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The year 2020 undoubtedly defied expectations and predictions. Yet as a new year commences, the experience has not deterred many from offering predictions about what is coming next. While it might be tempting to decisively announce that the world after COVID-19 will be fundamentally different, it really is impossible to say. Given this, it might be more productive to reflect on what has been learned from the past year. With that in mind, here are some themes, questions and issues that have become more apparent through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Facing uncertainty

We crave stability, for patterns and regularities in our lives. This is understandable, this assumption of linearity allows us to make decisions and chart out our lives. When that certainty is taken away from us, or more accurately, when the lack of certainty that exists is revealed more directly to us, we tend to struggle. In this way, COVID-19 has revealed that collectively we are not very good at dealing with situations of uncertainty.

Updating our thinking

John Maynard Keynes famously said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” It seems that many of us would rather change the facts. One of the challenges with COVID-19 has been the necessity of updating our thinking based on how the situation has developed and what we have come to know. What may have made sense a year ago may no longer make sense now, having now accumulated a year of knowledge and experience. This holds at an individual, institutional and societal level.

Complex problems and complex solutions

What type of problem is COVID-19? Medical? Yes. Economic? Yes. Political? Yes. Technological? Yes. Ethical? Yes. Cultural? Yes. And so much more. The pandemic truly connects to most facets of life, and thus most fields of knowledge. It might be tempting to suggest that COVID-19 points to the necessity of prioritizing STEM subjects. Indeed, if anything, the remarkable speed with which vaccines have been developed suggests that we are collectively already strong in such areas. Rather, we have been much less successful on the social sciences side, in terms of figuring out how to deal with the political, economic and societal ramifications of the virus. More generally, what it suggests is the need for more interdisciplinary approaches to understanding the world.

History may rhyme, but that does not mean we know the right tune

There are many historical parallels we can find that resonate with our current experience, but the challenge is working out which ones are relevant. Are there echoes of the Spanish flu and the subsequent roaring 1920s? Or are the dark clouds of the 1930s more appropriate? Or do these comparisons confuse more than they reveal? Certainly, it is useful to turn to history, even if just to remind ourselves that this too will pass, as the saying goes, but it is not necessarily straightforward how we can successfully put that past to use in understanding our present.

COVID-19 as a truth-machine

COVID-19 has been remarkable at exposing underlying truths, and in doing so, separating the good from the bad. Irresponsible actors have been easier to spot, poorly-functioning institutions and bad government more obvious, weak leadership has been painfully clear. At the other end of the spectrum, the trustworthy actors have become more apparent, well-functioning institutions and responsive governments are easier to recognize and appreciate, good leaders have shone through.

COVID as a catalyst

It appears that COVID-19 may be speeding up processes and amplifying issues that were already present. Those include the respective positions of the United States, China and Europe; the role of a decaying and moribund United Nations system; a rolling back of globalization; deepening economic inequality; increasing political polarization, populism and authoritarianism; the extensive influence of major internet platforms and social media; and the growing reach of digital technologies. In regards to all these issues, existing processes and trajectories have continued and deepened, only moving faster and becoming clearer.

Connections with others

COVID-19 forces us to think about our relations with others and to society as a whole. This occurs in both a negative and positive way. Negatively, we become aware of others and the risk that they may be infectious, we are forced to think carefully about who we are connected to. Positively, we become more conscious of the ties that bind, the relationships that matter and our responsibilities to others and society as a whole. Against a backdrop of an overwhelming focus of the heroic freestanding individual, this experience is a powerful reminder of the ways our well-being and fates are connected together.

Humility

If there is one thing that has been demonstrated extensively over the past year, it is that there are considerable limits to what we know and our predictions are generally worth much less than the keyboards they are typed on. Where will we be in a year’s time? Perhaps life has largely returned to normal, maybe we have entered a new normal of living with COVID-19 or perhaps the situation might have morphed into something far worse and more foreboding. We simply do not know and cannot know. Until Minerva’s owl flies, there is much to be said for a humble recognition of the limits of our knowledge and an appreciation of the complexity of the world we collectively inhabit.

What matters? One of the most fundamental challenges is that for many people COVID-19 has taken loved ones, cost us jobs, separated us from people we care about and prevented us from doing what we enjoy. With “normal” life paused or upended, it has raised basic and difficult questions about life and meaning: Who and what we value, how we live our lives, what gives it purpose and what matters? These questions are always present, whether we choose to consider them or not. For better and worse, COVID-19 is pushing us to reflect on what matters and what gives life meaning. Without knowing what might come next with the pandemic, we can expect that these fundamental questions will remain.

Christopher Hobson is a senior lecturer in the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University; and is a visiting associate professor in the College of Global Liberal Arts, Ritsumeikan University.

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