Our Postpandemic World: What Will it Take to Build a Better Future for People and Planet?

COVID-19 Public Health

Policy Points:

  • Despite the pandemic’s ongoing devastating impacts, it also offers the opportunity and lessons for building a better, fairer, and sustainable world.
  • Transformational change will require new ways of working, challenging powerful individuals and industries who worsened the crisis, will act to exploit it for personal gain, and will work to ensure that the future aligns with their interests.
  • A flourishing world needs strong and equitable structures and systems, including strengthened democratic, research, and educational institutions, supported by ideas and discourses that are free of opaque and conflicted influence and that challenge the status quo and inequitable distribution of power.

A crisis forces us back to the questions themselves and requires from us either new or old answers, but in any case direct judgment. A crisis becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments, that is, with prejudices. Such an attitude not only sharpens the crisis but makes us forfeit the experience of reality and the opportunity for reflection it provides.

Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future

The Covid-19 pandemic has claimed more than one million lives. Continued morbidity and mortality, combined with the social and economic consequences, threaten many more. Far from being a “great leveler,” the most deprived have incurred the greatest burden of harm, and the pandemic has exposed existing, but too often overlooked, weaknesses and injustices in our societies. Yet it has also created hope. Global media coverage of the pandemic has been accompanied by a surge of commentary on the opportunities that the events of 2020 offer humanity, contemplating new kinds of societies and ways of governing in the postpandemic era. Organizations representing more than 40 million health professionals worldwide have called upon the G20 leaders to recognize recovery plans as opportunities to “come back stronger, healthier and more resilient.” Furthermore, current and former central bankers believe that the “crisis offers us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild our economy in order to withstand the next shock coming our way: climate breakdown.” They have called for a green recovery agenda centered on the aim to “build back better,” and the head of an advocacy group, The Climate Mobilization, said, “We can’t think we’re going to go ‘back to normal,’ because things weren’t normal.” We cannot, and should not, return to our “normal” state of affairs, which bred unacceptable injustices and ecological destruction. Considerable power resides in this wave of hope, and it must be harnessed to capture this moment in the interests of people and the planet.

This sense of opportunity has historical resonance. Crises such as earthquakes, hurricanes, economic recessions, epidemics, and wars have previously been catalysts for change and have led to advances in public health, medicine, and political thinking, as well as shifts in geopolitical power. Solnit described how “disasters provide an extraordinary window into social desire and possibility, and what manifests there matters elsewhere, in ordinary times and in other extraordinary times.” She also noted that “armed with compassion,” people mobilize in crises to help strangers, to rebuild communities and that the “positive emotions that arise in those unpromising circumstances demonstrate that social ties and meaningful work are deeply desired, readily improvised, and intensely rewarding.”

Open Access

van Schalkwyk MC, Maani N, Cohen J, McKee M, Petticrew M. Our Postpandemic Word: What Will it Take to Build a Better Future for People and Planet? Milbank Q. 2021;99(2):467-502. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-0009.12508