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From a disillusioned youth precariat to state collapse—WEF ranks the risks to our post-COVID world

January 19, 2021, 9:30 AM UTC

From a “lost generation” of disillusioned young people, to long-term financial crisis and even state collapse, the world could be feeling the fallout of the COVID-19 crisis for years to come, the World Economic Forum warned on Tuesday.

In its annual Global Risks Report, which tracks the top risks keeping global experts up at night, WEF laid out the potentially dire consequences of the global pandemic, including political and social upheaval and further inequality.

Each year, the report makes for tough reading. But the 2021 version seems to set a new bar for trouble ahead.

“The immediate human and economic costs of COVID-19 are severe,” the report warned. “They threaten to scale back years of progress on reducing global poverty and inequality and further damage social cohesion and global cooperation, which were already weakening before the virus struck.”

In a ranking based on when respondents predict these troubling events will surface—in the next two years, in three to five years, and in up to 10 years—the report set out a cascade of grim knock-on effects. In the next two years, respondents said, they see a big risk for young people who have spent their formative years sandwiched between the Great Recession and the pandemic.

They were also concerned about the effects of “digital inequality,” as working and schooling from home has exacerbated enormous divides between the world’s digital haves and have-nots. Those hazards came alongside fears of general “social cohesion erosion,” which the WEF warned could threaten fragile institutions or even destabilize political and economic systems entirely. That comes just as societies are rife with polarization and “bombarded” with misinformation, which could “threaten a global recovery that hinges on widespread vaccination.”

The risks in the medium and long term cut deeper: The three-to-five year bracket was marked by predictions of global financial collapse, from the bursting of asset bubbles to price instability, while the period up to 2030 was defined by predictions for full existential crises, including the prospect of collapsed states and mass biodiversity loss.

Meanwhile, two long-running themes also continued to loom: climate change and the related environmental fallout—which dominates the top of the rankings in terms of both likelihood and expected impact, as it did in 2020—and various forms of digital chaos, including cyberwar and IT infrastructure failure.

The WEF had warned for years of the risk of a pandemic, judging it a lower-likelihood—but high-impact—event only surpassed by a disaster involving weapons of mass destruction. Last year, as news of the virus was only beginning to gain steam, the report noted that progress against pandemics generally was being undermined by poor health systems, vaccine hesitancy, and drug resistance, and added—presciently—that “no country is fully prepared to handle an epidemic or pandemic.”

But the prospect of a pandemic was still seen as somewhat distant—it didn’t even make the top 10.

Surely, that’s a lesson in itself.

“We know how difficult it is for governments, business, and other stakeholders to address such long-term risks,” said Saadia Zahidi, managing director at the World Economic Forum. “But the lesson here is for all of us to recognize that ignoring them doesn’t make them less likely to happen.”