Let’s first consider how attitudes and behaviors are shaped by a deep
societal crisis. Major disruptions can cause fundamental shifts in social
attitudes and beliefs, which pave the way for new policies, ways of
working, and consumer needs and behaviors.
HISTORICAL EXAMPLES OF SOCIETAL CRISIS-INDUCED SHIFTS
The 9/11 terrorist attacks similarly reshaped transportation and
security policies worldwide. There was a collective shift in societal
attitudes about the tradeoff between personal privacy and security. As
a result, citizens accepted higher levels of screening and surveillance
in the interests of collective security.
Societal crises can also have lasting effects on consumption patterns.
For example, the 2003 SARS outbreak in China changed attitudes
toward shopping: because many people were afraid to go outside, they
turned to online retail. Though the crisis was short-lived, many
consumers continued to use e-commerce channels afterward, paving
the way for the rise of Alibaba and other digital giants.
COVID-19 SHIFT BELIEFS AND BEHAVIORS
These attitudinal shifts could in turn be reflected in significant policy
shifts in many areas, including trade, border controls, health care, crisis
preparedness, foreign affairs, employment, and social welfare. National
security agencies are already drawing analogies between COVID-19 and
cyber warfare, and rethinking and bolstering cyber defenses as a result.
The pandemic could also shape national politics, as citizens judge the
effectiveness of their government responses
Attitudes, policies, and the direct experience of the pandemic are
already changing how we work, including greater emphasis on remote
working, digital collaboration, workplace hygiene, and protections for
temporary workers, for example.
And we can already see significant shock-driven shifts in purchasing
patterns in our analysis of credit card activity for hundreds of thousands
of consumers. Groceries and pharmacy products have increased by
more than 50% compared to pre-crisis levels, and online shopping on
Amazon, Flipkart, Big Basket has also increased. On the other hand,
travel spending has declined by 90%, and apparel purchases have
declined by more than 80%.
We should not expect that all of these shifts will stick, however. For
example, there was a marked reduction in air travel after the 9/11
attacks, but it returned to its previous trend line within 15 months.
Undoubtedly, we will see some consumption patterns reverting to long-term trend lines, albeit at different speeds. “We must distinguish
between temporarily postponed, accelerated, or disturbed
consumption, and new, more permanent patterns of
Furthermore, we should not expect consumption to shift only among
existing products. New ideas often emerge or are developed in response
to extreme needs arising during a social crisis.
World War II, for example, forced innovation or accelerated
development and commercialization of the jet engine, pressurized
aircraft cabins, helicopters, atomic technology, computers, synthetic
rubber, rocketry, radar, and penicillin, with lasting effects.
“New needs born in our current crisis will likely drive lasting
innovation in other areas, such as mass disease-testing
technologies, digital collaboration tools, or affordable home
We should not, however, expect permanent shifts to be easily
discernible through observation and analysis alone. We cannot know for
sure what shifts will persist until after the crisis is over, by which time
pioneers will have already established leading positions.
Pioneers will not only adapt to shifting needs; they will also
proactively shape perceived needs and outcomes through
innovation, education, and promotional activities.
We can visualize the field of possibilities by observing fundamental
attitudinal and behavioral shifts and creating branching trees of
“Fundamental shifts among consumers could include more time at
home, more emphasis on hygiene and health, or greater emphasis on
family security. Producer shifts could include embracing remote
working, streamlining operations, decentralizing supply chains, and
emphasizing crisis preparedness and systems resilience. Each of these
basic shifts has manifold potential consequences.”