Hopefully, the Omicron surge will be the last Covid-19-related wave. Wishful thinking would be that the pandemic turns into an endemic and we are closer to returning to our lives. It would be rational for many people to put the pandemic out of their minds, especially those who caught the virus and experienced the loss of loved ones.
It may be painful, but it seems prudent and forward-thinking to research into what worked out well during the virus outbreak. For the future, it would be helpful to have a guide of successful actions, so we can be prepared and not degenerate once again into political bickering, thwarting efforts to collaborate together for a solution.
Fortunately, the Adecco Group, one of the world’s largest talent and staffing organizations, did a deep dive into the data and published a new report: Comparing the Outcome of Government Responses to Covid-19. The analysis offers key insights into the labor market and how differing economic and health measures introduced by governments during the pandemic have shaped the evolving world of work.
In an in depth interview with Bettina Schaller, senior vice president and head of group public affairs at the Adecco Group, she shared the highlights of what governments across the world did to help improve the lives of their citizens and keep them safe.
Here are some of the highlights of 20 different countries in three separate regions:
- The U.K. ranks lowest of the 20 countries overall, despite investing 19.3% of its GDP on support measures, because support was withdrawn earlier in 2021 than other countries and there was often a gap of several months between financial support being announced and money arriving in bank accounts.
- Saving lives saves the economy. The U.S. had the highest number of cases and deaths, as well as the highest relative increase in unemployment: +47% of unemployed in 2021 compared to 2019. South Korea, on the other hand, tamed the pandemic—only investing 6.4% of its GDP in fiscal measures, with an unemployment rate difference of just +0.05% between 2019 and 2021.
- Jabs created jobs. Singapore has 80% of the population vaccinated and a strong economic resurgence.
- South Korea has tamed the pandemic. The country outscores the others in scope on every level. Its economy has been relatively spared and is recovering confidently. The health system and citizens have remained insulated from the deadly virus—and all of this with government spending on additional support measures at only 6.4% of its GDP. South Korea shares the podium with Australia and New Zealand, which also show remarkable management of the crisis. However, Australia’s government clamped down harshly on civil rights. People were ordered to stay indoors and when there were peaceful protests, claiming that the restrictions were too onerous, they were met with fierce reprisals from police and military personnel. “Restrictive rules do not necessarily help contain the virus. It appears that what matters is to have reasonable and targeted measures.”
- Singapore has mastered the recovery. The country’s economy had the strongest economic upsurge, whilst having a relatively low number of Covid-related deaths and the highest vaccination rate, with 80% of the population being fully vaccinated against the virus. It seems from the data that Asian countries performed well, possibly due to the fact the region has faced previous health scares. They were already comfortable wearing masks. Taking the necessary precautions to keep safe may have been more natural compared to Western nations.
- Diverse policies to support businesses and workers were effective—measures to support both businesses, including credit, subsidies, tax exemptions/deferrals, support for sick leave and short-term work compensation schemes, and individuals, including access to sick pay, unemployment benefits and direct financial support, both worked well.
One of the interesting differences between the reaction of the U.S. government and European Union countries was that the EU, which leans somewhat Socialist compared to the U.S., gave funds to companies to keep people working during the tumultuous time period. In America, it was a little different. Businesses, ranging from small mom-and-pop restaurants to large corporations, furloughed and fired tens of millions of people.
The companies, especially during the early months, afraid of how bad things could get, slashed costs, which included massive layoffs. Recognizing that having double-digit unemployment could lead to dire consequences, trillions of dollars in stimulus checks were sent out to Americans to keep them afloat. Generous enhanced unemployment benefit payments and no-repayment loans—money offered to small and midsized companies—helped keep people employed.
While some Americans made out better with all of the government benefits, there was a social cost. When you don’t have a job, are stuck at home and afraid to go outside, it takes a toll on your mental health. We’ve seen the largest increase of people citing mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, stress and burnout. Too much alcohol consumption, eating, taking both prescribed and illicit drugs became commonplace.
You didn’t need to be a psychiatrist to see the signs of people unraveling. On social media, video clips, cable news shows and in person, it was noticeable how angry and volatile people were. Video clips of “Karens and Kevins” constantly circulated, showing people yelling, screaming and getting into violent, physical altercations. For a few months, cities were burned down, as peaceful protests were hijacked by bad actors.
This did not happen in the EU and other nations. Europe experienced challenges too, but perhaps the government-funded jobs kept people working, staying busy and engaged. The old adage, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” seems appropriate for that time period.
The report shows a direct correlation between vaccinations and the increase in jobs and rehiring. The study found, “Protecting the people protects the economy. The countries that kept the spread of the virus under control and have successfully rolled out vaccination experience better economic performance and stronger recovery.”
A study by the International Labor Organization—a United Nations agency whose mandate is to advance social and economic justice through setting international labor standards— corroborates the report, finding for every 14 people fully vaccinated, one new job was added to the global labor market. It was evident that once the vaccinations were rolled out, despite political partnership, the overall mood of the world changed in a positive way. There was a sense of relief. As more people received their shots, cities, states and nations reopened for business. Laid-off workers were brought back. In the U.S., the demand was so great that there weren’t enough workers to fill open jobs.
There was a universal change in mindset. People started thinking more deeply about their work lives. Many decided that they didn’t want to keep doing what they’ve been doing. Life is too short to waste on working so many hours on something that doesn’t offer meaning, purpose or a fair wage. The Great Resignation trend started and it became socially acceptable to quit a job and pursue something better elsewhere.
Spain, for example, took extra steps to look after its workers. The government offered benefits to gig and temp workers. It clamped down on app-based tech companies that appeared to take advantage of workers. They were afforded sick pay, unemployment benefits for solopreneurs, child benefits and low-cost loans to help people get by.
The recommendations, based upon the research, are as follows:
Governments must continue their vaccination efforts and implement targeted measures to avoid the spread of the virus. As the analysis shows, the state of the pandemic in a country and its economy are linked: saving lives saves the economy. Yet, strict rules do not necessarily translate to efficiency; well-targeted policies are needed.
Maintain support measures. While measures to support the economy across the board may not be financially sustainable, targeted measures will continue to be a crucial way of avoiding significant labor market disruptions with potentially long-lasting scarring effects. A sudden or early withdrawal of government support measures risks exacerbating labor market disruptions and could jeopardize the economic recovery.
Governments should ensure these support measures reach all workers, including—or rather especially—those in diverse forms of work. The pandemic has caused certain economic sectors and activities to grow and others to whither, in addition to more long-term trends that are also prompting labor market transitions. Governments should encourage and enable companies and job seekers to prepare for these transitions by investing in career management, including reskilling and upskilling.
The world of work has been changing since before the Covid-19 crisis. The pandemic has put additional focus on some aspects, such as the need to invest in worker well-being and work-life balance, and the need to establish a clear set of rights and responsibilities, in the context of remote working. Workers’ desire to work more flexibly, paired with a need for labor market agility, also requires governments to rethink regulation on diverse forms of work, such as agency work and self-employment. Governments need to make haste in implementing the necessary labor market reforms to set their economies up for success.
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