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Have you had a good pandemic?

A recent article in the Financial Times by Simon Kuper argues that “many of us have had a good pandemic” – or at least those of us not working in a hospital or doing home schooling. The rest of us, arguably, have received “the gift of time” – spending less time commuting and having more control over how we use our time. Kuper cites evidence from the Ipsos Global Happiness survey, which indicated that 63% of respondents said they were happy during the pandemic in 2020, just one percentage point lower than in 2019.

One of the things that Kuper glosses over is that although the average change in happiness is very small, there are important variations by countries. For example, people in China, Malaysia, Russia and Turkey were actually more likely to say they were happy during the pandemic than in 2019. In contrast, respondents in Peru, Chile, Mexico, India and the United States all reported lower levels of happiness during the pandemic. It does not take a statistician to work out that the unhappier countries also tended to be those suffering heavily from the pandemic.

This is underlined by the fact that the importance of health/physical well-being in happiness levels is highest in Turkey, Chile, Brazil, South Africa, Argentina and Mexico (over 90% linked happiness levels to health). Being heavily hit by the pandemic will make people realise how good or bad public health provision is. Those countries that have better health systems will see their physical health as less important, because they will be more likely to trust that the health system will save them.

Rather than undermining Kuper’s basic point, these data actually reinforce it: some people have done better than others during the pandemic. On a global scale, happiness has been redistributed between those with higher or lower levels of infection, underlining the role of good governance and public investment in maintaining both health and wellbeing. On an individual level, our jobs and home situation have a big impact as well.

But there are other important factors influencing happiness during the pandemic, as the Gallup World Poll shows. For example, levels of interpersonal trust explained much of the difference in in COVID-19 death rates: “For example, Brazil's death rate was 93 per 100,000, higher than in Singapore, and of this difference, over a third could be explained by the difference in public trust.” The data show that income inequality, which is also linked to social trust, explained a large proportion of the difference in death rates between countries. The data also highlight the fallacy of rhetoric about choosing between health and the economy. Countries with high death rates also suffered the greatest falls in GDP per head.

However, even in those countries that relatively successfully navigated the pandemic and where there was no decline in subjective wellbeing, there was often an increase in the number of people who said they were worried or sad. So subjective wellbeing, which is an aggregate measure of happiness, doesn’t show us how people are reacting emotionally to the pandemic. The lesson for researchers (and also politicians) is that you need to choose your indicators carefully, and not cherry-pick the results.

Some of us may be having a good pandemic. But a good pandemic is made possible by good public policy, public investment and higher levels of equality.

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