Novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) disease (COVID-19) was a major public health emergency and psychosocial shock event that affects most humans on Earth. The virus emerged around Wuhan in China and spread around the globe over 2020-22 and in these years >16 million humans died and >70% of humanity had been subjected to social restrictions and societal lockdown. Coronavirus exploited societies marked by social interaction, urbanization, public transport, and liberalism, and elicited the strongest global economic perturbation in a century (-3% world GDP). This study describes the emotional, cognitive, physical, social, and societal responses over 2020-2022; a snapshot of time marked by loneliness, polarization, demonstrations, riots, violence, long-Covid, virus mutations, vaccines, and breakthrough infections, up to conspiracy theories, and individual, sociocultural, and geopolitical changes. Humans have to improve their engagement with natural hazards as a master task of civilization now the climate disaster deepens and this coronavirus pandemic was a unique period in time to learn about human preparedness and psychology, as its relevance has rarely been so clear.
Method: To structure the immense amount of available information we use the Dutch (NL) mainstream media (MSM) as our lens and frame of reference to document societal responses over 2020-22. This unique story is enriched with examples and perspectives from Europe and the United States, and a range of academic and government studies. The review revolves around five key interests: (a) differences in what humans felt, thought, did, need, and wanted during the years 2020-2021 i.e. the role of personality differences; (b) how humans coped with the rapid changes in daily rhythms and societal restrictions and who was able to maintain their subjective well-being (resilience); (c) how human (pandemic) preparedness panned out over 2020-22; (d) how did the Dutch MSM reflect on this unfolding Covid pandemic, the largest in a century; and (e) how did the pandemic influence development, with a special focus on youth (aged 0-30).
Results: Globally governments decisions to curb the pandemic were driven by public sentiment rather than ratio and science. These collective emotions shifted like the weather, however, as populations are unpredictable, contradictory, and prone to emotional swings. Most humans tolerated repeated lockdowns over 2020-22 (e.g., 675 days with restrictions in NL) against the consensus prediction by social scientists. Humans grappled with the asymptomatic transmission of coronavirus, the duration and ambiguity of the pandemic, and the reevaluation of their lives. The Dutch construed a collective master narrative to structure their understanding and handling of the pandemic, and to accept their continuous vulnerability as a collective despite high vaccination rates. Over 2020-22 humans were forced to adjust to a rapidly changing world and many citizens struggled to return to a normal that was lost. Human resilience and adjustment to coronavirus was influenced primarily by social and financial resources, cognitive ability and risk position, values, personality profiles, skills, and contextual differences (e.g., living in a rich social welfare state), among others. Several countries started with an aim to derive herd immunity while others employed a zero-tolerance strategy that became untenable after the rise of Delta and Omicron variants. One cardinal observation over 2020-22 was the lack of human prudence, such as the genuine surprise when humans and governments where confronted with novel coronavirus, the series of climate disasters, and open wars over 2020-22; and their general lack of preparedness despite the certainty these events would come. Moreover, many humans and governments continued to be surprised by the second to sixth waves of Covid-19, often months apart, which illustrates that anticipatory failure was a system feature rather than a bug. In the Netherlands the polarization and loss of government trust was phenomenal (from 80% to 25% of adults). Citizens entered a prisoners dillemma as a subgroup participated in massive protests, riots, and refused to be vaccinated (~10%), while many Dutch adults and companies refused to adhere to even the most basic measures of social distancing (1.5m), testing, quarantining, and a reduction in social contact, at the expense of healthcare workers and people in need of intensive hospital treatment and prolonged the restrictions for all.
Conclusion: Coronavirus was a risk multiplier that helped identify specific human weaknesses, from their hubris and lack of prudence to poor international collaboration. MSM described how human irrationality, naievity, ignorance, complacency, hubris, immoderation, recklessness, callousness, self-centredness, and hostility and greed, were part of the personality trais that stimulated the observed catastrophies over 2020-22, including Covid-19, the rapidly accelerating climate disasster, and European war. Pandemic studies also highlighted human flexibility and positive capacities, and the key role of family and friends in human health and well-being, as well as rapid advances in public medicine and health. The coming decade we can witness how humans managed the coronavirus pandemic and geopolitical changes, adapted their social and healthcare systems to the new challenges, and whether those young in 2020-21 remained slightly more insecure, introverted, risk aversive, and collectivistic, compared to previous cohorts. The coronavirus pandemic was a symptom of a rapidly changing climate that stared humanity in the face in terms of an unprecedented series of extreme heat waves, wildfires, floods, droughts, and hurricanes over 2020-22, and the ongoing (sixth) global mass extinction event, all human made; a species both astonishing powerful and stupid. The events over 2020-22 changed the world and their shadow influences decades ahead. It is therefore key that humans take stock of the lessons learned and aim for prudence and collaboration to successfully navigate the next two centuries and flourish.