Social solidarity has been one of the consolations of the pandemic, but the divisions the crisis exposed, rather than the sense of common purpose it aroused, may turn out to be the more enduring legacy.
We refer to the pandemic, singular, but there has been be no single experience of Covid-19. The same virus made its way indiscriminately around the world, finding immunologically naïve populations wherever it went, but this, it turned out, would be no great leveller. When it came up against history, geography, age, employment status, ethnicity, income and health – all the things that shape an unequal world, in other words – the turmoil it provoked affected people in very different ways.
Those divergent experiences of the upheaval of the past two years could profoundly shape the post-pandemic era, entrenching old divisions and creating new ones.
An east-west divide has become even more apparent as central and eastern European states with low vaccination take-up rates have struggled to control fresh waves of illness
Take geography. In Europe we know that the impact of the crisis was felt in very different ways depending on one's location. Last month the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) published the results of its polling across 12 European Union countries. It found that 54 per cent of people felt they had not been personally affected by Covid-19.
But there was a striking gap between the east and the south of Europe, on the one hand, and the north and the west on the other.
In Sweden, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Austria and Germany the majority felt they, their family or friends had not been personally impacted by either serious disease, bereavement or economic hardship. Yet most respondents in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Spain and Portugal said they had been personally affected (Ireland was not included in the research).
An east-west divide has become even more apparent in recent weeks as central and eastern European states with low vaccination take-up rates have struggled to control fresh waves of illness, while in western European cities life goes on pretty much as normal.
For the first time since the second World War there is a real risk that today's young Europeans will be less well-off than their parents
Here there are echoes of the EU’s most recent turmoil. The euro crisis set the debtor-states of the south against the creditors of the north. The refugee crisis of 2015 played out largely in Mediterranean states and in those on the EU’s eastern frontiers; the north and west of Europe, as Greek and Italian leaders ruefully observed, were largely untouched by it.
While the EU tried – with notable success in the case of vaccine-pooling – to Europeanise the crisis response, the ECFR report highlighted how the experience of it set people further apart. That could have implications for some of Europe’s biggest projects: the concept of freedom of movement, the future of the EU recovery plan, and Europe’s relationships with the rest of the world as conducted through vaccine diplomacy or overseas aid.
The generational divide is perhaps even more significant. While older people are more vulnerable to serious illness from Covid, a number of studies show that it is young people who feel most directly impacted by the crisis. The ECFR poll found over two-thirds of people over the age of 60 did not feel they have been personally affected by the pandemic, but that percentage fell to 43 per cent among the under-30s.
A Behaviour & Attitudes poll for The Irish Times in March pointed to a similar phenomenon here. When asked if they agreed that “Covid-19 has had a profound impact on my life”, nearly 70 per cent of the under-25s identified a profound personal impact, compared to just 40 per cent of the over-65s.
This makes sense: the prolonged closures of schools and colleges, the shuttering of bars and restaurants, the grounding of aircraft and the curtailment of culture life had a dramatic effect on young people’s economic and social lives.
For all of this, in a climate of moral panic, they were scolded as much as they were praised; the young were gathering outdoors in groups, they were too eager to get back to nightclubs, too quick to return home for Christmas.
The ECFR study picked up “a widespread sense in many societies that the futures of the young have been sacrificed for the sake of their parents and their grandparents”. The same study found a surge in cynicism among young people about governments’ intentions during the pandemic.
How all of this affects politics in Europe will be one of the most important questions of the post-pandemic era. Even before the Covid crisis generational equity was one of the most pressing issues facing Europe, where a scarcity of affordable housing and secure jobs has torn the social contract.
The same divide undergirds a lot of discussion on global warming, and it has played a part in dramatic shifts in party systems in France, Italy and many other EU states.
For the first time since the second World War there is a real risk that today’s young Europeans will be less well-off than their parents. At best the pandemic makes these problems harder to fix. At worst it could help turn an incipient divide into a major schism.