COVID-19 and Well-being: Life in the Pandemic

Romina Boarini, the director of the OECD WISE Centre, shares insights from their latest report on key dimensions of well-being: social connections, work-life balance, health and others. Banner image: Shutterstock/MIA Studio
COVID-19 and Well-being: Life in the Pandemic

This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders  from around the world and all parts of society  address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future.

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The OECD Centre for Inclusion, Well-being, Sustainability and Equal Opportunity (WISE) was launched 25 November, 2020 with a mission to move the OECD’s work beyond GDP by bringing the measurement and policy aspects of the well-being agenda together. Given the current context, our work programme has been largely framed around the challenges raised by COVID-19. As we celebrate our first anniversary today, we are pleased to release a new report on COVID-19 and Well-being: Life in the Pandemic that emblematically illustrates WISE’s approach of generating data and solutions to inform people-centred policies.

The report builds on the OECD Well-being Framework to assess the effect of COVID-19 on people’s lives. Tracking outcomes at the individual, household and community levels during the first year of the pandemic across various domains, it includes material conditions, quality of life factors and community relations. Our findings show that all aspects of life have been affected by the pandemic. Excess mortality increased by 16% in OECD countries, leading to a seven-month fall in OECD-average life expectancy in 2020 alone. In terms of income and wealth, although government support helped to sustain OECD average household income levels and stem the tide of unemployment, 31% of people faced financial difficulties at the end of 2020 in 25 OECD countries.

The OECD Well-being framework

Confinement measures brought new challenges in terms of school closures, unpaid care work and domestic violence. In this context, people’s mental health has seen a significant deterioration. Data from 15 OECD countries suggest that over 25% of people were at risk of depression or anxiety in 2020. Feelings of loneliness, division and disconnection from society also grew: 1 in 5 people in 22 European OECD countries felt lonely most or all of the time in early 2021, up from 1 in 7 in the first months of the pandemic a year earlier.

Our analysis does not only assess the extent of COVID-19’s effects on people’s lives, but it also highlights how experiences of the pandemic varied widely across individuals and communities depending on whether and where people work, their age, gender, ethnicity or education levels. Young people, for instance, have experienced some of the largest declines in mental health, social connectedness and subjective well-being. Women were more likely to experience long COVID, saw larger falls in mental health and felt lonelier. In those OECD countries with data, COVID-19 mortality rates for some ethnic minority communities have been more than twice those of other groups, and ethnic minority workers have been more likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic.

The interconnected and wide-ranging effects of the COVID-19 crisis have highlighted the need for a recovery that does not only focus on improving people’s well-being in the present, but also builds up the stocks of natural, economic, human and social capital that are essential for well-being in the long run. Our report identifies the main policy channels through which governments can achieve this objective: developing sustainable, inclusive and high-quality jobs; promoting lifelong learning; raising the well-being for disadvantaged children and young people; strengthening mental and physical health promotion and prevention; and reinforcing public sector capacity on both well-being analysis and citizen engagement.

Given the multiplicity of objectives to be achieved simultaneously for a strong and inclusive recovery, determining policy priorities is a challenging task for any government. By providing a framework for systematically scanning evidence and identifying the policy areas of greatest need, a well-being approach can give structure to this priority-setting process. Our hope is that this report will help governments refocus their recovery packages towards the outcomes that matter most to people, informing the design of policy content from a more multidimensional perspective and ultimately reconnecting people with the public institutions that serve them.  

Learn more in the OECD report COVID-19 and Well-being: Life in the Pandemic

Learn more in the OECD report COVID-19 and Well-being: Life in the Pandemic

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