Our normality index shows that life is halfway between pre-covid norms
INOT 1920 WARREN HARDING won the US presidency by promising a “return to normalcy” after the First World War and the influenza pandemic of 1918-20. A century later, his lens looks more appealing than ever. It also seems extremely difficult to achieve.
In theory, vaccines should end the covid-19 pandemic. Already, a third of people aged 12 and over have at least one shot. Yet many places are retreating. Australia, Bangladesh and Thailand have all imposed new restrictions. Even Chile, where 77% of those over 12 have a dose of the vaccine, locked down its capital last month.
Such cases do not call into question the effectiveness of the vaccines. In countries like Israel, where most adults get two injections of Pfizer, life now goes on much like 2019. But in other places, even with the end in sight, normalcy remains far away. And differences in vaccination rates do not fully explain why some countries benefit more than others.
Covid-19 has changed lives in too many ways to be counted. Yet any effort to assess how far its impact has receded requires a measure of what normalcy is. We thus designed a normality index, plotting three types of activity. The first is travel, divided between roads, flights and public transport. Then comes leisure, divided between hours spent away from home, cinema receipts and attendance at sporting events. The last is commercial activity, measured by frequentation of shops and offices.
For each variable, we obtained daily or weekly data for 50 countries, which represent 76% of the world’s population and 90% of its population. GDP. We combine them by measuring the evolution of each factor compared to its pre-covid level; average the changes in each category; then averaging the pooled results. Our overall figure weights each country by its population.
We are calculating the index against a pre-covid standard of 100. When the pandemic was declared in March 2020, China had already locked in, bringing the index down to 80. As the disease subsided. spread, the index reached a low of 35. Since last July, it has hovered around 60. It now stands at 66, implying that only half of the disruptions caused by covid-19 have been reversed.
Most Western countries are close to this average. America is 73 years old, the EU 71, Australia 70 and Great Britain 62. Elsewhere the range is wider. Hong Kong and New Zealand, the leaders at 96 and 88, enjoy almost total normality. In contrast, since April, Malaysia’s value has increased from 55 to 27.
Of the eight activities in the index, three were the subject of legal orders which forced them to stop last March: cinemas, sporting events and thefts. All three today remain 70-85% below the pre-covid baseline.
Although many theaters are now open, studios have started selling content directly to streaming services (see International). Aside from the cinema boom in China during the New Year’s festivities in February, when weekly revenues increased by 3,600%, the industry lost between 20% and 40% of its revenues compared to 2019.
The image for sports and air travel is a little more rosy. At sporting events, capacity limits kept crowds around 20% of their pre-covid baseline. Likewise, there are only 30% more planes in the skies today than in 2019, largely because of travel bans and quarantine rules. America, however, is an encouraging exception. With high demand for domestic flights and mass vaccination rendering attendance limits unnecessary, air travel and baseball stadiums are at 70% and 90% of their levels as of 2019.
Although many governments have forced people to stay in their homes, these rules are difficult to enforce. Last April, even though half of the world’s population were subject to such orders, the global average time spent away from home fell by only 15%. Compliance rates appear to be just as low today: around 14% of people are not allowed out, but time spent at home is only 5% below the 2019 baseline.
The final variables of our index depend mainly on the choices of individuals or companies. All have largely recovered, suggesting that people are recovering as much normalcy as governments allow. Public transport, which cities typically kept in service, is now at 80% of its pre-covid level. Driving is 73%; visits to retail stores are at 91%; and office attendance is 80%. Because many office workers can work remotely, the shortfall in this category probably reflects telework more than unemployment.
Our index values at country level vary widely, from 16 in Peru in April 2020 to 97 in Vietnam the previous month. A few figures explain most of the differences, both between countries and over time.
Logically, the places with the worst epidemics tend to be the least normal. Holding the other factors constant, a one standard deviation increase in the official number of covid-19 deaths in a country in the previous month reduces normality by four points. Likewise, tightening the locking rules by one standard deviation reduces normality by five points.
However, it takes time for behavior to reflect the true spread of covid-19. Normality follows the official death toll from the previous month – which could reflect infections from 60 days ago – much closer than the current case count. It is also only weakly related to indirect measures of uncounted cases, such as the share of positive tests or changes in deaths from all causes. And although vaccines increase normality, they only do so after they have had enough time to reduce deaths. Life remains abnormal in most countries where covid-19 epidemics took off before enough people could achieve full protection.
Normality is also influenced by factors unrelated to the pandemic. In general, Asian countries were less normal than expected. Counterintuitively, behavior has changed more in places with strong civil liberties than in otherwise similar but less free countries. It would make sense if people in such places are unusually likely to trust their leaders, or if they feel more invested in the well-being of their fellow citizens. And the richer countries, where a lot of people can work from home, are more abnormal than the poorer ones.
Our normality index does not closely track the economic recovery. Certain behaviors, such as air travel, should eventually recover. Other variables, such as going to the movies or working from home, could signal a lasting change. We will update our online index every week to follow the world’s path to normalcy.■
Sources: afltables.com; baseball-freak.com; baseball-reference.com; Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford; Mojo ticket office; Google; reference-hockey.com; JHU CSSE; Our world in data; TomTom; profootball-reference.com; UN ICAO; Transfer market; Ultimatealeague.com; Wind; The Economist
This article appeared in the Graphic Detail section of the print edition under the title “Back to the Future”