The COVID-19 pandemic is a global disruption on a scale unprecedented in modern history. While there are useful parallels to be drawn with previous pandemics like the Spanish flu epidemic, financial downturns like the 2008 Great Recession and geopolitical upheavals like World War II, none match the scope and shape of the human and economic toll of COVID-19 and none can predict all of the changes this crisis will set in motion.
In COVID-19: The Great Reset, authors Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret set out to the explore the transformations that are occurring at all levels, from the macro to the individual, as a result of the pandemic and how a more equitable, sustainable and resilient world might emerge on the other side.
The pandemic, they write, “marks a fundamental inflection point in our global trajectory” and there can be no return to “normal” once it is over. The current crisis has exposed and deepened many of the cracks that were already forming in society before the pandemic began – inequality, social and political divides, government inadequacy, environmental threats – and our choice now is whether to continue ignoring these cracks until change is forced on us or to decide for ourselves what that change will look like. The pandemic, the authors write, “represents a rare but narrow window of opportunity to reflect, reimagine and reset our world.”
It is important to note that the authors wrote this book in June 2020, only a few months into the pandemic, and from the perspective of 2022, we know much more about COVID, and about the nature and trajectory of this crisis, than we did then. Some of the questions they raised have been answered and some of their predictions have already come to bear – or not. But with every new wave, we are reminded that the pandemic is not yet over and there are many ways the future can still play out and many opportunities to rethink our priorities. Even two years on, the ideas in this book remain relevant.
The book first explores the “macro” reset, looking at the impact of the pandemic on a macro scale from five perspectives: economic, societal, geopolitical, environmental, and technological. The authors contend that each facet of the reset is shaped by the intersecting forces of interdependence, velocity, and complexity, with the pandemic causing or exacerbating a variety of systemic issues – mass unemployment and plunging economic growth, social inequality and unrest, declining globalization and rising nationalism, increased automation and surveillance (and in the case of the environment, ecological degradation – air pollution, destruction of biodiversity – which has intensified the pandemic, rather than the other way around).
These consequences, while potentially portending a grim future, offer us a chance to pause and reflect on which systems in our societies and economies work and which do not. Is an ever-rising GDP, based on production and consumption, the best indicator of economic progress or are there other ways of tracking well-being and driving growth that can ensure a fairer, greener future? Do we need a new social contract that addresses inequality, promotes social welfare, and safeguards democratic liberties and freedom? How do we balance the benefits of new technology, like economic resilience and improved health outcomes, with consumer safety and privacy? The authors lay out a number of potential pathways, though they offer little guidance to navigate these changes.
The authors next turn to the “micro” reset, namely the changes occurring at the industry and company level. Here, Schwab and Malleret maintain that there is no going back to business as usual. Some sectors, like heath and tech, have seen unprecedented growth during the pandemic while others, like travel and hospitality, have been so devastated that they are unlikely to recover in the foreseeable future, if ever. Most are trying to find a balance between holding onto what worked before and adapting to new ways of doing things. The authors examine how the pandemic has accelerated micro trends like expanding digitization, increased government oversight and enhancing supply chain resilience that were already taking place before the pandemic began. They also argue that stakeholder capitalism and ESG will gain a stronger foothold as the crisis both reinforces a sense of corporate responsibility and highlights the reputational and financial risks of ignoring social and environmental issues.
Finally, the book examines the individual reset and the ways in which the pandemic might change us as people – how we think about things and how we do things. As with the macro and micro resets, the pandemic has forced us to confront issues bubbling below the surface, including mental health and well-being and how we consider the common good, and to rethink our approach. Anxiety, isolation, and introspection have sparked greater creativity, shifted patterns of consumption, and even renewed our connection to nature. Whether these changes represent a true reset in human behavior remains to be seen, but they seem unlikely to become permanent without concurrent resets at the macro and micro level.
Schwab and Malleret, both members of the World Economic Forum (Schwab is the Founder and Executive Chairman) present a compelling case for a Great Reset, a bold reorientation of our economic, social and political systems on a global scale. However, despite the magnitude of the overhaul they are calling for, the authors offer few specifics on how this reset can be achieved. Schwab and Malleret are clear in laying out why change should occur and what the changes might look like but fall short on offering the how. The book contains no case studies, few examples and many abstractions in making its point. The worldview they present is troubling yet ultimately hopeful, but without a more detailed roadmap, the chances we’ll find the right path to achieve the change they call for may be slim.