Emerging Lessons From COVID-19

Exploring what lessons can be learned from the crisis to improve society and the functioning of our economic model going forward.

Expert comment Published 2 April 2020 Updated 15 September 2020 2 minute READ

Lord Jim O’Neill

Former Senior Adviser

A man with a protective mask by the Coliseum in Rome during the height of Italy's COVID-19 epidemic. Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images.

A man with a protective mask by the Coliseum in Rome during the height of Italy’s COVID-19 epidemic. Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images.

As tentative evidence emerges that Italy and Spain may have reached - or are close to - the peak of the curve, this could demonstrate that not only can Asian countries get to grips with COVID-19, but so can western democracies. And, if so, this offers a path for the rest of us.

The last few weeks does demonstrate there is a role for governments to intervene in society, whether it be health, finance or any walk of life, as they have had to implement social distancing. Some have been forced, and the interventions are almost definitely only temporary, but perhaps some others may be less so.

Governments of all kinds now realise there is a connection between our health system quality and our economic capability. On an index of global economic sustainability that I presided over creating when I was at Goldman Sachs, the top ten best performing countries on growth environment scores includes eight of the best performing ten countries - so far- in handling the crisis in terms of deaths relative to their population.

Health system quality

The top three on the index (last calculated in 2014) were Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea, all of which are exemplary to the rest of us on how to deal with this mess. This suggests that once we are through this crisis, a number of larger populated countries - and their international advisors such as the IMF - might treat the quality of countries’ health systems just as importantly as many of the other more standard indicators in assessing ability to deal with shocks.

Policymakers have also been given a rather stark warning about other looming health disasters, especially antimicrobial resistance, of which antibiotic resistance lies at the heart. An independent review I chaired recommended 29 interventions, requiring $42 bn worth of investment, essentially peanuts compared to the costs of no solution, and the current economic collapse from COVID-19. It would seem highly likely to me that policymakers are going to treat this more seriously now.

As a clear consequence of the - hopefully, temporary - global economic collapse, our environment suddenly seems to be cleaner and fresher and, in this regard, we have bought some time in the battle against climate change. Surely governments are going to be able to have a bigger influence on fossil fuel extractors and intense users as we emerge from this crisis?

For any industries requiring government support, the government can make it clear this is dependent on certain criteria. And surely the days of excessive use of share buy backs and extreme maximisation of profit at the expense of other goals, are over?

It seems to me an era of ‘optimisation’ of a number of business goals is likely to be the mantra, including profits but other things too such as national equality especially as it relates to income. Here in the UK, the government has offered its strongest fiscal support to the lower end of the income earning range group and, in a single swoop, has presided over its most dramatic step towards narrowing income inequality for a long time.

This comes on top of a period of strong initiatives to support higher levels of minimum earnings, meaning we will emerge later in 2020, into 2021, and beyond, with lower levels of income inequality.

The geographic issue of rural versus urban is also key. COVID-19 has spread more easily in more tightly packed cities such as London, New York and many others. More geographically remote places, by definition, are better protected. Perhaps now there will be some more thought given by policymakers to the quality and purpose of life outside our big metropolitan areas.

Lastly, will China emerge from this crisis by offering a mammoth genuine gesture to the rest of the world, and come up, with, unlike, in 2008, a fiscal stimulus to its own consumers, that is geared towards importing a lot of things from the rest of the world? Now that would be good way of bringing the world back together again.

This is a version of an article originally published in The Article