Business and costs after COVID-19

Some parts of the world felt a surge of optimism in the spring, as vaccination rates were climbing and COVID-19 cases dropping. Those regions now face the disappointment of a reversal, thanks to the spread of the Delta variant. Such whiplash is starting to feel like a way of life for people everywhere, as well as for industries including shipping, retail, and healthcare. This week, McKinsey published updated research examining when the pandemic might end and attempted to estimate when some pandemic-related disruptions could return to what we used to call normal. 

Among high-income countries, cases caused by the Delta variant reversed the transition toward normalcy first in the United Kingdom, during June and July of 2021, and subsequently in the United States and elsewhere. McKinsey’s analysis supports the view of others that the Delta variant has effectively moved overall herd immunity out of reach in most countries for the time being (exhibit). The United Kingdom’s experience nevertheless suggests that once a country has weathered a wave of Delta-driven cases, it may be able to resume the transition toward normalcy. Beyond that, a more realistic epidemiological endpoint might arrive not when herd immunity is achieved but when COVID-19 can be managed as an endemic disease. The biggest overall risk would likely then be the emergence of a significant new variant.

One of the most economically pervasive pandemic effects is a boom in shipping costs. In a video explaining why container shipping prices have surged, McKinsey partners say that sending a container from Asia to Europe or North America cost roughly $2,000 before the pandemic and $12,000 or more today. Though demand should remain high in the coming months as retailers prepare for the holiday season, prices should begin to come down by the end of the year.

While many of consumers’ pandemic-inspired digital habits are sticking, the acceleration into digital channels now seems to be leveling off in both Europe and the United States. Companies can build on their digital surge by creating strategies based on long-term value, investing aggressively in tech talent, and being smarter about how they work with data.

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