162 benefits of coronavirus

by bfinn8 min read12th May 202020 comments

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Coronavirus
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[More added: now 183]

WHILE THE HUGE harms of coronavirus are well-known – death, illness, lockdowns, unemployment, recession, etc. – less attention has understandably been paid to the benefits.

Even clouds this dark have silver linings. Crises produce opportunities, innovation, and long-overdue reforms. 2020 will contain an extra year’s worth of mortality – but also a decade’s worth of progress, a leap into the future.

This post lists many benefits that could arise, so readers can consider how to maximize them, not just minimize harms. They cover a wide range of consequences. For example, lockdown has made many people (even drug gangsters) reassess their lives. Working from home has suddenly become normal, with less commuting, less cost, and more time for leisure and sleep. So people may move from cities to cheaper, more pleasant areas, or indeed countries.

Above all, coronavirus is a wake-up call - it could have been far worse. Better preparation for the next pandemic will reduce existential risk, potentially saving billions, or even trillions, of future lives.

Experiment & evolve

Lockdowns have created an experiment, making people and organisations re-think how - and why - they do things. Some activities become impossible and are abandoned, e.g. travel. For others, alternatives are tried, e.g. video calls for meetings and doctor’s appointments; or innovations, such as businesses sharing employees. This experimentation will continue well beyond lockdown, as the new reality emerges.

Many of these changes will turn out to be improvements, and will stick. Others, e.g. government-funded furloughing and virtual horse races, are temporary fixes which will go - as will changes that didn’t work. And things that were dropped as unnecessary, e.g. pointless meetings and regulations, will stay dropped.

All of this involves prioritizing: deciding what outcomes matter, and which solutions now work best. Many things will modernize, simplify, and become more efficient. Cost-effectiveness is key, as incomes will shrink for a while.

Finally, lessons will be learned from what went badly in the pandemic, and steps taken to improve resilience and prepare for future crises.

We can also view the situation in terms of evolution. The world has been struck by a metaphorical meteor, threatening not just lives, but ways of life. Those organisations, jobs, and activities that are fittest for the new environment, or can adapt, will survive. Others that are no longer useful will die out, often replaced by innovations, to produce a new normal.

The benefits

The list below contains all the potential long-term benefits of the pandemic that I could find or think of. No doubt it is somewhat focused on rich countries, though this is not the aim. Please suggest additions or changes in the comments.

Some benefits have started under lockdown, such as more volunteering. Others may come later, such as de-urbanization.

Some are mixed blessings, causing substantial harm as well; e.g. failures of non-viable businesses, charities and educational institutions. With some items it’s unclear, or a matter of opinion, whether it is a benefit or not, e.g. political changes. While many potential benefits are speculative, some are especially so - more hopes than predictions; e.g. better international cooperation, in reaction to the protectionism of the pandemic. So I’ve qualified some entries accordingly:

  • ± Benefit with substantial harm, or unclear whether it’s a benefit at all
  • ? Very speculative

Disaster preparedness

Governments:

  • Preparation for future pandemics
  • ?Planning for existential risks: if coronavirus prompts even a small improvement in this, it would vastly outweigh all of the pandemic's harms*

Businesses & other organisations:

  • Continuity planning
  • Insurance
  • Better contractual arrangements, e.g. force majeure clauses
  • More robust supply chains, e.g. less just-in-time manufacturing
  • ±Re-shoring

Individuals:

  • Saving
  • Insurance
  • ±Survivalism

Spare capacity & redundancy:

  • Essential services: e.g. healthcare, supermarkets
  • Critical infrastructure
  • Manufacturing
  • Stockpiling essential supplies: e.g. food, fuel, medicines, vaccines, PPE

Government

Welfare state:

  • ±Increased safety net for healthcare, unemployment, etc.
  • ±Calls for Universal Basic Income: due to government-funded furloughing in some countries during lockdowns

Digitization & modernization:

  • E-government
  • Faster processing of benefit applications
  • Remote operation & streamlining of courts
  • Remote operation of parliaments
  • Electronic & postal voting

Trust in government in some countries: due to effective pandemic control, job retention schemes, etc.

Change of government/leader in some countries: if they did not handle pandemic well

Less avoidance of tax and regulations, as a result of re-shoring

Cost-saving efficiencies due to higher debt & lower tax revenue

?Transparency of government

?More constructive national politics

?Improved international cooperation, e.g.:

  • World Health Organisation
  • Trade in essentials, e.g. food, energy, medical supplies
  • Disaster preparedness (see above)

?Foreign aid:

  • Healthcare aid
  • Suspend debts
  • ±Cancel debts

?Ceasefires during pandemic in conflict zones, perhaps continuing afterwards

?Wellbeing/happiness economics take-up, as the pandemic highlights dilemmas between lives, livelihoods, and quality of life

Health & science

Public healthcare funding:

  • For spare capacity (see Disaster preparedness)
  • ?Policies to promote health, diet & exercise, particularly to groups which had disproportionate coronavirus mortality
  • ?Care home funding

International collaboration on health research

Faster health research processes:

  • Disease research
  • Vaccine & drug development
  • ±Deregulation
  • Journal publishing

Advances in virology, epidemiology, sociology etc. from coronavirus research

Infectious disease reduction, due to long-term hygiene improvements (e.g. handwashing, ?face masks):

  • Common diseases, e.g. colds, flu, food poisoning
  • Rarer, more serious diseases, e.g. some cancers
  • Diseases not previously known to be infectious
  • Future pandemics

Telehealth, including:

  • Symptom checking apps
  • Video consultations & therapy
  • Online prescribing
  • Treatments sent by post
  • Online self-help & automated therapy, e.g. for mental health
  • Remote monitoring

Hence:

Digitization of health data:

  • More efficient, e.g. the UK's NHS still relies on paper records
  • Enables research on the data

Self-care:

  • Physical health: importance highlighted by increased coronavirus mortality (even though lockdown may produce shorter-term harms from alcohol and less exercise)
  • Mental health: importance highlighted by lockdowns and anxiety about health & jobs
  • More cycling & walking: to avoid infection risk on public transport
  • Sleep: improved by less commuting or shorter work hours (see Work)
  • Personal health trackers: more usage & features, e.g. measuring temperature

Trust in science and medicine

Work

Remote work (usually office jobs):

  • From home; cafes, shared workspaces etc. nearby; or while travelling elsewhere
  • Move home to better/cheaper area or country, or to be nearer family/friends (see Relocation & transport)
  • Saves office cost, commuting time & cost
  • Digital transformation of organisations, increasing efficiency
  • More international employment & collaboration
  • More work for disabled people
  • Less 'presenteeism' (unnecessary attendance at work)
  • Better rural Internet access
  • ?Less office politics: as harder to do remotely
  • ?VR headsets for remote meetings, etc.

Change in work hours to suit worker (e.g. after reflection during lockdown), as cost/job-saving measure by employer, or to enable social distancing in workplaces/transport:

  • Flexi-time
  • ±Shorter hours / part-time work
  • ±Shifts
  • ±Weekends
  • Remote workers paid for actions & results, not hours: as hours harder to track

Change of job/career:

  • After reflection during lockdown
  • ±Forced by unemployment

±Bullshit jobs cut

±Automation of jobs: as cost-saving measure, or to reduce risk of worker absence in future lockdowns/crises

Fewer, more efficient meetings: as video conferences, or due to simplifications under lockdown

Corporate eLearning

?Better worker terms/rights:

  • Essential workers' pay
  • Casual workers
  • Minimum wage
  • Sick leave

Business

Innovation to deal with new circumstances, compete for reduced demand, or cut costs, e.g.:

  • Extended supermarket hours, or dedicated hours for vulnerable groups, to reduce crowding (even long-term, if further pandemic waves are expected)
  • Sharing employees between different businesses, in response to changes of demand
  • Drive-in cinemas for social distancing
  • Use of technology

Retail:

  • ±More online groceries, Amazon, Alibaba, Deliveroo, etc.
  • Automated warehouses and delivery (see Relocation & transport) to fulfill increased online orders
  • More self-checkout in physical stores, to avoid infection risk
  • Checkout-less stores, e.g. Amazon Go
  • High Street/Main Street switch from products to services: due to competition from online retail

±Business failures - especially if barely viable even before the pandemic, or have crowded spaces, e.g.:

  • Restaurants, cafes, bars, pubs, hotels
  • Cinemas, theatres
  • Department stores
  • Airlines, cruise ships

Relocation & transport

De-urbanization due to remote work (see Work):

  • Lower urban property/real estate prices
  • Lower commercial property/real estate prices, due to less office usage
  • Lower inequalities between regions of countries

Remote workers moving country:

  • To cheaper or more desirable locations
  • ?Better governance, tax breaks, etc. to attract such workers
  • ?Lower inequalities between countries

±Re-shoring (see Disaster preparedness)

Less transport:

  • ±Less international freight: due to deglobalization
  • Less work travel: due to less commuting, fewer in-person meetings & conferences, re-shoring (see Work)
  • ±Less public transport: due to infection risk and restrictions on international travel (even long-term, if further pandemic waves expected)
  • Hence more cycling & walking
  • Less driving to stores: due to online shopping, infection risk in malls (though de-urbanization may increase some driving)
  • Less pollution (see Environment & nature)
  • ±Lower fuel prices
  • ±Staycations: replacing foreign travel
  • ?Fewer road deaths - though train/bus passengers may switch to cars

?Delivery drones, self-driving vehicles, etc. to fulfill increased online orders

Environment & nature

Pollution:

  • Less CO2 and air pollution
  • ?Awareness of noise pollution: after urban silence & birdsong under lockdown
  • ?Increased climate change concern

Animals:

  • Reduction/banning of wild animal capture & sale
  • Better conditions in live animal markets
  • ?Better animal farming conditions
  • Happier & healthier pets, as get more attention from home workers

Outdoor activities as social distancing measure (even long-term, if further pandemic waves are expected):

  • Visiting parks, gardens, playgrounds, countryside
  • Camping, hiking, fishing, boating, cycling, etc.
  • Outdoor sports, swimming pools, gyms
  • Open-air bars, restaurants, cafes
  • Open-air concerts, cinemas, theatres

Education

Home schooling:

  • ±Part-time: to enable social distancing in schools (even long-term, if further pandemic waves are expected)
  • ?±Full-time
  • Better parental understanding of children's education, due to home schooling during lockdown

Distance learning:

  • To support home schooling
  • Online university courses
  • ?Online exams

Re-assessment of education & educational institutions, including:

  • ?What they are for
  • In-person vs distance learning
  • ?Private school & university fees

±Bankruptcies of some educational institutions

?±More continuous assessment following exam cancellations in e.g. UK

Adult education started under lockdown, e.g. learning an instrument or language

Leisure

More leisure time if stop commuting, or work shorter hours (see Work)

Entertainment tried/increased under lockdown, e.g.:

  • Arts & culture: music, reading, podcasts, painting, etc.
  • ±TV & video streaming: e.g. replacing cinema
  • Games, puzzles & quizzes
  • Web surfing
  • ±Social media

Other pursuits & hobbies tried/increased under lockdown, e.g.

  • Cooking
  • Takeaways / Deliveroo: e.g. replacing restaurants
  • Exercise
  • DIY / home improvement
  • Spring cleaning / decluttering
  • Gardening
  • Crafts
  • Knitting & sewing
  • Adult education (see Education)
  • Self-improvement / personal development
  • Meditation
  • ±Prayer / worship

More online entertainment, e.g. live events, reaching wider audiences

Relationships

Some relationships improved/renewed by lockdown:

  • With partner
  • With children
  • With other family members, e.g. via video call
  • Friendships via video call, social media, etc.

New online friendships/relationships under lockdown

More time with partner, family & friends if stop commuting, or work shorter hours (see Work)

±Divorce / break-up, brought to a head by lockdown

Charity & community

Volunteering, e.g. started under lockdown

?More charitable donations / philanthropy

Cost-saving efficiencies if donations fall due to lower incomes

Innovation to deal with new circumstances or cut costs

Support for local community & businesses: e.g. due to home workers spending more time where they live

±Charity closures - hopefully counterproductive or low effectiveness ones

Perspective

Re-evaluation of life, including:

  • Meaning, purpose & values
  • Priorities & inessentials
  • Likes & dislikes
  • Own strengths & weaknesses
  • Opportunities & concerns
  • Death
  • Health: physical & mental
  • Relationships
  • Work, and work-life balance
  • Money

Appreciation of:

  • Essential services and key workers, e.g. in healthcare, social care, supermarkets, teaching, technology, mail & deliveries, transport, police
  • Role and importance of government, science, media, business and charities
  • Volunteers and helpful people
  • The elderly
  • Activities missed during lockdown, e.g. social contact, culture, sports, nature & the outdoors, tourism, cafes, bars, restaurants, religious worship
  • Domesticity
  • Simple pleasures
  • Solitude

Attitudes:

  • Kindness, consideration
  • Public spirit, less individualism
  • ±Less materialism / consumerism
  • Resilience
  • Self-reliance
  • Flexibility
  • Acceptance of mortality
  • Acceptance of uncertainty
  • Humility, less complacency
  • ?±Short-termism, living in the present
  • ?Less concern about own appearance
  • ?Less attention to celebrities
  • ?Solidarity with other countries

Miscellaneous

±Deaths:

  • ?±Beneficial if the world is overpopulated; or if humans, or those who died, are generally harmful or their lives not worthwhile; according to some (controversial) ethical theories
  • ±Redistribution of wealth to younger generations

?End of physical cash due to infection risk:

  • Traceability reduces crime & tax evasion
  • Simplifies government emergency handouts

?Less crime, as criminals reassess their lives

?Better bank treatment of borrowers as continuation of special terms under lockdown

?Better rights for renters after evictions suspended during lockdown (e.g. in UK)

?More fact-checking on social media

Other resources

This list includes harmful consequences of coronavirus (as well as various of the above benefits).

In-depth discussion of some points is in a Politico article and FT series (paywall).


*Toby Ord's new book The Precipice estimates that the human race will only last another 600 years or so before it is wiped out, or permanently crippled, by a pandemic (probably a bioweapon) or other existential risk.

If coronavirus makes the world prepare slightly better for such disasters, thereby reducing the risk by say 1%, it would extend the human race by 600 years × 1% = 6 years. The world population is forecast to reach about 11 billion, so this would save 6 years × 11 billion = 66 billion years of life.

If coronavirus kills 10 million people worldwide, each losing 10 years of life on average, 100 million years of life will be lost. This is a minute fraction of the benefit from improved disaster preparedness.

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20 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 5:30 AM
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De-urbanization is something you list several times as being important and beneficial. I don't think I agree.

In the short term at least de-urbanization is diametrically opposed to __climate progress__ -- and that may be true in the medium to long term. See for instance, stats about NYC

In the long term, urban areas have been highly productive historically -- and while it is possible that tele-everything can undermine that effect, I doubt it can fully counter the productivity benefits of cities. Insofar as productivity has been critical for human welfare over longer time spans, I worry that reducing productivity by deurbanizing could have long term consequences. I suppose you could have a complicated model where partial telework allows some de-urbanizing of work, which lowers urban prices, which allows greater concentration/productivity? But at minimum it isn't __obvious__ to me that this is a benefit.

More broadly though -- I really like your list and the general thesis. Good writeup too.

Thanks for this.

I'm not a geographer/economist, but I assume the historical productivity benefit of cities has all boiled down to proximity, hence transport - people close enough that they can work together, trade, etc. People who choose to de-urbanize will explicitly take into account these effects in their decision - can they still conveniently get to work (if they need to visit an office once a week, say), see friends, get to a cinema/mall, etc. If they find the rural life too quiet (i.e. too far from places they want to be) they won't move, or will move back to a town/city.

So I assume people will choose their own optimum; leaving only the problem of externalities, primarily indeed climate change. I can see de-urbanization would increase at least some driving, e.g. further to get to stores (though online shopping will increase), and thereby have a climate effect. So I've added a mention of that.

If climate change is dealt with in a suitable way, e.g. carbon taxes, that would however internalize this externality and so people would respond in an appropriate way - e.g. by cutting down on unnecessary trips to the mall.

Could certainly go either way. I was trying to emphasize that the productivity loss has an externality associated with it though. I wholeheartedly agree that individuals may be better off -- they are optimizing, but with more information. At most, their predictions about locational preferences have changed but reality hasn't (outside the next couple of years at least). But if that reduces aggregate productivity growth, people alive in 100 years may be suffering -- their utility isn't being accounted for by individual decisions.

A secondary effect, which I failed to mention I thought you should add (I don't think you have it) -- is that I suspect people will move closer to family. I've been comfortably living a 12 hour drive from any family for 5 years now -- and I was happy to fly to see them frequently -- but flight is not a robust transport method -- and going forwards I'll be thinking about locales within more like 4 hours of them.

Whether that is good or bad, I don't know. Closer family bonds, which are good for many reasons. but the models around people moving towards work involve largish productivity growth again.

I see your point re reduced productivity growth affecting future generations. Though how much difference that will make to the present generation's vs future generation's wellbeing isn't clear.

Indeed I hadn't thought of the family point, and will add it.

You could say the same about WW2... and a lot of idiots have. Trillions of dollars worth of destruction (mostly from the "recovery programs", aka bailout opportunities grabbed by the upper-class twits) does not help anyone achieve any legitimate goals.

Those who talk about "less materialism" while supporting transfer programs from my barely solvent self to them can stuff it.

I'd accept the "practice for a more serious pandemic" one... that's true. Problem is that there is no sign of anyone working on stopping FDA and CDC from banning PCR kits for the NEXT epidemic either... in fact, they'll both get big budget boosts from the publicity they've generated by making it impossible to even LOOK for the virus until late March for most places...

With the big exception of the reduced existential risk, I'm not claiming an overall net benefit. Though even existential risk aside, perhaps there is one (would need to do the calculations). E.g. it seems to me the long-term changes in work and work-life balance could be a huge permanent benefit; such as reductions in commuting and office usage, which seem a vast waste of time & money. It's a shame it takes a disaster like this to make it happen, but that seems to be the way the world works. The status quo has to be stretched to breaking point.

Also not all the destruction is bad in itself - 'creative destruction' is a real thing. Some organisations really are just a waste of time & money, and are better off closed down so people & capital can find more productive use. Many were in a 'zombie' state before coronavirus. The UK department store chain Debenhams for example, which went bankrupt last month only a year after the previous time it had gone bust and been rescued. An outdated retail model for which there is no longer enough demand.

I also know lots of classical musicians who barely scrape a living, and really there are too many chasing too little work. It can take decades for people to realise they're fighting a losing battle; a crisis can accelerate that.

Those are all good points. One problem is that when the parasitic class prints itself a few trillion, it justifies it by also doing tax-supported "rescues" of obsolete companies, a terrible idea as your second paragraph implies.

I disagree all of those are benefits, * shrug *

All are intended to be net benefits anyway, or possibly so (hence ?s).

Which do you particularly disagree with?

I reread and I think it's pretty good actually :)

But here are some comments:

  • I would put a question mark on UBI (not sure if good), exercise (not sure we do more; ex.: gym are closed)
  • mental health (some have reported >3x more calls at a Disaster Distress Helpline, and I think more suicides)
  • unsure about relationship improvement (I've heard higher rate of divorce; although you do mention it, but not sure what you mean with +/-), also anecdotal evidence of family fighting over not reacting to the coronavirus properly
  • unsure about redistribution of wealth to younger generations (maybe that reduces total amount of investments and so increases the economy's time discount?)

Thanks for this.

UBI - the +/- indicates the uncertainty. But there is certainty of *calls* for UBI (which is how I worded it) - already happening!

Exercise - fair point, maybe there will be a fall-off in exercise even after lockdown. So I've reworded. I reckon a lot of gyms will go bust, because their business model relies on automatic renewals of membership subscriptions even though many people don't go very often. Presumably subscriptions have all stopped, and after lockdown I think a lot of people won't restart them, having figured out how to exercise without a gym; or become couch potatoes.

Indeed the mental health harms will be big, but as the post was intended to list only benefits, I was focussing on the long-term upsides. I reckon there will be big short- to medium-term harms (e.g. from isolation, anxiety, then unemployment) but also benefits from recognition of the harms; e.g. better recognition of mental health problems, less stigma, more healthcare funding. Which may well be permanent. Anyway I'll reword to make it a bit clearer.

Re relationships - point taken, so I'll change that to say 'Some relationships'. Indeed there's been a big upswing in domestic violence etc., and no doubt break-ups and divorces will rise too. But also people learning to live better together, spend more time together etc.

Yes I'm unsure about redistribution of wealth too, hence the +/-.

makes sense!:)

I find it odd that you list "Prayer / worship" as a benefit without even a ±.

In general, the presence of ± items makes the list read a little oddly; some of them seem clearly bad to me (on net, though I do understand they have some benefit), which gets me in the mode of expecting a pros and cons list, and then being confused when an obvious con isn't listed.

Overall, great post, though. Strong upvote.

Thanks. Yes, maybe it should have a +/-, so I've added one. A bit borderline. My justification for not giving one was that research shows religion produces a substantial increase in wellbeing (and I'm a utilitarian so put a high value on that); but I agree it often comes with a significant cost (to rationality etc.)

There were quite a few borderline cases, so the +/- may not seem that useful, but I wanted to acknowledge that e.g. failures of businesses, charities and educational institutions involve substantial short-term harms, even if probably net beneficial (clearing out dead wood etc.)

On the numbers from The Precipice - I think the point is that the next 100 years have an estimated 1/6 chance of extinction, but also contain the power to protect us from future harm and facilitate the human race flourishing across the universe. Extrapolating risk from next 100 years to an expected 600 year lifespan, and using current population forecasts as the number of humans involved therefore seems not in the spirit of his model.

I thought I read Ord give the 600 year figure, but maybe I'm mistaken. Anyway that would presumably be a correct extrapolation if we continue 'business as usual' - i.e. without taking steps that would reduce the risk. (Not least as the risks are otherwise increasing, due to e.g. it getting easier and easier to create deadly bioweapons.)

I don't see anything wrong in using current population forecasts, since I don't think anyone's suggesting they would be far wrong AFAIK? Give or take a few billion. (Unless we leave earth and set up massive space colonies elsewhere, which I suppose could happen in a few centuries perhaps, but even then seems unlikely to produce very many billions more people that quickly.)

I think what might add a great deal of value to a post like this -- and I do like the idea of looking at both sliver lining aspects and what can be learned -- would be to compare the suggestions to what actually is supported historically. Did these prior events produce the type of results claimed/hoped? If not perhaps some thoughts on why not.

Also, perhaps some probability/likelihood estimates and level of confidence (however soft they might be) might be good too.

For instance, preparedness for future pandemics seems rather weak to me. Certainly in something came up maybe 5 years after we have this one figured out perhaps. But we've seen a lot of epidemics and some pandemics in recent history but still pretty much everyone got things pretty bad -- I will give Taiwan a good mark, Singapore and South Korea seem to have done well at the outset but are running into problems. China most definitely did not do well in my opinion on a number of counts. The USA and EU -- well might be hard to make a case for even a average grade. Russia? Iran or middle east in general? South America (have not been paying any attention there). Africa?

If we've really learned much from the past it doesn't seem like much to me. However, that might be a very unfair assessment. I'm not really sure what counter-factual outcome I should be comparing the reality against and that will matter a lot.

Indeed analysing how these things have been dealt with in the past would be interesting, but it's beyond me to do this myself! Lacking the necessary knowledge. Perhaps others can.

Re preparedness for future pandemics, this is the first truly global one for a century, so it seems a different kind of beast from others like SARS. The amount of government and scientific effort being thrown at it is huge, as is the disruption to voters. So it seems to me that voters won't quickly forget it, and will urge governments to ensure it doesn't happen again, which will force them to show they are making serious preparations against future ones.

I have a similar list on my phone, which I have been writing for the last few weeks. Mine also includes people being more willing to show their emotions, a sense of worldwide solidarity, and an increase in reading.

I don’t share your enthusiasm for the increase in Amazon, Deliveroo and other companies with awful worker conditions - I would put this as a +/- at least. I do hope that local independent retailers do well from this crisis, and I suspect they will. We are doing all of our shopping in a corner shop and are on first name terms with the staff there now.

Inspiring post, thank you very much.

Thanks for this. I've made the online shopping thing a +/- as suggested (even though personally I think it's net positive; re worker treatment, while no doubt there is some of this, I doubt the conditions are awful on the whole - e.g. contrary to the horror stories, surveys show most gig economy workers are happy with their work.)

Reading and worldwide solidarity are already in there under Perspective (I put a ? by the solidarity thing because there has also been xenophobia & protectionism and this may increase).

Re people being more willing to show their emotions - is this so? More willing to show appreciation, certainly (mentioned again under Perspective).

Let me know if you come up with any more!