Recovering from COVID-19: these are the risks to anticipate now – before it’s too late

covid supermarket

(John Cameron, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Emilio Granados Franco, Head of Global Risks and Geopolitical Agenda., World Economic Forum


  • The Forum asked 350 of the world’s top risk experts to assess the most likely and most concerning fallout risks from COVID-19 over the next 18 months. The findings highlight: the economy, cybersecurity, environment and social anxiety as the top concerns.
  • The perceived emerging risks serve as a warning of how things could turn out if handled poorly, but they offer a means to change direction before it is too late.
  • COVID-19 has exposed gaps in healthcare, digital means and social protection, but it has also illuminated strengths to be drawn from in order to build back a better world.

A golden rule of politics is that the timing of a decision is almost as important as the decision itself. “Timing is everything”, but it is also the element that is hardest to get right.

The world has long been overdue a systemic reform of its economic, social and technological structures, but apparently the timing has never been quite right. Growth has been slow, political divisiveness on the rise and geopolitical relationships ever more fragile. All of this, while inequality has increased and has magnified a multitude of social problems.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

A new strain of Coronavirus, COVID 19, is spreading around the world, causing deaths and major disruption to the global economy.

Responding to this crisis requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

The Forum has created the COVID Action Platform, a global platform to convene the business community for collective action, protect people’s livelihoods and facilitate business continuity, and mobilize support for the COVID-19 response. The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

The global COVID-19 crisis has exposed these gaps with graphic honesty. It makes for uncomfortable reflection as we see the woefully unequal access to healthcare, digital means and social protection as the pandemic spreads across cities, countries and continents.

A virus has taken away the luxury of planning. We can no longer wait for the right moment to time such reforms, but we can still make sure they are the right ones.

There are critical decisions that we can make today that will have long-term implications. As governments relax containment measures and economies begin to reopen, it is vital that recovery efforts consider the second-tier risks resulting from COVID-19.

Following the Great Lockdown will come the Great Reset, a series of profound changes to what is already being described as the “old normal”. If we remain passive to emerging risks, we may lose a historical opportunity to shape the new normal that we want, rather than the one we would be left with.

The Forum asked 350 of the world’s top risk experts to assess the most likely and most concerning fallout risks from COVID-19 over the next 18 months, for the world and for companies. The results of this survey are published today in the World Economic Forum’s COVID-19 Risks Outlook.

Economic risks dominate perceptions. Two out of three experts identified a prolonged global recession as a top concern. Half identified bankruptcies, industry consolidation, failure of industries to recover and a disruption of supply chains as crucial worries.

Critical non-economic risks are also concerning. 50% of respondents are particularly worried about an increase in cyberattacks against their companies and expect restrictions on the cross-border movement of people and goods to remain up to 2021, while 40% believe another outbreak of an infectious disease is a major risk for the world.

Rightfully so, the state of the economy is critical, but the implications from the crisis are far more complex.

What do business leaders think are the greatest risks to the world due to coronavirus?
Image: World Economic Forum
What do business leaders think are the most worrisome risks to companies due to coronavirus?
Image: World Economic Forum

On the environmental front, even with an expected 8% drop in global emissions for this year, the world would still miss the 1.5°C target to avoid a planetary catastrophe. Climate degradation will worsen if countries fail to embed sustainability criteria into their recovery plans, and if COVID-19 eclipses sustainability on the public agenda.

Social anxieties are another concern. Widespread anxiety could worsen as a result of entrenched unemployment, inter-generational friction and the pressure that fear and isolation have put on mental health.

One recent study in the United States, for example, found that social distancing risks increasing suicide rates. Another found that 70% of American adults feel this period has been the most stressful of their careers. Moreover, today’s youth is facing a much bleaker economic outlook than following the 2008 financial crisis. “Generation Great Lockdown” – or the class of 2020 – is indeed at risk of becoming the next lost generation.

The relationship between societies and technology is also likely to change fundamentally. Technology has been critical to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, maintain communication with families and enable working from home. But a hasty adoption of digital solutions – from video-conferencing to tracing apps – also risks a mass increase in cybercrime, civil-liberty violations and deeper digital inequality.

This is an outlook of emerging risks; it is not a forecast. In this respect, it serves as a warning of how things could turn out if handled poorly, but more importantly it offers a means to change direction before it is too late.

The crisis has exposed weaknesses, but it has also illuminated strengths. There is a new-found understanding and appreciation for essential public services, most notably health. Consumption and mobility habits have changed dramatically – a sign of adaptability towards a more sustainable model – while technology has potentially revolutionized learning, working, producing and caring. We must draw on these strengths to build back a better world.

Today the Forum has also published a collection of essays from its diverse Global Risks Advisory Board, on the opportunities in the post-COVID-19 world. These include a renewed support for the multilateral system and its organizations, regional integration to respond to global trade disruptions, opening spaces for cities to participate in shaping the global agenda, creating public-private insurance schemes that are accessible to the most vulnerable groups, and embedding mental health awareness into public education programmes.

The novel coronavirus spread so wide and so fast that this crisis seems to have been one step ahead of us. It’s time to take the lead.

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