I thought the end of the world would look different. There are no horsemen, no mushroom cloud, no alien spacecraft. Just sweatpants and Zoom. As it turns out, rumours of our demise have been exaggerated.
If you live in the developed world, the first 20 years of this century might have resembled the apocalypse in slow motion – from September 11 to Sars, the war on terror, the global financial crisis, technological disruption and Islamic State, to Trumpian anxiety and now Covid-19. Are we reliving the Crusades or fast-forwarding to the dystopian world of Blade Runner?
And yet, for many others, the 21st century has also been a revelation. Money to spend, real-time connections with the world, the Babylonian wonders of urban life and much more.
THE (DEVELOPED) WORLD IN CRISIS
Time and again, data and insights have supported this dichotomy. For years now, polling and analysis have pointed to growing levels of dissatisfaction and malaise in a number of rich countries. This is against the backdrop of people who are not only living better lives, but empowered with opportunities thanks to greater mobility and education, which have transformed their existence.
When my own research company decided to look at global reactions to the Covid-19 crisis, we wanted to know if this contrariety was as evident with the entire world now huddling indoors confronting a different type of international crisis.
Our study, titled “World in Crisis”, measured the sentiments of citizens from 23 countries towards their national Covid-19 crisis management efforts. While the focus of the news coverage has predominantly been on our political findings and how our leaders have performed, in many ways these results are less interesting and largely predictable. What really stood out to us were the wider perceptions of how business, media and communities were seen to have responded.
The results, which have been reported in nearly 30 countries to date, show that most countries were rated poorly across the board. The major revelation for me was how people in the majority of the world’s most advanced countries – both in the East and the West – were not only shocked and surprised by how quickly the crisis overran their daily lives, but also expressed a wider impression of being let down, giving a sense that they had expected more. Performance ratings for business leaders, health care systems, and even local communities and neighbourhoods all scored more poorly in advanced nations.
Our findings, from the United States to Italy to Japan, all point to one thing – people living in wealthier nations feel isolated and vulnerable in a way they have not felt for generations. Of the 11 developed countries and territories covered in the study, only New Zealand scored above average in our index. Who knew the Kiwis were living in the last well-appointed bungalow in a run-down neighbourhood?
A REJECTION OF THE TRUTH
Despite long-standing evidence going back even before our study, we are witnessing a level of denialism, with some commentators suggesting the scores do not reflect on the best route ahead. The wealthier nations, they argue, just needed time to organise their resources in response to such an unprecedented event. Once this happens, they claim, public opinion will soon shift. Yet the most recent polling in nearly all of these countries indicates that perceptions have actually deteriorated further.
Japan and France, for example, scored the lowest in our index, and public opinion in both countries remains anaemic. Yet the responses from these countries hardly feel like outliers. South Korea, which scored fourth lowest on our index, even voted to overwhelmingly re-elect a president during the crisis. So, in all likelihood, the index scores reflect more than simple antagonism towards political leaders. Something else is going on.
On the other end, some have argued that countries which scored well are often authoritarian and have leaned on state-controlled media to the extent that people tell pollsters that everything is hunky dory. While media diet can have some influence in what people tell pollsters, it does not tell the full picture. Singapore, Thailand and even Iran are all dominated by state media, yet none of them recorded stellar results in our study. Barking up the propaganda tree only gets you so far.
Two months on, the vulnerability expressed in our study by people in advanced countries largely remains. It also appears to fit along a continuum that has been developing for some time now – the unravelling of the self-belief and confidence that emerged after World War II and peaked with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, but was still rock solid at the end of the 20th century.