Last Friday (March 11th) marked two years since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic. In the meantime, we have experienced some truly depressing moments such as when the number of global casualties reach 1 million; as well as some truly exhilarating ones, such as when it was confirmed that scientists had developed highly effective vaccines against the SARS-Cov-2 virus.
During this time, many countries instituted compulsory lockdowns, whereby most citizens were told to stay at home and their movements were strongly restricted, in an attempt to control the spread of the virus. While the lockdowns may have saved lives, there were concerns that the prolonged isolation and restrictions imposed by the lockdowns could impact negatively on our emotional wellbeing. Yet, a study recently published in PLOS ONE suggests that that was not the case.
In the paper entitled “Subjective well-being during the 2020–21 global coronavirus pandemic: Evidence from high frequency time series data”, researchers Roberto Stefan Foa, Mark Fabian and Sam Gilbert analyse variations in subjective wellbeing during the pandemic. [Note: subjective wellbeing is a self-reported measure of mood, life satisfaction and sense off rupees and meaning].
Using mood tracker polls and Google trends data, Foa and his team studied variations in subjective wellbeing in the UK, the US, Australia and New Zealand. They found that the increase in the number of cases and deaths is associated with a deterioration of subjective wellbeing. However, lockdowns have the opposite effect. Namely, the level of negative mood decreased (i..e, the levels of subjective wellbeing improved) once the lockdowns were in place.
The authors also found that:
“The affect deficit of elderly respondents (those aged 65 and above), peaked as the virus was spreading, then began to recover almost immediately following the implementation of lockdown measures. In contrast, the trend in affect for young (18–24) survey respondents is basically flat despite this demographic being, intuitively at least, the most perniciously affected by lockdowns. This lends further credence to our hypothesis that the depressed subjective wellbeing observed (…) is driven by the deleterious effects of the pandemic rather than those of lockdowns. If lockdowns were exacerbating negative mood, we would see a more pronounced decline among young people. Our results suggest that we should predict declines in the general population’s affect with pandemic outbreaks and improvements following lockdowns introduced in response to those outbreaks.”
The authors posit that this improvement could be because Covid-19 related deaths were very high before the lockdown but decreased once social movement was restricted, resulting in improved mood. It could also be because the experience of lockdown was not as bad as anticipated, resulting in a mood improvement during that period.
The research team also found that subjective well-being suffered more in countries with higher death rates (namely, UK and US) than in countries with lower ones (i.e., Australia and new Zealand).
While lockdowns seemed to have had a temporary, positive impact on subjective wellbeing, their effects on our ways of life seem to linger on. At least, that’s the view suggested by Google’s Global Mobility Report, which provides mobility data by country or by region, and across 6 categories:
- Retail and recreation
- Grocery and pharmacy
- Public transport
Comparing mobility levels in the UK on Tuesday last week (March 8th 2022) with the same Tuesday two years earlier (March 10th 2020), we see that trips to grocery stores and pharmacies are only slightly below on what they were two years prior. However, we are still spending significantly more time at home than we were two years ago, and significantly less time in the office. Likewise, many people continue to shun public transport. Moreover, parks continue to be popular destinations, while retail trips are significantly below what they were two years ago. Though, this last trend could also be influenced by the sharp decline in consumer confidence levels.
One sector that seems to have bounced back is fitness. While the pandemic saw the explosion of online classes and the sale of at-home exercise equipment, it looks like people are flocking back to gyms. According to this survey of UK gym goers, gym memberships are 68% up on pre-Covid levels. Peloton’s performance certainly seems to confirm this: after seeing huge demand for its cycles and its online classes, during the pandemic, the firm had to stop producing bicycles and treadmills for a while.
What pre-lockdown behaviours have you rushed back to, and which ones have you embraced?
I am sticking with online grocery shopping… but do not miss home school, at all 😅