Megatrends 2021: COVID-19
The health impact cannot be overstated—but it’s everything else the pandemic laid bare that’s forcing companies to rethink business as usual.
The pandemic fundamentally altered the business, geopolitical, technological, and economic landscape in 2020. There were the devastating health impacts, with more than 1.7 million people dead by year’s end.1 And there were the very real fears of a global recession worse than any experienced since World War II.2 At the same time, the COVID-19 crisis exposed—and exacerbated— systemic inequalities in income, wealth, employment, and access to healthcare for marginalized groups.
Data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows communities of color in the United States experienced higher rates of infection and death than their white counterparts (see figure 1). Lower-income earners and those without higher education faced similar inequities. On the economic side, the UN predicted the pandemic (and the accompanying economic slowdown, job losses, and lack of social protection) would push 96 million people into extreme poverty this year, with women bearing the largest brunt, particularly in South Asia.3
COVID-19 also transformed the pace and scale of digitalization, with a huge impact on how people work and learn. “The world of education got knocked 30 years ahead overnight,” said Mac Glovinsky, program manager, UNICEF.4 With schools in more than 190 countries closed, he and his team worked with Microsoft, the University of Cambridge, and Dubai Cares to quickly expand an existing digital platform that would meet pandemic-fueled demands of stuck-at-home students in underprivileged areas.
Yet for youth and adults alike, such mass digitalization has reduced the sense of belonging, and increased anxiety, depression, and disengagement. And in the business world, it created a divide between digital knowledge workers who could shelter in place and those in at-risk jobs or who lacked access to high-speed internet—almost all of whom were economically disadvantaged.
For project leaders, it’s been a time to build bridges. “COVID-19 has disrupted our normal way of life,” said Hugh Lawson, project director, Sydney Metro City & Southwest in Australia.5 “The challenges of working remotely and physical distancing have been difficult, but we’ve also seen greater collaboration and creativity. It’s allowed us to do things differently.” With much of Sydney closed down, for example, his team had an unanticipated and unprecedented opportunity to accelerate its schedules—working on some sites for longer hours and even shutting down some roads in the city center.
1. Coronavirus Worldometer, accessed December 22, 2020. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/.
2. Global Economic Prospects, The World Bank, June 2020.
3. From Insights to Action: Gender Equality in the Wake of COVID-19. UN Women, 2020.
4. “Most Influential Projects 2020: Learning Passport,” PM Network, September/October 2020.
5. “Most Influential Projects 2020: Sydney Metro,” PM Network, September/October 2020.