Coronavirus: Can we 'reset' our world and boost well-being?

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Exacerbation of existing inequalities was a theme running through the discussion

Does the current global pandemic present humanity with a chance to reset the world to a more equitable utopian future or will we slip back into our old ways when the crisis eases, with all the attendant societal inequalities?

An interesting question and part of a fascinating online discussion which launched the ‘Well-Being in a Covid World’ Policy Commission set up by the European University of Well-Being (EUniWell). As an alliance of seven top European universities, including Birmingham, EUniWell has a mission to define how a modern, civic and entrepreneurial university can support social and individual well-being in a global setting.

Inspired by the vision of our founder Joseph Chamberlain, the University of Birmingham has always had a mission to make important things happen. We have found a natural home within the EUniWell partnership and were delighted to contribute to the first in a series of International Policy Commissions. These will bring leading figures from the public, private and third sectors together with EUniWell academics to generate new thinking on well-being issues.

Chaired by Stefano Manservisi, former Director-General of the European Commission’s Directorate General for International Cooperation and Development, the opening panel discussion also featured Arnold Tukker, Professor of Industrial Ecology at Leiden University; Christiane Woopen, Professor of Ethics and Theory of Medicine, at the University of Cologne; and Judith Barth, EUniWell Chief Student Officer, also from the University of Cologne.

Exacerbation of existing inequalities was a theme running through the discussion – a clear cause for concern among the panellists, who noted that society’s most vulnerable had been hit hardest by the pandemic. Whilst society as a whole had proved remarkably agile in responding to the crisis in many ways, data from the Office for National Statistics suggest that loneliness remains a predictor of higher anxiety, whilst feeling safe – whether at work or home – has a positive impact on mental health.

Three groups of people can be identified as suffering the greatest impact. First, there are those suffering under an existential threat, either patients being treated for COVID-19, or at high risk of poor outcomes from infection, or those who have been unable to access medical care for prior life-threatening conditions, . Secondly, there is a clear economic threat to people with a risk of diminished income or loss of employment,and for fewer jobs for those seeking to enter the workplace . Thirdly, there are the social and psychological risks due to lockdown and isolation – these include the increased levels of depression and anxiety in adults; emotional and behavioural problem in children, but also missed academic development with constrained school opportunities; and possible increased rates of violence and substance misuse in some homes. .

Those who are at most risk of a negative impact from the direct and indirect effects of COVID-19 are those who suffered previously from inequality and disadvantage, which have now been further exacerbated.  However, the gap in society created between these people and those under existential, economic and social threat can increase injustice and must be narrowed.

‘Balance’ was a word we discussed at length. Maintaining a certain level of well-being requires a balance to be found between the different components: societal freedom, physical and mental health, and economic strength. In creating this balance, do we have that opportunity to leave the bad old ways behind and forge a better future – for example, a valuing of certain occupations, a decrease in commuting, more family time and mental health innovation in the workplace?

This is an important question, not least for young people across Europe and beyond. Research shows that their fears are not necessary those that the older generation would imagine: for example, young people see that their mental health is related to geo-political topics such as climate change, Brexit, austerity and recession. With precarious employment prospects and fluid ties to society during an age of uncertainty, perhaps a more pertinent question to ask is ‘what does the future look like for young adults in Europe?’

The challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic poses to well-being give EUniWell’s mission particular urgency. The six-month duration of this inaugural Policy Commission will give everyone participating an opportunity to make a valuable contribution to European society—perhaps even to help build a better, more egalitarian future for our young people.

Professor Robin Mason, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (International) at the University of Birmingham.

Professor Matthew Broome, Professor in Psychiatry and Youth Mental Health, and Director of the Institute for Mental Health (IMH) at the University of Birmingham.