve arriving at the GDP level that the US would have achieved if it had been growing at its 2-3% all this while, over the past two years.

That happens with some recessions, not with others. “As of now, this is not a financial crisis, so that leaves me optimistic,” Reis said. “At the same time, this feels like an event like World War II or the Spanish Flu, where it gets a little silly to talk about going back to the old trend line, because the new trend line is so profoundly different.” If the character of the economy itself has been reshaped, then there’s no measurable reset to any old normal.

Reis laid out other metrics that macroeconomists often look to, such as building permits issued for new homes and unemployment numbers. But these aren’t always helpful. Last year, even through the worst of the pandemic, the number of US residential building permits issued rose well above the pre-pandemic year of 2019, as people looked for better places to work from home.

In May, the US created 559,000 jobs, short of the 650,000 or so that economists expected. But that still leaves the country nearly 8 million jobs short of pre-pandemic levels. That number looks more stark in terms of racial equity. For white workers, the unemployment rate in May was 5.1%, but for Black workers, it was 9.1%—a sign that employment recoveries varied across sector and across classes of work.

Reis said that employment and output rates are sometimes “decoupled” after a recession. “After 2010, unemployment recovered faster than output, maybe because there had been a fall in productivity,” Reis said. The reverse happens as well: Economic output surges even as the employment rate lags temporarily, which appears to be the case at the moment. The two are never perfectly in sync, Reis said. “It makes a big difference to how you think about recovery if you look at unemployment without looking at economic output.”

😷 Epidemiology

The most-discussed measure of the spread of Covid-19 was R: the number that shows how many other people a sick individual can infect. For society to function smoothly, R has to be less than one, said Peter English, a public health expert who sits on the council of the British Medical Association. “That will mean the number of cases won’t increase.” One way of forcing R down is to immunize the population. Even then, English said, “we must expect to see little flares in places, as we see with the flu.”

An alternative way to measure recovery, English said, is to look at whether people with non-Covid-19 ailments were able to get treated when needed. “In the UK, the healthcare system—if it has coped—has done so at the expense of a lot of other things. Cancers and other things were diagnosed late, treatments were suspended.” In April 2020, for instance, the number of urgent cancer treatment referrals fell by 60% compared to April 2019.

One proxy for this metric is the number of hospital beds given over to Covid-19 patients. In mid-April 2020, as the first wave of the pandemic was storming through England, nearly 19,000 beds in England’s hospitals were filled by Covid-19 patients—a quarter of all occupied beds, according to data from the National Health Service. On April 8 of this year, Covid-19 patients needed 2,784 beds, just 2.6% of all occupied beds. The further that number drops, the closer the state of public health gets to full recovery.

🥡 Restaurant dining

At least according to one narrow metric—restaurant dining in the seven wealthy countries where OpenTable operates—the recovery is already here. Walk-ins and reservations have rebounded to a level last seen in February 2020, before Covid-19 swept through the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, Ireland, Germany, and Mexico.

But these gains also feel provisional. Australia has managed its simulacrum of normal life by strictly prohibiting entries into the country by any outsiders. The UK, having only just opened indoor spaces for dining in May, is already worrying about a third wave of disease spurred by the Delta variant of the coronavirus. New lockdowns will send the curves south again.

🛒 Consumer spending

By early May, US consumer spending had bounced back to just 0.1 percentage point below its level in the fourth quarter of 2019. In part, this was driven by the pent-up demand among “wealthy, white-collar workers who came out unscathed,” said Jaana Remes, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute. “They maintained their incomes, and couldn’t spend as much in 2020, so their savings expanded.” In the US alone, household savings grew by $1.6 trillion. “Even in Germany, where savings rates are ordinarily high, you’re seeing a 50% increase in savings during the pandemic.”

In research that Remes led, she found that spending patterns will likely experience decisive shifts—foretelling not so much a recovery to 2019’s patterns as a realignment. “People are now used to doing more at home,” she said. “They’ve bought better TVs or home gyms or coffee makers.” She expects a decline in business travel—and in all the spending that comes with it. “Grocery shops may never quite recover, because there’s a stickiness to the habit of ordering groceries online.”

What worries Remes is the potential iniquities in consumer spending. “It can take twice as long for lower-income folks to recover to full consumption,” she said. Many of these people work in the service sector, and their jobs—at grocery-shop tills, for instance—may never return. “Even new automation and digitization in manufacturing will impact the speed and shape in which those come back.” The end of housing eviction freezes or unemployment benefits will draw down the spending abilities of those affected. The legacy of this crisis, Remes said, “is potentially a longer-term impact on inequality that is more severe.”

👪 Community resilience

Daniel Sullivan, a psychologist who heads the University of Arizona’s Cultural-Existential Psychology Laboratory, investigates how people respond to huge adverse events: hurricanes, earthquakes, massive environmental, or manmade disasters. In these contexts, psychologists prefer the term “resilience” to “recovery,” as a way to understand not just when people stop reporting anxiety or stress but also how well they can to cope the next time around.

Sullivan and his colleagues have some methods to quantify this. One is the Social Vulnerability Index compiled by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The index uses a number of census data points—age distribution, say, or poverty levels—to determine how resilient a community is. For instance: In 2018, the last year for which data is available, Hidalgo County in Texas had a score of 0.98 out of 1, indicating a high level of vulnerability, while Sussex County in New Jersey had a score of 0.02.

Such tools could indicate which areas will prove more or less resilient than others, but their utility might be limited. Sullivan thinks Covid-19 is a tricky case. Unlike a tornado, a pandemic is “an ongoing, ever-changing situation, affecting so much of the population at any one time.” It is a chronic event, not a discrete one. Already it has lasted more than a year, and the disease is likely to come and go even in vaccinated countries. For similar reasons, the average duration that a person in a disaster-hit zone takes to broadly recover—a year or thereabouts—cannot apply.

As a consequence, Sullivan thinks, it will be tempting to conclude that we’ve recovered long before we actually have. Behavioral changes, like dining out or traveling or mixing into crowds, will precede psychological recovery, simply because people are so eager to return to those aspects of their lives. Societies will equip themselves better for pandemics, and governments will believe “We’ve run this drill before, we can run it again,” Sullivan said. “That kind of minimal sense of safety is necessary before we can go on to process all the complex wounds we’ve experienced.” Coming to terms with those wounds will make up the real, long-term feat of recovery.

🌱 Well-being

“There’s a reason why it’s so hard to get to grips with the concept of ‘recovery,'” said Anna Alexandrova, a philosopher of science at Cambridge University. “It’s because it’s the ultimate thick term.”

By which Alexandrova means, in the lingo of academic philosophy, that the word “recovery” judges as well as describes. “Implicitly, it invites us to think about a return to some good state that we’ve slipped out of,” she said. “But there can be a lot of disagreement about whether that previous state was a good one. Some may say: ‘I don’t want recovery if it means thoughtless travel or rampant consumerism.'” There is an ethical and political space around the word that makes it ambiguous. “What the word means depends on what your values are.”

Accordingly, Alexandrova is wary about how the word might be co-opted by politicians or economic experts, who hasten to tell the public the world has recovered through just the usual host of familiar indicators like GDP data or inflation numbers. “For one thing, recovery won’t be a reversal of what happened last year,” she said. “It isn’t just restarting the clock. It has to be a new process that starts now and rebuilds the capacities we’ve lost.” Children have been affected, for instance, she said, by not being able to go to school or play with others. It won’t be sufficient just to pitch them back into full days of school; they’ll need additional help to restore their social skills.

Asked what she personally would consider a signpost of recovery, Alexandrova thought hard for a minute. “As a teacher and a mother, my 2020 has been dominated by care,” she said. On Zoom, she found herself ministering to students “at the ends of their wits, more fragile and more anxious than ever.” They’ve paid an enormous price, she said. “Seeing these students feel once again that they’re a priority, and that their careers are not just being sacrificed [by pandemic lockdowns]—that, for me, will be the beginning of the end of it all.”


Correction: Alexandrova referred to “recovery” as a “thick term.” An earlier version of this story called it a “fake term,” as a result of a misheard sentence during a call.

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