Novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) disease (COVID-19) was a major public health emergency and psychosocial shock event that directly or indirectly affected virtually all humans on Earth. The virus emerged around Wuhan in China and spread around the globe over 2020-22 when >16 million (MM) humans died and >70% of humanity had been subjected to social restrictions and societal lockdown. Coronavirus exploited social interaction, urbanization, public transport, and liberalism, and elicited the strongest global economic perturbation in a century (-3% world GDP). In this snapshot of time humans showed emotional, cognitive, physical, social, and societal responses to a pandemic marked by stress, loneliness, polarization, demonstrations, riots and violence, long-Covid, virus mutations, vaccines, and breakthrough infections, conspiracy theories, and individual, sociocultural, and geopolitical changes, including war in Europe, and existential angst due to nuclear threats, and an accelerating climate disaster. The pandemic years 2020-22 were the hardest and most stressful years that most people lived through and influenced a generation of humans. This pandemic was an unique period in time to learn about human psychology and preparedness, as engagement with natural hazards is one master task of civilization.
Method: The pandemic is an immensely broad topic and a staggering amount of information became available which inspired me to use the Dutch (NL) mainstream media (MSM) as a lens to study and structure societal responses over 2020-22. These MSM data were enriched with examples and perspectives from Europe and the United States, using a range of academic and government studies. This story was built around five key interests: (a) individual differences in what people felt, thought, did, need, and wanted during the years 2020-2022, in terms of personality differences; (b) which humans coped with the rapid changes in daily rhythms and societal restrictions and who were able to maintain their subjective well-being (resilience); (c) how did human preparedness pan out over 2020-22; and (d) how did a selection of major Dutch MSM reflect on this unfolding Covid pandemic, one of the largest in a century; and (e) how did the pandemic influence human development with a special focus on youth (aged 0-30) and psychology.
Results: Globally governments decisions to curb the pandemic were driven by public sentiment rather than ratio, science, and cost-benefit analyses. Public sentiment that shifted like the weather, as citizens proved 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 pre-Covid social science consensus. Humans grappled with the asymptomatic transmission of coronavirus, the duration and ambiguity of the pandemic (an experience many revisited when Russia invaded the Ukraine), which often sparked a reevaluation of their lives. Humans crafted a societal master narrative to structure their collective understanding of the pandemic and their societal responses, and worked towards an acceptance of their collective vulnerability 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. Differences in resilience and adjustment to coronavirus associated with social and financial resources, cognitive ability, risk aversion, values, personality profiles, skills, and contextual differences, such as 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 was the lack of human prudence, as humans and governments were astonished when confronted with novel coronavirus, a series of climate disasters, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and showed to be unprepared, despite certainty and clear warning signals that these events were coming. Moreover, many humans and governments continued to be surprised by the second up 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) and conspiracy theories affected families and friendships. Citizens entered a prisoners dilemma as those who took part in massive protests, riots, and refused to be vaccinated (~10%), or the many Dutch adults and companies who refused to adhere to even the most basic measures like social distancing (1.5m), testing, quarantining, and a reduction in social contact, enjoyed their freedom at the expense of healthcare workers, many disable people, and people in need of intensive hospital treatment, and prolonged social restrictions for everyone.
Conclusion: Coronavirus was a risk multiplier that helped identify specific human weaknesses, from their hubris and lack of prudence to poor societal and international synchronization. MSM described how human irrationality, naivety, ignorance, complacency, hubris, immoderation, recklessness, callousness, self-centeredness, hostility, and greed, gave rise to many of the suffering and catastrophes over 2020-22, including the spread of Covid-19, the rapidly accelerating climate disaster, and the Russian-Ukrainian war. Pandemic studies also highlighted human flexibility and positive capacities, such as the courage of health workers, the key role of family and friends in human health and well-being and the many relationships that deepened, and rapid advances in public medicine and health. Political, social and healthcare systems must adapt to handle the rapidly changing circumstances and threats due to coronavirus and other documented geopolitical and climatic stressors, which affected all humans. The coronavirus pandemic impacted on youth development over 2020-21 but it remains to be seen whether youth collectively remain to be 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, famine, and hurricanes over 2020-22, and the ongoing (sixth) global mass extinction event, all human made; a species both astonishing powerful and stupid. Humans must take stock of the lessons learned over 2020-22 and aim for prudence and collaboration across borders to successfully navigate the next two centuries and flourish, as many alarm bells were ringing.