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The Scale of the Pandemic

Check out all of our COVID-19 coverage and analysis.

The Scale of the Pandemic

This is Part 1 of a 5-part series on the Strategic Implications of COVID-19 for higher ed. Part 2 surveys the Immediate Impacts (March-August 2020). Part 3 looks at the Near-Term Impacts (2020-21). Part 4 looks at the Near-Term Strategic Priorities (2020-21). Part 5 looks at the Lasting Impacts beyond 2021 (still in progress).


A Reality Check

Just a few weeks ago, it would have been hard to believe here in North America that the so-called “Wuhan virus” would lead to anything more than some travel restrictions – but in the past few weeks we have seen steadily escalating precautions and restrictions on public assembly, personal movement, and economic activity that have entirely shut down school systems and higher ed campuses worldwide.

And while futurists do hate to be perceived as “prophets of doom,” there is absolutely no doubt that things are going to get worse before they get better.
We can hope for the best, but we need to prepare for the worst.  

Unless researchers develop and deploy an effective vaccine against COVID-19 in the meantime, the social distancing and isolation initiatives that have closed campuses this spring will only postpone the peak of the Coronavirus pandemic to the fall, according to epidemiological projections from Imperial College London, and a Public Health England briefing for the NHS. (See graph below – image B is an enlargement of image A.)  Many projections are that the health crisis may well persist into spring 2021. Although China and South Korea achieved early success containing the spread of the pandemic through extreme enforcement, the expectation is that there may well be a bigger surge ahead once precautions are eased.

Imperial College London epidemiology projections for COVID-19

Although as yet no institutions have issued statements about their Fall 2020 terms, we need to seriously consider it likely that they will begin with online-only delivery, at least until Winter Break, and quite possibly throughout the academic year.

Even once public health authorities lift restrictions, the Coronavirus pandemic will leave a lasting mark on the psyche of incoming students and their parents for years to come, and will have significant financial and operational impacts on institutions.


Recession is the Upside now

World leaders have responded (relatively) quickly and decisively, to attempt to contain the COVID-19 virus and “flatten the curve” to prevent catastrophic overload of healthcare infrastructure. They were unquestionably right, to put human life ahead of economic considerations, but the economic repercussions will be unprecedented: last week alone, 500,000 Canadians applied for EI, and the US stock markets have lost a third of their value, more than $11 trillion, in just a few weeks.

It is challenging to predict the scale of the economic impact: as TD economists remarked in their latest quarterly forecast, “it’s hard enough being an economist without also having to be an epidemiologist.” Nonetheless, the latest forecasts from Goldman Sachs now predict one-quarter of the economy will evaporate next quarter, and recover only gradually throughout 2021. A McKinsey briefing note estimates the worst-case as a prolonged contraction that creates “demand shock” right through June 2021.

At this point, a recession is the best-case scenario: many economists are starting to talk openly about a depression that could rival the 1930s.


Impacts on Higher Ed

The demographic, social, and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will have immense implications for higher education institutions. Continue reading about the Immediate Impacts of COVID-19 (March 2020 – August 2020)


Are we overstating the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic? Please post a comment below!

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