Advancing vaccinations are driving increased activity— but people are not returning to workplaces

I find the Our World In Data, Blavatnik School of Government COVID-19 and Google Community Mobility Reports data endlessly fascinating. Some of it may not be all that “accurate” — inevitably, for example, the number of COVIDd-19 cases reported depends on testing regimes and other things; and I’m not sure exactly how to interpret the mobility data. But I feel confident that one can at least look at some of the trends and get some idea of what’s happening out there.

Today’s #dataisbeautiful chart looks into something I find quite puzzling. I would love people with a more global feel for activity levels to comment and explain — or say if they think some of the data is misleading. As I’ve mentioned previously, the mobility indices are decent proxies also for GDP. The latter is very much a lagging indicator (e.g., quarter 2 figures are only just coming out now-ish for most countries); so it is useful to have something a little more up to date. [The OWID, Blavatnik, and Google data is updated daily and is usually about a week out of date.]

There are two things that I find somewhat curious about the left hand panel. The first is simply the absolute values we see on the Y-axis: as of September 2021 (typically, some of the data points towards the right — as total number of vaccinated people has grown over time), grocery and pharmacy mobility everywhere was significantly above the benchmark week in February 2020. I don’t think we’ve seen this magnitude of rebound in underlying economic activity; certainly not in the UK.

Second, very low income countries (such as Bangladesh and Ethiopia — red dots on the chart) show mobility returning much faster than higher-income countries. Since last autumn, COVID-restrictions in these countries have been consistently at lower levels (on average) than higher-income countries, so this probably explains some of the differences. It’s also possible that people in these countries have less choice over when and how to acquire the day-to-day goods they need. Even though I don’t think it could explain the magnitude of the difference, on-line shopping has no doubt dampened travel to supermarkets in more developed economies.

As to the right hand panel, this too would point to a drastic change since February 2020. Even with countries with very high vaccination rates, workplace mobility remains significantly below pre-pandemic levels. Here, I find it easier to think of reasons for the differences between lower and higher income countries. For example, it is no doubt the case that there are more opportunities to work remotely in higher-income countries. How all this shapes the future of work will be fascinating to watch.




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Tera Allas

Tera Allas

I help complex organisations make the right strategic decisions through innovative, insightful and incisive analysis and recommendations.

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